Despite its unashamedly retro appeal, the MINI has some reassuringly modern foundations. Clamber underneath and you'll spot BMW's Z-axle multi-link rear suspension. There's a wrap-around glasshouse with glazed-in side pillars featuring fully flush panes. This creates a 'floating-roof' effect which is emphasised by the Cooper's options of having the roof painted in black or white. There's a lot of chrome around the front end, but if you want a more subtle effect, it's possible to have the MINI de-chromed, swapping the brightwork around the grille and headlamps for sporty black trim. There's even the option of having bonnet stripes painted on! The Steptronic CVT gearbox, as seen on the MG TF, is now available with steering wheel mounted paddles. The Park Lane special edition came in one colour - Royal Grey metallic. Along with this came Park Lane leather and interior trim as well as Park Lane decals, a silver roof, two-tone sports leather steering wheel, 16-inch Bridge spoke alloy wheels and silver bonnet stripes. In addition, this special edition also featured as standard the Automatic Stability Control and Traction system, a rear spoiler, a 'chrome line'-trimmed interior and exterior, floor mats, passenger seat height adjustment, a storage compartment pack, front fog lights, automatic air-conditioning, an on-board computer, an interior lights pack, chrome mirror caps, front sports seats and white indicator lights.
The Cooper S gets a rear roof-mounted spoiler, plus body-coloured re-modelled front and rear 'sport' bumpers, styled to contribute both to engine cooling and air flow. More air is channelled under the bonnet through an integrated black honeycomb grille in the bumper and there's a similar grille at the rear with two chrome-plated tailpipes sitting in the middle of it. Final touches include a couple of chrome-plated side grilles incorporating white indicator lenses and stamped with the Cooper 'S' and a chrome-plated fuel filler cap. The Cooper S Checkmate edition featured exclusive Space Blue metallic paint with Checkmate chequered decals on each wing just behind the front wheelarches. 17" Flame alloy wheels also served to spice-up the exterior and there were silver mirror caps that tied in nicely with a roof which was decked out in the same colour. The Checkmate also did away with the MINI Cooper's traditional bonnet stripes in favour of a giant 'U'-shaped decal which highlighted the Cooper S trademark letterbox bonnet scoop. Lighting was well catered for with xenon headlamps and a set of fog lights at the front.
Inside, there were further additions to the standard trim. The Checkmate benefited from special 'Checkmate' cloth and leather interior trim, a three-spoke sports leather steering wheel, floor mats, passenger seat height adjustment, the storage compartment pack, manual air-conditioning, an on-board computer and the interior lights pack. The Checkmate package was largely cosmetic but one feature that will appeal to people also interested in the car's performance was the limited slip differential.
Practically all MINI owners paid the extra £100 for the five-year 'TLC' servicing option, and as such your prospective purchase will probably have had some main dealer attention. The unfortunate fact that is beginning to emerge is that it may well have needed it. Apart from a recall to modify some car's fuel filler necks, many owners have seen somewhat more of their local BMW service bay than they would have expected.
Many owners reported that the ball races at the top pivot points of their front suspension struts were lacking caps and exposed to the elements. This seemed to be the cause of left hand pull on some models, rectified by fitting new struts. Rattling dashboards and badly fitting roof guttering were also repetitive complaints amongst owners. Likewise a faulty sensor in the tailgate latch often flashes a warning to the driver that the hatch is open, requiring a few slams to disengage it. Check for tyre wear and accident damage and ensure that the hood mechanism functions properly on the Convertible models.
(approx prices excl VAT for a 2004 Cooper.) A clutch assembly is around £130. Front brake pads are around £55, a full exhaust about £360, an alternator around £100 and a front tyre around £65. A starter motor is about £120. A headlamp is about £165.
It probably won't have escaped your attention that parent company BMW don't have a great deal of experience in producing front-wheel drive cars. In fact, their advertising seems to pour scorn on the benefits of directing power forwards. Other manufacturers have shown that producing a sweet-handling yet powerful front-wheel drive car can be something of a task. Ask any of BMW's engineers whether this was the case with the MINI and they'll chuckle, recalling its impressive achievements during testing at the Nurburgring: BMW aren't renowned for creating dynamic duffers.
Although the Cooper handles well, keen drivers will always seek out the supercharged but rather thirsty Cooper S models. What's important here is rest to sixty in 7.2s on the way to 138mph. All of which would be useless were the basic car to be incapable of capitalising on all that power. But of course it isn't. If you've driven a standard MINI, then you'll already know about the excellence of the standard chassis: so good in fact that it would have been a waste not to further exploit the whole set-up. The Cooper S package does that brilliantly. The Convertibles are not quite so stellar, exhibiting a degree of body flex and some poor all-round visibility. For really demented performance try the Cooper S Works. With 210bhp up front it's enough to keep some junior supercars on their mettle.
In case of the MINI Cooper, the market has rewarded an excellent product with stellar sales. The hatchback versions with manual gearboxes remain the pick of the crop with our choices being an entry-level Cooper or a range-topping Cooper S Works. It's hard to go too badly wrong but there is a lot of choice out there so take your time and don't get tucked up by a seller looking to command top book for an average car. Those days have long since passed.