A Tale of two MINIs – 2002 v/s 2020


By Nauman Farooq 

The Mini is 60 years old now – not the brand, but the original car, which first came out in 1959 under the Austin and Morris (and eventually, Rover) brands, which were owned by British Leyland.

Then, around the time everyone was celebrating the new millennium, BMW had bought the rights to several brands that once belonged to British Leyland.

However, just about the only product BMW was interested in bringing it up to date was the Mini, but didn’t want to revive Austin, Morris or Rover to do so. So, they turned the model into the brand and gave birth to what we now know of as the MINI.

The first production version of the new MINI Cooper came out in 2002 (for the North American market) and to commemorate this occasion, 500 units of the Launch Edition model were brought into Canada. The blue car you see here, was #1/500 – the first new MINI to come into Canada. For the last 17 years, this car had been sitting at BMW/MINI head office, as part of their heritage collection. To my surprise, MINI Canada wanted me to take their museum piece out for a week!

Even more surprising, when I went to pick it up, its odometer read 1,898 km – that’s all the mileage it had gone through in 17 years – that’s 111.65 km/year!

This then is a time capsule, an old car that truly is also a new car. So, it would be ideal to test it against an actual new car, the 2020 MINI Cooper S.

So, will the old car feel outdated, or would it actually outshine the newcomer? Let’s find out!

Styling: BMW did a wonderful job of bringing the MINI Cooper up to date when it introduced the R50 model back in 2002. It was all-new, had nothing in common with the Sir Alec Issigonis original, but the look was very recognizably MINI. Plus, being launched at a time when retro fever was in full swing – thanks to cars such as the Ford Thunderbird, VW Beetle, and Chrysler PT Cruiser, to name a few – initial sales were really good.

However, fads come and go, and most car companies gave up on nostalgia – but not MINI, who introduced the third-generation model of the modern Cooper (F56) in 2013.

For 2020, while most of the car remains the same, there have been some fairly major changes under the skin – more of that later.

The styling of the 2020 Cooper is fairly similar to the 2002 model at a glance, but upon closer inspection, every body panel is different. However, whereas the R50 looks dainty, the F56 looks butch!

Which is better? Well, that’s up to you to decide, but personally I prefer the more delicate lines of the R50. In comparison, the F56 looks a bit fussy – not that it’s not a good looking vehicle, I just prefer the older car.

Interior: Open the door and now the differences between the R50 and F56 become more apparent. Whereas the R50 was stylish yet simple, the F56 offers even more style, with a whole lot more technology and comfort.

Simplicity has its charms, too. I loved the very clean and basic interior of the R50, and its A-pillars are not only thinner, but seem to be a bit more upright than in the current F56 – helping visibility. I also much prefer the huge center mounted speedometer of the R50 – in the F56 the center screen has all the infotainment functions, while you get a much smaller speedometer and rev counter. You can opt to have a heads-up display unit in the F56, which is something I wish all cars had as standard.

Factor in the more comfortable, modern seats, better sound insulation, and improved safety, the F56 is the better car, and would be the one I’d preferably take on a long trip.

Powertrain: Under the hood of the R50 Cooper is a 1.6L four-cylinder engine – which  produced 115 hp and 110 lb/ft of torque – that drove the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox. In 2003, a Cooper S version of the R50 was introduced, that had a supercharged version of the 1.6L motor that was good for 163 hp and 155 lb-ft of torque. My tester had the former motor.

Ever since the F56 model was introduced, things have gotten very turbocharged! Currently, there are three motors on offers on the F56.

There is the Cooper, which features a turbo 1.5L three-cylinder motor that produces 134 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque. At the top is a John Cooper Works (JCW) model that has a turbo 2.0L four-cylinder that produces 228 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. My tester was the model that comes in the middle; called the Cooper S, it had a turbo 2.0L four-cylinder motor that produces 189 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque.

New for 2020, the Cooper and Cooper S models feature a new seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox – whereas the JCW gets an eight-speed automatic.

Performance & Driving Dynamics: Both cars were simply a joy to drive. The R50 Cooper wasn’t very powerful, but was like an eager little terrier! It enjoyed being pushed hard, sounded good, and the handling was simply spectacular.

The steering – which had a hydraulic actuator, rather than the modern electronic set up – had a lovely feel, and hence you could place the car with absolute precision into the corners.

The chassis and suspension were also set up for maximum attack in corners, with comfort taking a back seat! This is a stiff car, and hence driving it in the city was often painful, because hitting any bump, pothole, crack, or tar strip sent the shivers right up your spine – having a masseuse on speed dial comes handy!

In comparison, the F56 Cooper S is a luxury vehicle. It rides much better, has better sound insulation, and while it might not have a hydraulic steering set up, its electronic system is pretty good.

All this is before we get to the performance, because this F56 Cooper S is a fast car. The sprint from 0 to 100 km/h is over in 6.7 seconds, while top speed is pegged at 233 km/h – in comparison, the R50 Cooper would have taken about 9.5 seconds to reach 100, and flat out it would struggle to nudge 200 km/h.

So, the new Cooper S makes going quickly much easier, but sometimes, the effort you put in is more rewarding than easy gains.

To drive the R50 quickly, you had to be very precise with its manual gearbox, and each gear had longer pulls, so it gave you a workout.

he seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox in the F56 is fantastic, a really quick and precise gearbox that requires minimal involvement from you, but perhaps that’s why I prefer the old cars manual set up.

Fuel Economy: In my fuel economy cycle (170 km of highway driving + 130 km of city driving), I averaged 7.8 L/100 km with the 2002 R50 model, and 7.2 L/100 km with the 2020 F56 model.

So the new car is not only a whole lot more powerful, it drinks less fuel, too. That’s progress – good job MINI.

Pricing: Pricing has actually improved with time. Back in 2002, this Launch Edition Cooper had a sticker price of $27,100. The equivalent 2020 Cooper starts from $24,590.

The 2020 Cooper S model is yours from $28,890 – which when you factor in inflation, is actually what the 2002 Cooper is priced at in today’s money. So, you get a lot more car with a lot more power for your money now – I like that.

Verdict: In reality, you can’t just compare two cars that are 18 years apart – no one would cross shop between a used R50 and a new F56. But, living with these two was very interesting, and highlighted the improvements of the new, and the charms of the older model.

BMW should be applauded for not only keeping the MINI brand alive, but also for putting the effort to expand the line up and never giving up on development – in comparison, Mercedes-Benz has recently done away with the ‘smart’ brand, the Ford Thunderbird went away in 2005 and is not likely to make a comeback, Fiat has just pulled the 500 and 500c model out of the Canadian market, and Volkswagen has just killed the Beetle, again.

Keep up the good work, MINI, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the loveable Cooper.