As we pointed out recently, there’s no better small, fast car for around £2000 than the R53 Mini Cooper S. Hence why I bought one. The pint-sized hot hatch has aged brilliantly, is fitted with a quirky 1.6-litre supercharged engine, and handles well straight out of the box. Plus, there are plenty of examples out there to choose from.
However, if you’re tempted to go for one, we should point out that these are relatively flaky and needy cars. Don’t let that put you off, though; so long as you heed the following points, the number of potential headaches will be reduced.
Here’s what you need to know.
Before you even embark upon your hunt, it’s worth thinking carefully about what R53s you go to see. Tempting though an early, bargain-basement Cooper might look (particularly with prices starting at just over £1000), these are best avoided.
You’re better off upping the budget to at least £2000 and aiming for an 04 plate-onwards facelift R53 Mini. Outwardly, they might look damn near identical, but the list of changes under the skin is extensive.
On the engine front, the supercharger was upgraded to a stronger unit with Teflon-coated blades, while the ECU and exhaust were tweaked yielding a 7bhp power boost along with an increase in pops and bangs from the tailpipes. Plus, facelift cars potentially put their power down more effectively depending on spec; a limited-slip differential was added to the options list and bundled with the Chilli Pack from 2005 onwards. It was also fitted as standard to the Checkmate limited-edition.
The facelift interior is better built and looks a lot nicer thanks to the three-spoke steering wheel (have two-spoke wheels ever looked good?) and a reshaped dashboard. Finally, you’re much less likely to encounter electrical issues - electric window regulators and central locking solenoids, for instance, are known to be weak points on earlier R53s.
The giant central speedometer won’t be to everyone’s tastes. If you’d prefer a more conventional setup, look for an R53 with the Chrono Pack. This sits a small speedometer next to the rev counter, with the central display housing oil temperature and pressure gauges, a water temperature gauge and a redesigned fuel gauge.
Cars with satellite navigation also get the same speedometer/rev counter behind the steering wheel, since the screen is housed in the central display. It’s a rare option, though, partly because it originally cost £1650 (unadjusted for inflation).
Now you know what kind of R53 to go for, we should let you know about a potential dealbreaker - the ride. From the factory, these cars were shod with stiff run-flat tyres, but even if the most recent owner has opted for more conventional boots, you still won’t be in for a terribly comfortable time, because there’s precious little give in the stock dampers.
On the plus side, the stiff setup does mean you don’t get much in the way of body roll, but it’s also worth pointing out the R53 is quite noisy at motorway speeds, and when trundling along in traffic, you may find the clutch and throttle pedals to be heavy. If daily driver refinement is high up on your agenda, you may wish to look elsewhere.
It wouldn’t be a buyer’s guide for a 10+ year-old car without a warning about rust, would it? And sure enough, there are rot-prone areas to look out for with the Cooper S. The bottoms of the doors, the join between the plastic body kit and the metal and above the number plate on the tailgate are all extremely common problem areas.
None are a huge cause for concern (we’d be more worried about tin worm on the sills and/or under the car), but these are potential points to haggle over and a potential future cost to bear in mind.
An oil leak isn’t necessarily a reason to look away, you just need to find the source. Many leak from the rocker cover, meaning all that’s necessary to rectify is an easy-peasy gasket change. If it’s coming from the crank position sensor, it’s a harder fix because it’s not easy to get to and you’ll need to take the front bumper off and reposition the radiator for access. The sump gasket tends to leak too, and again, that one won’t be quite as fun to sort.
The crank position sensor isn’t the only thing that’s hard to access. The 1.6 Tritec engine fits snuggly in the R53’s diminutive engine bay, and that makes plenty of other jobs more difficult too, such as the clutch. Again, this requires taking much of the front of the car apart and pulling the gearbox forward. It’s not possible to do it from underneath unless the subframe is taken off, which is also a pain. So, if you spot one for sale that’s already had the clutch done, that’s a huge plus.
Here’s a third job that requires a full face removal. It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘supercharger service’ as one key part of the big list of jobs is changing the supercharger oil. Gaining access is only possible by taking off the front bumper and the radiator, which garages will charge about five hours of labour for.
While you’re at it, you’ll also need to change the engine oil, switch out the sparkplugs and swap the auxiliary belt for a new one. Many owners choose to replace the standard plastic expansion tank (prone to cracking) with a stronger metal part, and while you’re at it, you may wish to change the coil packs and any suspect-looking radiator hoses.
Syringe kits are available to allow for a supercharger oil change without taking the front of the car apart, but it is worth being thorough and doing it ‘properly’ if you have the time and inclination. Flushing and renewing the coolant (along with the thermostat) is always a good thing, and going the whole hog means it’ll be easier to change the water pump (another potential failure point) since it’s attached to the supercharger.
Because it’s a pig of a job which is going to eat up either a lot of money or a lot of the owner’s time, it’s commonly skipped in favour of a more basic service. If a car you’re going to see claims to have a full-service history, pay particular attention to the work done at 100,000 miles if it’s exceeded that figure.
While under the bonnet looking for oil leaks, have a good listen to the top end. So long as oil change intervals have been adhered to (service history is hugely important with an R53), the chain shouldn’t ever need changing, but a rattling noise could indicate the chain tensioners need tightening.
The R53’s power steering isn’t the quietest, but if it’s making excessive noise, the pump might well be on its way out; it’s a common point of failure.
We’ve talked about the bad noises, now let’s discuss the good. The whine of the R53’s Eaton Root supercharger is one of the car’s biggest draws, but as standard, it’s not all that vocal. Thankfully, you can increase the volume while also boosting the power by switching the pulley.
By reducing the size of the pulley (15 and 17 per cent smaller pulleys are popular choices), the supercharger spins faster, forcing more air into the engine. It’s an easy, inexpensive part to change - typically £100 - 150 - and on its own will increase the power to around 190bhp depending on the size opted for. Team it up with breathing modifications, and that figure will jump to about 210bhp.
The standard brakes aren’t the strongest, so that’s another area worth upgrading.
As with any car, if you’re only changing one thing, make sure it’s the tyres. Upgrading your only contact point with the road, particularly if you’re coming from budget or lower mid-range boots, can make a huge difference to the way a car drives.
The R53 being on 17-inch rather than 18-inch wheels precludes ‘Ultra Ultra High Performance’ (UUHP) options like the Continental Sport Contact 6 and Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S, but thankfully, the premium tyre makers each has a ‘UHP’ tyre suitable for the car.
The Continental Premium Contact 6, Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 5 and Michelin Pilot Sport 4 can all be purchased in the Mini’s 205/45/17 recommended size. As for which is the best, that’s not easy to say - according to Tyre Reviews, they’re very close indeed. You may be best of being lead by price - they’re priced similarly but are discounted by major retailers from time to time.
We’re currently evaluating a set of Michelin Pilot Sport 4s, which have made a noticeable difference to the handling compared to the Nexen N Fera front/Bridgestone Potenza rear combination fitted previously. There’s a little more life in the centre point of the steering and a decent increase in traction in all weather conditions.
Just to give a heads up, you’ll be paying more than you perhaps might expect when it’s tyre change time given the unusual recommended tyre size. Some opt for 205/40/17s for more choice and lower prices, but the shorter sidewall will make the ride worse and give a bigger wheel arch gap. Best you stump up the difference and go for the proper size.