COAL: 2002 MINI Cooper S — Just Don’t Call It “Driving”

For once, the pendulum didn’t swing. If you’ve been following my car history these past months, you know that I have tended to veer between successive cars that had relatively little in common. I have gone from a larger car to a smaller car and then back either through chance or to meet some kind of automotive desire that my current car did not possess.

My MINI on Top – of Mt. Washington, NH

The 2002 MINI S that came after my 1993 Sentra SE-R was an exception to this pendulum swing in that it continued the small, zippy theme. It was even kind of boxy. But unlike the SE-R, the MINI came with a whole raft of non-automotive extras unlike any car I had before or have had since.

Just part of my MINI swag collection.

For the MINI, I apparently have multiple folders of this swag and yet seem to have lost all of the car’s purchase and service records. In a way, the fact that all which remains is the ephemera is sort of telling about my whole new MINI experience.

“Let’s Motor”…or tip the pen so that the little MINI floats from CA to NY.  The pen still writes!

There’s been much written on CC about the original, British, Mini but relatively little about the new BMW-produced MINI. Note the capitalization of the name of the new car. As an early adopter (2002 was the first year of the new MINI in the US) I was a member of various online communities related to MINI. Back in those days, we actually spent time chastising the authors of posts who did not adhere to the all capitalization thing. Many adherents to the cult of MINI tended to constantly use words such as “motoring” instead of driving. I refuse to admit that I ever typed such nonsense. Except of course when interacting with other MINI fanatics.

When describing the early days of the new MINI, it’s difficult to decide how much to write about the actual car versus the image that MINI wanted to create surrounding the car. MINI seemed to be promoting a lifestyle and state of mind as much as it was a car.

The task of this promotion of course fell to MINI USA’s ad agency. In the beginning, this was Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B) and it seems that the fervor about which they went at their task of defining the MINI “mindset” has become somewhat legendary in the advertising world. For example, on the matter of “motoring”, CP+B noted:

Motoring is different than driving, it’s more exhilarating. It’s less about getting from A to B and more about getting from A to Z – about taking a unique route. It’s a closer relationship between driver, car and road.

Motoring was the big idea that was at the heart of launching the new MINI in the U.S.. We knew motoring was something MINI could own because every other automobile manufacturer talks about driving.

Now, I realize that much of this sort of thing is standard ad biz talk. The discussion in the Adweek article from which the above text comes is classic insider baseball around how the images and campaigns we see as consumers are made. Nevertheless the fervor with which BMW and its subsidiary MINI USA went at this stuff has to be acknowledged. While the goal was of course to sell cars, one would not be wrong if they assumed that MINI was as much a lifestyle as a car.

And in fact, MINI was about selling a car targeted to a lifestyle whether fabricated or pre-existing (I think it’s some of both) that didn’t necessarily desire a car so much as a feeling and a desired connection – community, if you will — to other people who presumably felt the same way.

Take for example the “Manual of Motoring”. This of course wasn’t the actual owner’s manual but rather a multi-page advertisement.

Take a deep breath and cast yourself back to 2001/2.  This should be easy if you’re a Millennial or older. Younger, you’ll have to take my word for it.

As it says, the manual was ostensibly all about the difference between driving and “motoring”. In the process of course of describing the motoring lifestyle/state of mind, it managed to spend most of the text describing features of the MINI. Nevertheless, this was ostensibly all about something other than a car.

Note the custom Dr. Martins

As in, for example, how your MINI was a musical instrument dedicated to your unique musical self-expression.

Of course, MINI was certainly not beyond mentioning the age-old proposition of using your car to attract mates.

I love this (classic new MINI artwork) image. I imagine that the dude succeeded with the girl and now they’re married and in their mid-40s. Just look at her, and her left wrist. This was going to happen!  Today she’s driving an X5 and he’s in a Tesla S (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The cat may still be alive. My parents had a cat who lived to be about 25.

But it all started with the wacky headlights in the hood.

Sorry, I meant “bonnet”.

Yes, it’s about the MINI’s low center of gravity. I think.

This guy might have made the cover of the Motoring Manual, but I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that he isn’t driving a Tesla. We can only imagine how things turned out for him.

In those early years between 2002 and about 2006, MINI’s agency was in over-drive. At one point they produced a 40 page paperback novella related to a campaign that had something to do with space aliens and robots and MINIs.

Seriously, there were 30+ pages of text and photographs that you’d have to read very closely to figure out that it had anything to do with MINIs.

Until you got to the last page. I suspect that despite all of the work, this was not one of CP+B’s best efforts (it was produced just before BMW moved the account to another agency…go figure); but if nothing else I applaud them for making the assumption that humans with purchasing power would actually read text.

This is not an assumption that anyone would be foolish enough to make in 2021.


All of this media hype added up to the fact that the first 20,000 or so new MINIs that were destined for the US in 2002 were readily snapped up. I had noticed the MINI just about as soon as it was announced and I did my research. What I found was that the MINI Cooper S (MCS) would probably offer me performance at least on par with, and likely exceeding, what I had with the slowly fading SE-R. Published data seems to prove that out. The MCS had about the same power as the Nissan (roughly 20 hp more) and very similar performance characteristics. The MINI, while having roughly equivalent front seat headroom and legroom as the Nissan was actually a smaller, yet slightly heavier, car. Passenger volume in the MINI was about five cubic feet less than the Nissan, and the trunk volume of the MINI was about half of the Nissan. I’d say that data is generous since as far as I could tell, the MINI really didn’t have a “trunk”. It had a small shelf behind the 2nd seat that could hold a couple of bags of groceries or a duffel.

Clearly “motoring” was not about “carrying”. Nor really should adherents to the MINI lifestyle have much to carry besides perhaps a musical instrument (if the car itself wasn’t enough) or maybe a bike. In its “Let’s Stash Stuff” section, the Motoring Manual stated that the glove compartment was good for storing a “hoagie or chocolate bars”. No mention was made of a trunk.

But just as one would be silly to complain about the lack of cargo room on a bicycle or a motorcycle..or a go-kart…the point of the MINI was just to carry your and a passenger’s butt on motoring adventures of whimsy and discovery. And in the MCS version, carrying you rather quickly.

First day.

Here I am in September, 2002. Day 1, having just taken delivery after a many-months long process of ordering and waiting. I picked it up down on Long Island as that was the closest MINI dealer to me from which I could secure an order slot. My MINI was the first and only — thus far — car that I ordered, monitored being built, and then watched make its slow progress across the Atlantic. This was great fun and was pretty much what all MINI owners did in 2002. In those early years, dealers were selling the car largely sight unseen. The common practice was to go in and look at a demonstrator, maybe take a test drive, and then put your deposit down. After which, you would wait for an order slot while you proceeded to configure your car online and became further indoctrinated into the motoring lifestyle.

I configured mine with the sport package (that gave me DSC and 17” wheels) and premium package (sunroof) with leatherette (vinyl) seats. The Electric Blue color as well as the aluminum interior trim (painted plastic) were exclusive to the MCS. Mine had a white roof and white mirrors minus the very popular at the time Union Jack wrap. Navigation was available, but that was one option I decided I could do without (along with leather seats). Since every MINI at that time was special-ordered, I could be pretty sure that no one had one exactly like mine. I’m fairly confident that’s true.

After you picked up your car – some dealers included a small celebration with delivery…Why not? They had time on their hands what with only being able to deliver a handful of cars each week. – you became fully part of the small club of MINI owners. We flashed headlights when encountering another MINI. We gathered for drive-in movie screenings of the Italian Job remake (in 2003).

But in fact we seldom saw other MINIs unless we made a point of it. Aside from random highway encounters, you tended to know the three or four other MINIs you’d see around town (my town is Boston…it still seemed like there were only three or four other MINIs around).

The MINI was true to the “go-kart handling” phrase used constantly in reviews. Extraordinarily low and fast, the car seemed very much stuck to the ground. The super-charged engine felt similar to the Nissan, but smoother. Never having driven another super-charged engine, I really had (and have) nothing to compare it to other than to say that the car seemed more than able to handle anything I asked of it. It wasn’t as good in the snow as the SE-R due mostly to the fact that it didn’t have the LSD and was so low that taking it out in any snow more than 6” was pointless. Still, I put Blizzaks on and got around in the winter.

Speaking of tires, the MCS represented an early foray by BMW into the runflat tires that would later become ubiquitous on most BMWs. In the MCS, the addition of the supercharger under the hood (dang, “bonnet”) necessitated moving various components around from their regular Cooper arrangement. Since the MINI’s engine compartment was already packed to the density of a Swiss watch movement, something had to go and it turned out that was the battery. Moved to the trunk (sorry, “boot”) which as we’ve already discussed had almost negative space, what then got moved out was the spare tire. BMW solved this problem by specifying run flats, hence no spare.

Run flats – particularly 17’ low profile ones like I had – rode harsh. Harsh like made of concrete harsh. I ditched the run flats a few years into ownership in favor of conventional tires. Hence, I carried one of those Continental sealant/inflator things in the boot…thereby losing yet more space back there.

Still, owning the MINI was always more about fun than performance. It was just such a loveable little oddball of a car. Dogs and kids loved it (well, my kids and dogs at least). I should say that kids loved the idea of it…they loved riding in it once they were old enough to sit in the front seat. That back seat really worked for no one. I could fit one kiddo car seat back there, but not two. Which was a problem since I had two kids. I folded the seat down when the much more accommodating (than kids) dogs rode with me. In that regard, it was perfectly sized for 1 passenger up front and a dog or maybe two in the back. Really, I would ideally need nothing more from a car.

Ideally. And therein lies the problem.

Frankly, I’m not even so sure that the dogs were terribly happy back there. They just knew better than to complain.

All that I’ve said about MINI ownership was true for about the first six years that I had the car. The headlight flashing, child-delighting, motoring lifestyle stuff. The feeling that you had access to something special that not everyone else knew of or used. But as with everything fizzy and frothy and good, there’s often an expiration date. The MINI kind of hit that point after the first five years or so.

Here’s where the new MINI can be put into its historical context. The new MINI came along at a time in the early part of this century when oddball cars from major manufacturers were a frequent occurrence. Think PT Cruiser, New Beetle/Audi TT, Crossfire, Prowler, Retro-Thunderbird, Chevy SSR/HHR, etc.. All of these attempted to tap into something besides traditional automotive values such as power, utility, economics. I’m sure that many readers have more insight into this particular moment in automotive cultural history than do I. My point here though is to note that the new MINI’s moment arrived, then went. To its credit, MINI is about the only one of the early 2000s cars mentioned above that has managed to carry on to the present, albeit in somewhat modified form (which I suppose one would suspect for a car line that is now nearly 20 years old). So kudos to MINI for having both jumped the shark and somehow managing to keep going.

Kind of. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that the MINI Coupe should have been eaten by the shark or that some of the current crop of MINIs seem like they’re too fat to jump much of anything.

All told, I motored along in my MCS for about 8 years, putting on just under 130K miles. For me, that’s a low number and it came from the fact that with two toddlers (in 2002) and ultimately elementary-aged kids in 2010 there simply wasn’t enough room in the MINI to adequately perform kid schlepping or road tripping. We went through a string of other vehicles for that and therefore the MINI was solely used for my commuting.

Honestly, I also always felt that the MINI was a bit fragile. Some of that comes from its being a first model year car, and a lot of it came from a scarcity of places in those early days to get a MINI serviced. Back then, BMW was still building out its MINI dealer network and maintained a policy of not servicing MINIs at BMW dealers. In fact, for the first several years, it was almost a surprise discovery for some owners to find that their MINI was in fact a BMW (albeit one with a Chrysler engine, assembled in a former Rover factory). MINI and BMW worked hard – MINI particularly – to obscure their corporate connection.

Where this was a practical problem was when you had to queue up at the MINI dealer for warranty service issues. In 2002, there were all of three MINI dealers in New England. One in Hartford, one in Boston (that was notoriously bad to customers), and the one that pretty much everyone else went to north of Boston. I would routinely meet people in the service waiting area taking advantage of the comfy couches to nap, because they had just driven five hours from Maine to get to their service appointment. And it could be weeks before you got an appointment. In my car, which needed its passenger airbag wiring replaced several times a year, that could be a significant problem.

If one was inclined to simply blow off the warranty and seek service outside of MINI, you then ran into the problem that there were very few independent mechanics who were willing to touch the car.

Tucking into an R50 MINI’s engine bay is not for the faint of heart. Even routine repairs require fairly major disassembly. Of course, this would typically generate substantial labor charges once out of warranty. Eventually it became clear that even if housed in separate buildings, MINI service departments had the same labor charges as those of their BMW overlords. So much for being able to afford maintaining the car at the MINI dealer after the warranty expired.

Fortunately for me, my car’s basic mechanical systems were largely reliable. I did need to have the clutch replaced about half way through ownership and that was (as we say here) a wicked expensive job, even though I had it done by an indy. My car also had the very common water pump and other cooling system failures (again, something that required a thorough disassembly of stuff under the bonnet). Beyond that, there were constant electrical gremlins that some would say were simply ghosts of MINI’s British past. I actually say that they were the result of bizarro engineering decisions such as putting a tiny electric pancake fan (think of something from a desktop PC) flush with the bottom of the car and making it responsible for cooling the very expensive and hard to reach electo-hydraulic power steering pump. Eventually I installed an aftermarket fan protector to keep mud and debris from fouling the fan; later BMW redesigned the fan altogether.

Thinking back to last week’s discussion of daily driver, I’d say that ultimately the MINI failed my dd criteria. It was often impractically small and somewhat prone to expensive failure. It was on the other hand certainly fun to drive and for a while fun to own for its uniqueness. But in that daily weighing of costs vs. benefits, the MINI eventually generated more costs than benefits.

At only 8 years old, and as a well-optioned higher end model with no physical damage, I knew that I could probably get a decent trade-in value for the car. Ultimately, that turned out to be around $6500 over the Internet to the dealer where I had found my next car. Loading up kid #1, I set out on a two-day road trip to North Carolina to make the trade.

Last day.

So it ended as it started. Standing in a parking lot in front of a wacky little car. With 130K miles of motoring in between.

Just don’t call it “driving”.

Rumor has it – maybe I started the rumor – that Peter Eames of Greasy’s Garage in Worcester, MA came up with the original “I killed the clown” sticker that opens this piece. If so, that’s one more skill that Pete has in addition to being a very fine MINI mechanic who kept my MINI on the road longer — probably much longer — than it wanted.