The BMW M3 SMG Vs. The MINI Cooper/S

I've often heard of people trading in BMW, Audis, etc for MINIs but every once in a while I'll hear of someone doing the seemingly unthinkable and going from an M3 to an MCS. With that in mind I recently had a chance to put an M3 SMG through it's paces and found some interesting observations when comparing to the MCS and the MC.

First off the M3 is almost stupid fast. If you aren't careful you easily get yourself into loads of trouble in no time. There are of course some areas that the M3 (and most BMWs for that matter) naturally excel in comparison to the MINI. General comfort is one. Even with 19″ wheels the M3 has a more compliant ride than the current MINI with runflats. The M3 exudes a certain comfort and refinement that the MINI seemingly will never have.

Another area the M3 naturally bests the MINI in is balance. The chassis is much better sorted in terms of balance and generally gives the driver an inspiring confidence while pushing the car. With the 50/50 weight distribution also helps the M3 easily outclasses the MINI when it comes to handling at the limit. That being said it can also be a little less forgiving in the hands of a novice. The back-end will come around on you in a heartbeat with the DSC turned off. You have to be ready to opposite lock the wheel quickly where as in the MINI it's much more point and shoot. I personally miss this little bit of excitement in my MINI and it's one of the reasons that I'll probably always want at least an older rear wheel drive BMW around to scare passengers from time to time.

I was also quite excited to get behind the wheel of an M3 with the much acclaimed SMG semi-automatic transmission. The SMG is one of the best semi-automatic transmissions out there today and takes much of it's technology from the F1 race track .

However before I go on and on about SMG it's important to remember that it's not an automatic with manual controls but a real clutchless manual transmission similar to what's in the BMW/Williams F1 car. It's a transmission that at once can shift faster than any human yet when in regular automatic mode can go almost unnoticed in daily operation.

Upon sitting down next to the SMG for the first time I have to admit I wasn't entirely sure how to get the thing going. It can be a bit tricky without some explanation at first. The default mode on the SMG is actually automatic but a quick flip of the wrist gets it in manual mode. To change gears there are two paddles just behind the wheel – one to upshift and another to downshift. My first thought was it's like playing Grand Tourismo with the best feedback controller in the world. My second thought was “oh my God this is for real”

One of the keys to fast acceleration in the SMG is switching the sport mode on and turning the shift mode to S5 (as high as it normally goes). If you want to really impress someone you can turn on the somewhat hidden S6 shift mode and enjoy some of the qiuckest and most neck snapping shifts you'll ever feel. Once more, when you downshift the engine it will automatically blimp the throttle to the optimal rpm. The sound is so addicting that you find yourself slowing down and speeding up just to hear it. These upshifts combined with the melodic inline six and the amazing factory exhaust make you want to forget about the radio or CD player. Let's hope this option makes it's way onto at least the next generation MCS.

Interestingly while pushing the car into hard corners the M3 almost seemed to have more body roll than the MCS or an MC with SS+. That is of course until I realized that I was going 20mph faster than I would have been in a MINI around the same corner. This is really one of the best aspects about the M3. Granted there is the advantage of 333 HP where the MCs only has 163 on tap but it's really the feeling of immense stability at speed and at the limit that is so thrilling. Simply put you feel like you can do about anything in this car. Yes the MINI is exceptional in this area but it simply can't overcome the fact that it's wheel base is short (by M3 standards), it's track isn't as wide, and it's a front wheel drive car with an unequal weight distribution.

All said the MINI makes a good showing in this comparison. Despite going up against a huge difference in power and sophistication there are few cars that feel more like a small version of the current M3 than even a base Cooper with SS+. Going from the M3 to my SS+ Cooper I was struck by how similar the two felt at low and midrange speeds in terms of handling. As long as you don't push the MINI beyond a certain point it's handling can be very balanced and confident. In fact the MINI actually had a sharper initial turn-in than the M3!

Beyond that my Cooper is generally more toss-able and in many ways more fun to whip around corners. It's not near as fast and not near as refined but I believe on many levels it's actually more fun.

At the end of the day I came away reaffirmed that the MINI remains an unbelievable value compared with what else is out there in it's price range. And for sheer driving fun there are simply few cars out there that can rival it.

Written By: MF Staff

  • splif

    i loved the experince of driving a bmw csl expecially when u have one. i wake up every morning and look at my bossted up 650bhp bmw with a kit parked up.

  • minimc

    I’ll preface my comments with the fact that I own a very tuned (for street) MCS & know my opinion is obviously biased. ;)

    I've driven an 04 M3; its definitely more car, bigger, well balanced, refined & quite fast. …And the M3 is not THAT much faster or better balanced than my MCS (as a few playful M3 owners I’ve met can attest). IMO certainly not 100% more $ worth than what I’ve put into my 03 MCS.

    Performance wise I figure I’m quite capable of getting into plenty of trouble with the power and handling now own – thank you!

    The MCS definitely has its limits – in handling, ride quality and in acceleration – esp. at above legal speeds. The MINI pulls well, but begins to give up when M3's and 6 cyl Porsches keep going. Would we expect and different?

    I recently had a fun-in with an M3 on the local Interstate – nothing maniacal, just a quick burst of acceleration. …We both exited at the same street & stopped at a traffic light… my exhaust burbling nicely. The late 20 something M3 owner rolled up & commented how shocked and impressed he was by the MINI. His parting comment was 'sick ride’. I interpreted this as positive ;)

    IMO at this level we’re talking individual preference… differences in ultimate performance and style. …Lets also not forget that neither is a pure sports car – although both will handily dispatch with any number of so-called vehicles – performance wise.

    It feels very good each time I get behind the wheel of my MINI. How many cars have you owned or driven that gave you so much pleasure and performance for so little?

  • BMW4ever

    I used to have a '02 M3 SMG and nowadays I drive a '02 MCS. Though the MCS is fun to drive, I still miss the power, the superb brakes and also the sound of the M3! The M3 is a car to fall in love with and to be addicted to, the MCS is more like a good friend, fun to be with but your heart won't speed up as soon as you see or feel it!

  • Bondurant 00

    Being new to the world of the 4-cyl engine, I am now a proud owner of a MC40 edition Cooper S (soon to get the JCW pkg). I drive this car to the limits daily, in all weather, and without mercy. It's really a remarkable car. Time will tell if it can hold up to my continued abuse over the next few years.

    I have raced against many M3's, M5's, AMG's, etc. in my 00 Saleen SC (w/extra mods) always coming out safely victorious. Ditto for my 02 Lightning F150(slightly moded) but on open, non-demanding roads.

    The Mini is simply more fun than all my past toys. True, 450 torque is handy in some situations, but for the daily grind and mountain racing, forget it. Out-of-the box, the Mini is one clever tool. This holds true even going against WRX STI and yes EVO MR (a second WRX STI race was won, me with a passenger!)

    True there are far better drivers out there, but they are rarer than getting in to it with a Challenge Stradale.

    For your Mini: keep your revs high, plan your shifts, size up your competition accurately, and stay in control… The car will do the rest.

    …and don't forget you can easily put 4 Dell Workstations & 4 17″ monitors in the back w/keyboards, speakers, etc, and 2 HP LJ1300s… and still have an open passenger seat. Sick.

    The Saleen is now up for sale. Proceeds will pay for more Mini and Lightning mods. One quick plug – put a CG-Lock on your safety belt so you can better operate your Mini at its limits.

    Happy Motoring

  • TGK 77

    I have 1000 miles on my new ’05 MCS. In the past 63 months I have owned and driven thousands of miles across the USA in: ’00 Audi S4, ’01 BMW M3, ’99 Carrera C4, “03 Boxster S, “04 911 C4S, ’05 911 S, cylcles & suv’s. The Cooper rocks! Compared to the other vehicles, there are obvious advantages for the different machines, but I am enjoying the MCS in inner big city driving more than any other machine I’ve driven. At this juncture in my car enjoyment, it’s the ultimate go-kart ride that puts Mini at the top of the fun chart. Looking forward to JCW!

    TGK 77

  • http://www.nickara.com Nick Ara

    Yes. M3’s beat me in a flat-out drag race. But on real roads, and after 19 months with my JCW Mini (granted, not the same car described here)The M3’s wind up a good bit behind me EVERY TIME. When they finally DO pull up to me, they invariably ask “what the hell do you have under the hood, anyway?” I just smile and drive off. Actually, Suburu WRX STi’s give me more trouble. A sad commentary on the M3, yes?

  • simon english

    God I dislike the Suburu WRX it’s fast, but ugly and poor quality in comparison to the M3, also you’ll find more WRX STI owners feel like they have something to prove ! where the M3 owner knows what he has and is less likely to beat on it for a race he knows he will win. For you guys out there that compare car’s with mods to stock M3’s lets understand that a M3 with Dinan mod’s can get well over 400 hp and will smoke a poorly made Mustang that shames it’s name sake it’s been given (in quality and style)…I drove a fun truck last year that smoked a Cayenne turbo ! 03 X5 4.6 with a complete Dinan stage 3 kit ! 480 hp and 14 inch Brembo brakes off the Enzo…it was bloody amazing ..and a naturally aspirated 6cyl M3 against a mod V8 is comparing apples to oranges..all fruit but different Mate !

  • pat r.

    Those of you who think the M3 steering is too vague and the car is too refined you should drive an e30 ///M3. even though the e30 is probably slower than many MCS’s the handling is far superior. having driven all cars mentioned the E30 ///M3 is definately 10x more fun to drive than the JCW MCS i drove.

    the opinion of mose bimmer guys is that the only “true M3″ is the E30, neither the E36 or E46 M3’s live up to that name because the E30 is the only homologated race car.

    and to say that e46 m3’s cant hang on the track is probably true but an E30 would eat any MCS,

    dont get me wrong though i like mini’s alot…i cant wait til i can sell my car for an AWD, turbo MCS :)

  • Nic

    Just took delivery of my E46 M3. Having driven it for 4 days only, I have to say, it is the best thing I’ve ever been in and I’ve driven a lot of cars. The M3 is simply the best driving experience in the world. No question.

  • ToplessRed

    I just gave up my 2004 M3 Convertible for a MINI Cooper Convertible. Yeah the M3 has the absolutely crazy acceleration. But otherwise …shrug… don’t miss it at all.

  • ToplessRed

    And I definitely don’t miss the $1K per month car payment and the pretty obscene insurance payments. Just too many people totalling M3s giving other M3 owners black marks.

  • minimcoupe

    My daily driver is an 05 cooper SVT. On nice days, my 2002 Z3 M-Coupe comes out to play. (I know it is not an M-3) One or two days a week in the summer, the M-Coupe is great to go really blasting around in and will test anyone’s driving skills.

    For a daily driver year round, you can’t beat a Mini. I will never give up my rocket ship, rare M-Coupe but in 06, I will be ordering the MCS auto with the paddle shifters. I have already driven one and am very impressed. (have to stay with the auto for my better half)

    I have also had both on longer trips and again, my nod goes to the Mini. By far, highest fun factor of any daily driver I have ever owned. (over 100 cars)

    Any M-Coupe drivers out there that have compared the MCS? They are a little closer in size & weight than the M-3.

  • kevin klayman

    just took delivery of a 05 m3 cabrio… its awsome!!!!! My brother-in-law has a totally worked mini S. While great in its own right, there is no comparison. If you can spare the green, the M3 cabrio is the way to go. PS thus far my driving record has been excellent. I review too many imaging studies of people who f-up behind the wheel and come into the hospital as traumas. Drive carefully and have fun!

  • Neil

    Sold my E46 convertible M3 SMG back in October 2003 after 7 months. Rattled like hell! It trully is “stupid fast”. Bought an MCS, and loved every minute. Just ordered MCS auto convertible.

    Don’t miss the M3 at all. People smile and wave at you in a mini, as opposed to making other gestures when you drive an M3.

  • Ted

    I’ve always liked the new Mini ever since it came out. I have yet to drive one though. I own an E36 M3 and 330iZHP and have driven the E46 M3. I have to agree with the previous comments about the 330/E46 M3 being almost too capable, powerful, quiet, luxurious.

    I wouldn’t even have really thought of getting out of my E36 M3, but I’ve since driven a few Boxster Ss and fell in love with it (both 986 and 987). The mid-engine feel is just unbelievable. I actually liked it better than the 996 Carrera I test drove because of the handling, even though it wasn’t as fast.

    I worry about the Mini FWD aspect, but everyone raves about the handling. I just can’t spend $60K on a Boxster right now. Can’t wait to try a MCS on for size. I agree that power isn’t everything, but it is addictive!

  • Scott Schaefer

    I’ve had a 2003 E46 M3 Coupe with 6 speed manual for about two years now. I’ve owned many cool cars over the years but nothing tops the M for its balance of speed, refinement, and practicality for what its performance level. Just last week, I place an order for an ’06 MCS with factory JCW. Won’t be replacing the M3, I’ll be complementing it.

  • yasin limbada

    i have owned bmw’s all my life i currently drive the bmw m3 smg model, i recently got married and bought my wife a mini cooper s works i drove it and i loved it i hardly ever drive my bmw now, saving loads on fuel…….

  • Megz

    I currently have a 2003 BMW MY SMG model. Talk about a badass car! Picking up guys in this car is pretty easy too! HAHA! It is crazy fast, and has really good handeling.

    The only down side to the car is the 17MPG gas tank. the gas mileage is only this low though because of the acceleration in this car. I have two racing chips in my engine so it makes the ride THAT MUCH MORE enjoyable. Talk about G-force!

    I had to invest in a really good radar detector after getting this car!

    I haven’t driven the MINI yet, and I don’t know if I ever will…is there an upgrade from the M3? …

  • Mike

    OK what sane person wrote this? Not one who has pushed the M3 deeper in a turn than a Porsche Turbo. Has smokeed several P-Cars with the M3’s amazing torque. Yes a mini might be fun but let’s get really. You will never ever get at the limit of a M3 in a mini. How can you compare a car that will get you around a corner in triple digits vs a car that 30 mph is scary fast.

    Ok, so I have an Dinan S2-M3 that is wickely fast than stock ;)

  • http://motoringfile.com Gabe

    Mike – no offense but did you even read the article? I loved the M3… and think I was pretty straight forward about it being a much faster car.

    And if you think a MINI Cooper S feels scary cast and 30mph it sounds like you need to take one on a test drive.

  • Mark

    Personnal give I would much rather take a heavily modified MCS, just because any rich fart can go out a buy a M3 off the showroom floor. Correctly modifying and MCS is hard work and when its done the result, is a personnalized one of a kind master peice. I have $5,000 in my MC, I know it sounds stupid but I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of when one time i rolled up next to a MCS at stop light and cooked it, the guy never saw it comin.

  • Arman

    I happen to be a huge fan of the JCW MCS. Im certain removing the air filtration system that makes the car pretty much choke will add a good 20-30 horses. With such a light weight car, and the fact that it does have better handling at the lower speeds, couldnt the MCS give an M3 a run for its money, on a track with a lot of bends and twists, where the amazing M3 speed is taken out of the equation.

    Yes in a drag race im sure the M3 will be pretty much be out of sight in a few seconds, but from what i hear The new JCW kit has the tires the suspension and the power to out preform an M3 on a track. Especially since and i quote “The back-end will come around on you in a heartbeat” trying to make turn at the speed M3 boasts about.

  • wils

    MCS’s already beat M3s around the track – have witnessed it myself more than once! :)

    anyway, having driven both, and currently owning a MINI i can say they are both wonderful cars to drive but i don’t think the point of the article is to say that a MINI is a faster or better handling car to the M3 it’s saying that both are wonderful and very capable cars but that the Cooper S is just as fun and just as good to drive for the money as we all know it’s abt a third of the price of an M3…

  • Dan

    I own a 2004 M3 Convertible SMG that I have driven for about 12,000 miles.. I also just test drove the Mini Cooper S today in Automatic but used the Paddle Shifters.. I’d have to say that the Mini was indead more fun.. It’s probably because it’s a new feel and I’m used to the M3, but the Mini is so tiny that it feels very go-cart like and really wants to take the turns to the extreme.. I took it around tight turns and punched the pedal and overall I’d be tempted to buy a Mini now and drive it more then my M3…

    I have driven my M3 to the limit a bunch of times, but I think the Mini’s excitment will always be comperable because it’s a very tiny, very fast and very nimble car..

    It’s a tough choice over all but for me paying for my M3 new at around 65K, the Mini sounds like a steal!! Plus it’s got kayak racks for my kayaks, lol!! I’ll probably buy one but would like to take for a spin the new “Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice Turbo” first… The Posche Caymen S is pretty sweet too.. But I’d say Mini all the way.. Plus the

  • Dan

    continued—- I just wanted to add that I am speed freak and the JCW kit really isn’t needed for I think the S has plenty of pep.. But what the hey I’ll probaly get it anyways, hehe..

  • Marko

    I JUST did it! I got a 2003 MCS, and I’m selling my 2003 M3 w/SMG. The M3 is an awesome car, amazing car! But it doesn’t have much soul right now, it’s a bit too refined. One thing, it’s been in the shop so many times. The SMG is a huge pain in the butt for dependability. I’ve never raced the car or tracked it, or even blown it around on a weekend! Seriously babied this thing , and I’m afraid it’s a bit dissapointing on ownership, but def a great car to drive (when it’s not being towed AGAIN to the dealer!).

    We’ll see how the Cooper-S holds up, but it’s got the fun factor. I bought it fully loaded, all the features and navigation! I’m 35 now, so I don’t know if this will be a ‘grown-up’ car, but it’ll fun to own for a while!

  • Randel

    My wife drives a 2003 6-speed M3, and I drive a 2005 M5. While “Stupid Fast” is truly an accurate description of the M3, I continue to search for a catch phrase for the M5. Pudden-head fast? Dopey fast? Doppelganger Schnell?

    Where the M3 winds its way through the twistys like a scared deer, the M5 is more like a rabid bear.

    But sadly, Connecticut doesn’t have an autobahn. We grow weary of driving like grandma.

    Both cars are now for sale, and we are picking up a MCS today!

  • Norma

    I have a 2003 MCS Love it………… cant compare between the two. but the mini is absolutetly an awsome car….

  • Georgios

    I am from Greece and I own a 2005 MCS twincharged (supercharger + turbocharger) 400+ hp and 54 kilograms torque. Concerning the handling, my MINI’s Bilstein racing suspension PSS9 and the Brembo brakes helps it to turn like a train. Here in Greece there isn’t an M3 that can keep up with me. 0-100 km/h:4.4 which is 0-60 m/h and 275 km/h

  • Alex

    I’m a Huge BMW Fan and this is why i have a MCS.. when looking at used 3series after 2000 and under 35k i realized i couldnt get anything i wanted in a BMW and was told that if wanted outragous handeling (which i did) that i should walk 50ft down the hall into the Mini showroom and take a good look at “the BMW Mini) .. just hearing the words BMW Mini made me like it more. anyway two weeks later i was driving a little 05, Black and white CooperS and less than 2 months after that it had a Dinan Stage 3 suspention air intake/exhaust and software. i must say for under 30k i have no idea what compairs to my car and i honestly dont think i couldve driven any car on “the Tale of the Dragon” with as much confidence and comfort as i did for 4 days straight on the “Mini’s on the Dragon” rally… Anyway… M3 Rocks … M-Coupe is much cooler, but the mini coop IS THE SHIT ! and i pay less than 300 a month :)

  • Steven


  • John

    You can’t really compare an M3 SMG to a MINI Cooper or a Cooper S. The M3 SMG is obviously a suped up version of a BMW. And a rather expensive one. You would have to put it against a JCW (suped up version). Speaking of JCW’s you could buy about three fulled equipped JCW’s for the price of one of the SMG. Which would put a bigger smile on my face than an SMG ever would

  • Curt Bengtson

    I own a 2006 M3 SMG whith all the fixings and I must say wow. I haven’t drivin the mini yet but I will never sell this car.

  • Michael B

    I used to own a MCS, but sold it and bought an e46 m3. wow. the m3 is quite an astounding car. but, don’t get me wrong, the S is quite amazing itself, especially for the price. and it’s pretty darn fun too.

  • Scotty

    I have a 2006 M3 and have driven a friends 2004 Mini cooper S (manual) and the M3 handels much better, is much faster< it is just the better car, the cooper is cheap for a reason.

  • Neil

    I just sold my 6spd ’05 MCS and own a ’05 M3 SMG. While i loved the mini and great daily driver, super fun and wounderful year round car….there is no comparison between these two vehicles. The M3 is in a completely different league. I have a SCCA liscence and raced GT2 up in canada. From a drivers perspetive there is no comparision M3 hands down rules. from a cost vs. fun standpoint the MCS is probably a better buy

  • gerrit

    i have never owned either one but i have driven both because im a valet. the m3 was a lot more exciting. and i love the smg gearbox. i finally figured out how to get it in s6 mode and just about broke my neck with a second to third shift. this is the only transmission that i would prefer over a manual

  • hemisedan

    Well, why wouldn’t the M-3, or for that matter the upcoming M-1 be a betteer handler, faster than a Mini base with SS, or ever the MCS? My new JCW handles just fine for me in everyday driving, has no dead spots and is is a blast to drive. I’ve never driven a BMW M-3, or any of the M cars, mainly on account of the fact that $50K up is just not in my price category. I’ve been very impressed with my new 2011 JCW, it’s performance as well as its fuel mileage. Would I consider an M-1 or 3? Hell yes, but not for the asking prices.

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