Having spent several years telling people what cool cars I’ve found in the classifieds they should buy, I’ve done the honourable thing and actually bought one myself. I’ve somehow gone nearly six years without changing my own car, but with a mounting list of issues on the family MkV VW Golf GTI I simply don’t have the time/inclination/knowhow to fix, 2020 seemed like a good year to switch things up.
The remit was fairly straightforward: under £2000, small (it’ll be parked up in a narrow garage where bikes and other stuff are also stored), relatively powerful and interesting. Quickly, I came to a conclusion: an R53 Mini Cooper S nails the remit better than any other car. And so, after several frustrating weeks and eight different examples later (more on that another time), I shook hands on the 2006 Pepper White Cooper S you see here.
To explain why I’m adamant this is by far the best choice, we’ll have a look at the alternatives. Some sort of hot Renault Clio might have worked, but 197s haven’t depreciated enough yet. Meanwhile, the supply of sub-£2000 182s has dried up, with rust, crashes and other maladies killing off much of the UK population.
Contemporary options from Peugeot and Ford aren’t much good in stock form - the celebrated 208 GTI and sixth-gen Fiesta ST came much later than the R53 and as such are both way over-budget. EP3 Honda Civic Type Rs are small enough to be considered, but again, not for under £2000.
The closest possible alternative I can think of is a Suzuki Swift Sport. But if we bring my ‘interesting’ stipulation into the equation, the R53 bests it on every level. A supercharged 1.6-litre inline-four is more exotic than a naturally-aspirated one of the same configuration, not to mention considerably more powerful. While Swift’s interior is horribly dull, the Mini’s is a mood-lightening retro-fest with a comedy value giant speedometer and cool toggle switches. It’s the better-looking car from the outside too.
In fact, I think it’s aged brilliantly, thanks in part to the modern Mini not changing a whole lot since its introduction way back in 2002. The changes that have been made to the hatch over the two subsequent generations were arguably backwards steps anyway, leaving the R53 looking fresh and unfussy. Most importantly, estate agents have long since moved onto the newer models. Thank god.
But the R53 is more than just a cute, retro-styled hatch with a bit of straight-line performance. The steering, unlike the setups in most modern hot hatches, actually offers genuine feedback. Traction is excellent even on non-LSD-equipped cars, and body roll is minimal. It even has a proper independent rear suspension setup, a configuration shared by - as it happens - the Swift Sport, but few other small performance cars.
It’s not all good news, of course. The ride - even with run-flat tyres ditched - is pretty shocking, and it’s a noisy thing at motorway speeds. There’s also a surprisingly long list of common faults (we’ll be going through these for our incoming buyer’s guide), and although a lot of issues were ironed out for the 2004-on facelift, there are still lots of potential problems you may run into.
None of that should put you off. The R53 Mini Cooper S is quick, involving, good to look at and has an interior that’ll make you smile. But most importantly, it’s easy to love - I’m already besotted with mine.