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

  • GJR

    I agree Gabe, and so does the U.K.'s “Car” magazine.

    They have a feature in the back of the magazine ranking their 100 favorite new cars to drive regardless of price…the Porsche 911 Turbo was #1, the Cooper S #2 (“there's no better car to drive day in and day out than the Cooper S,” is what they said), and the Ferrari Enzo #3!

    That's pretty good company if you ask me…

  • ZAKdog

    Great write-up. One of my neighbor's sons has an M3 and now I'm thinking that the interest in the MCS might coax him into a friendly test drive of each other's cars…sounds like a win-win to me!

  • http://revorg.org/mini.html Scott

    Interesting comparison. And the price of the M3 SMG is…? Two S's? Two S's and a Cooper?

  • http://bridger.us Gabriel Bridger

    This particular one was about two MCS's and an old 325i winter beater :)

  • Frank

    I haven driven the BMW M3, yet, but after a short 3 hour drive on a '03 BMW 325i sedan I fully came to the realization of how nice these cars really are…smooth, powerful, comfortable (Not so much in the back seat where there is a gross shortage of legroom and shoulder room)and very responsive handling.

    That said, the MINI is a fantastic car and it is the “BMW” of small cars. Today I am driving a loaner '03 Toyota Echo sedan while our Cooper CVT is in service (I am also picking up a brand new '04 MCS tonight, can't wait!) and while the Echo is a generally well made and solid Japanese Econocar, the steering and handling are similar to that of a shopping cart, the engine runs out of steam past 70MPH….in sort it really makes you appreciate how incredible sophisticated the MINI is for the money.

  • Steve Rosenblum

    All I have to say is WOW!
    I have never been in a car that throws me back into the seat that hard on acceleration and braking before. The growl of the engine is incredible, as is the sound and feeling of banging full throttle upshifts through the paddles on the steering wheel. I am still having flashbacks..

  • http://bridger.us Gabe

    Sorry if I threw you around a little too much Steve :)


    Sorry, but my ex girlfriend had a 2003 M3, and that car beats the pants off any MINI. You TAP the gas and your head is through the back of the headrest. The thing FLIES. Also it handles like a dream. Its just an amazing car to drive. Granted her car payments were 1K a month, but if I had the money Id get one too.

  • http://bridger.us Gabe

    Nothing to be sorry about – the M3 is amazing. It's much faster than the MCS no question. I just think that the MCS/MC is a great half to one third price alternative.

  • Frank

    I would love to see her insurance payments on that M3. So let me see, $1K per month car payment plus gas (Add $100 to $150 a month) and then $300 a month in insurance?

    Wow! for that kind of money I can get myself a very nice new Condo in an upscale section of the city.

    No question the M3 is the “Ultimate Driving Machine” but at $50K it is too rich for the blood of many here.

    The MCS is the “M3″ of the poor. LOL

  • Ellen

    Gabe — As usual a great descriptive piece. That coupled with the whine of the F1s still in my ears from Sunday's race, I'm off for a two hour drive. Steve's reaction was priceless, too. Until I read this piece, my attitude toward the parent company's BMW products has been hesitant. Now, my head is starting to turn.

  • http://users.adelphia.net/~rocketboy/index.html Rocketboy_X

    At a recent dealer event, me and one of my MINI buddies took a Z Roadster out for a test drive (yes, it's no M3, but it's still an uber-expensive BMW..). It was fun, yes, but when you consider the price, I'd take a handfull of MINIs over one anyday.

  • http://www.chicagominiclub.com Victoria

    Steve, I'll certainly agree that riding as passenger (shotgun or worse, backseat) in the M3 is a much, much worse experience than being “navigator” in a MINI. My brother-in-law, who drives Formula Fords at Sears Point for fun, has an M3 for “around town” excursions. I've begun to think he lives in SF exclusively to catch monster air at every intersection in that thing. :)

  • Steve Rosenblum

    I totally enjoyed every minute of the test drive, and have complete confidence in Gabe's driving ability, even in the parts when the car was not pointing in the same direction as the road..

  • http://revorg.org/mini.html Scott

    I think what we would really like is a “MS”, although BMW is very unlikely to do that. (I'm assuming that “M'ing” an S would involve much more than “Works'ing” does. Maybe the grill opening would be kidney-bean shaped?)

  • http://www.teammightyminiz.com Doug

    When I was given a loaner M3 while the “other” car was in service… I was tempted to never give it back! The M series are great rides and worth the tag.

    Tap the gas and you're Begging for a ticket… Of course, with it being a loaner…”drove it like I stole it” and it handles as well if not better than many a MINI.
    And the M3 wraps your entire ego in luxury.

  • Maxwell H.

    Now I've been thinking about MINI comparisons, and I'm trying to think of any other car that I would love as much as I do my trusty MCS. I've considered Bimmers, but I'm not totally sold. I decided Porsche would be the way to go. Any Porsche drivers out there care to compare the two?

  • Jeremy Bernauer

    Gabe, you mentioned the hidden S6 program… how is it hidden? I have seen the SMG video on BMW.com and it is very impressive. Does the US car eliminate the launch control or simply “disable” it? Thanks for the awesome article… next time take me with you too!

  • http://www.leo.nutz.de/ ///Leo

    Although it is a nice review I am disapointed that the video files have been linked from my web page with out permission.

    For all that are interested in SMG may visit my FAQ on the subject.

    ///Leo http://www.leo.nutz.de

  • http://bridger.us/mini Gabe

    Sorry Leo – the links have been removed per your request. I had thought I sent an email to you asking about this but I obviously forgot to do that or it never got to you. I would encourage anyone interested in knowing more about the M3 or those who want to see the videos to visit Leo's website.

  • Michael

    I actually have a 2001 M3 and a Porsche Boxster–the new MCS is “awaiting transport”. While the M3 is a great car in many ways, it has some serious flaws that make it less fun to drive: the driveline has too much slop, the steering is way over assisted and way too slow (driving twisty road requires turning the wheel too far), the center of gravity is too high (feels like driving an SUV when I come from my Boxster), the brakes are over-assisted and non-linear (it's easy to scrub off too much speed when trail braking), and though the car sounds great when the windows are closed, with them open, the tinney resonance from the exhaust is exhausting. So, I'm keeping the Boxster (for my wife) and trading the M3 for an MCS. Just love that lightning quick steering and flat cornering…great go-cart!

  • Gilbert Cabral

    You are right, the defference is the price and size.but,M3 can't drive at the alley.

  • http://www.vinceandjessica.com Vince

    Thanks for the magazine-quality review (I love this site). I just had to comment on the fact that I could buy 1 John Cooper Challenge equipped MC for racing purpuses + 1 MCS for a daily driver, both for about the same cost as 1 M3. Of course the M3 is going to be crazy better in many ways than any MINI, and it should be for the $. The last paragraph was the article's best.

  • Vmpyrdavid

    Great article. I don't get here much, but when I do make it, I am always impressed with the quality of content on you site.

    I completely agree, and can't think of a better phrase to describe the M3-SMG. “It's Stupid Fast”

    I had a chance to drive the M3-SMG at BMW's Performance Center in Greer, SC. It is definately a great ride. Your review is right on the money. I imagine if I had the cash, I'd definately have this car in the garage. Autocross my MCS and Club Race the M3…..

    Hey, I can dream can't I?


  • Ron

    drove an M3 last week…come on my MCS is a fun little car, but let's not get crazy and compare it in anyway to a M3, laugh….the only reason not to have a M3 of course is the money factor…lol ! Now if you want to compare an MCS to an RX8, then that seems fair, but the M3, forgetaboutit :)

  • blake

    My dad had an M3 with SMG and wow that car was amazing….until my brother totaled it. Now I'm about to get a car. So he's getting a Mini Cooper S with John Cooper Works, and then giving it to me. I think it's the perfect car. It's one of the most fun cars to drive, and has plenty of power yet not enough to get myself in trouble as much if I had an M3. I think it's time to motor.

  • Dirk

    Gabe, I actually made the switch from a 2001 M3 to a 2003 MCS when we moved from Southern California to Hawaii. I originally made the decision because I didn't think there were enough places to actually “drive” the M3 in Hawaii but I don't regret it as much as I thought. Everytime I see an M3 here in Hawaii I miss the old car but it really was “stupid fast” and get me into too much trouble out here. Neat write-up Gabe. My 2001 was non-SMG (not available when I bought the car) so my experience with these cars has been on the 6-speed Getrags and I can say they both need S.S. mods. Unless I really have the 'need for speed', the MINI (especially the MCS) is plenty fun for my motoring needs.

  • Michael


    What is the maximum size rear seat passenger in a MCS? I'm fishing for a daily driver, the rear seat in my Porsche 968 has gotten too small for the teenagers… I was thinking 325/330ci but maybe MCS would be more fun in the city, and save the wallet too?

  • AlanB

    I started driving as a teenager in a Morris 850! We had to make sure we did not have too much pocket change because it would slow our 0-40 mph times! I am now on my 4th Mini (2002 MCS) “It is more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.”

  • Tom Disy

    Have just moved from a '91 325iC to a '04 MCS. I loved my bimmer, putting 160,000 hard miles on it. I do not miss it, however. I am sooooo happy in my S. It's just a fun car to drive. My brother-in-law has the Honda S2000 and though it's faster, it's not more fun. I'm going to get more out of my S with upcoming mods and have even more fun!

    For the guy looking for rear leg room in a S, probably need to look elsewhere.

  • Giles

    Nice write up, I have been driving my Modified MCS for just on a year now and have had this car on many Race Tracks in Australia. I have been going BMW sponsored track days and 9 times out of 10 my mildy modified MSC ( Pulley, chip, exhaust, intake) 210hp will absolutly slaughter M3's around most race tracks. Unless there is a huge straight to use the M3 Power the Mini can easily outbrake and outhandle a M3. If your not drifting the rear of your MCS around corners then your not going fast enough.

  • wantamini

    i am excited. i work with cooper “S”s all day…… except for tommorow embark on a seventy mile one way journey with the extreme 2003 SMG DINAN supercharged M3…. thanks for the insperation!

  • IanF

    My experience is comparing an E36 M3 to a MCS and I'd say the decision would be difficult. Especially considering a used E36 M3 and a new MCS are roughly the same price. The torque and general driving “feel” of the M3 is intoxicating.

    Oddly enough, despite being a much smaller car, the MINI feels bigger to me. I feel like I'm floating around in the bottom of a box in the MCS whereas I feel like I'm “wearing” the M3. In the MCS's defense, it's not my car and I would probably set up the driving position differently… but the M3 isn't my car either…

    If there is a deciding factor to ME personally on which car I'd buy, the MCS wins because of the people I've met through the car. A much nicer and down to earth crowd, whereas the E36 M3 is basically the German equivalent of a Honda Prelude or Mitsubishi Eclipse, if you know what I mean…

  • Joe

    Just three comments:

    1) Fantastic write-up. 2) The E46 M3 is a great beast, but, the MCS still handles better and shifts nicer. Also, it is a lot more fun to drive in an everday situation. 3) Careful about the E36 M3 comments, I have one and there is no rice anywhere near that car!

  • Adam

    What about the MCS vs the 318ti? They weights are almost identical, but the 318ti has better weight distribution and RWD while the MCS has more power. I've never seen a comparison between the two.

  • Jim

    Similiar to what Giles noted it would be interesting to compare a slightly modded MCS to the M3. With an intake, chip, 15% pulley and a 22mm sway bar I was regularly besting E36 M3s at the track. The E46 M3s however could still easily have their way with me, just an amazing car. That said, my humble MCS was much more competetive than stock and for a paltry $1500 over base, so you could still afford two of mine for one of theirs.

    Of course I'm just jealous and would take an M3 if money wasn't a relevant concern. :)


  • Paul

    John Cooper probably summed it up best when he stated: “I drive alot of motorcars, but when I want to have fun, I drive a Mini.”

  • Bernard

    Spot on analysis. Realize you are comparing apples to oranges when you compare these 2 rides. I guess I could see the MCS as a poor man's M3 but it's a stretch. I own an 04 MCS and an 03 M3 and I would never seriosly compare the 2 in the first place.

  • Alvan Lichtenstein

    can anyone out there tell about any problems they may of had with MCS.I Ordered a MSC Cab

  • michael Boice

    I won't complain, my 05 S-Works with BBS RG-R wheels is a company car for me…a daily runner. The S-Works is pefectly suited to this position; a great combination of handling traits, braking, fuel economy, and cost. That said, while driving a friends 04 M3, I rounded a long and very fast ramp onto a local highway. My friend suggested that I hammer it thru this section. I'm a very willing partner so I did. The rear end of the M3 came un-glued in what is the longest, near side-ways, tires smoking entry onto a highway this driver has ever experienced. I looked over at my friend Bob and said, “turn the traction control on next time.” He replied, “it was on.” Wow!

  • mike p

    I switched from M3 to Mini Cooper S when I moved from Maui to mainland. The MCS is simply more FUN. Sure it lacks refinement and comfort but the M3 felt heavy and cumbersome to me in comparrison.

  • michael Boice

    And hey, in reality the S moves thru the slalom and skid pad pretty darn well…better than the M3 depending upon the magazine and test venue. So it doesn't matter if you're understeering your way thru an .850g-.900g corner, if you're going faster, you're faster. Understeer is just tedious and wears on front tires during track work. No big deal on the street.

  • http://~ miguel

    Mini is a unique car. All I got to say.

  • Kaitain

    All that is well and good, and the Mini S is a great little car, but if someone said, “You can have a fully loaded Mini S or a fully Loaded M3 for free.” Which would you honestly take? Yeah, I thought so. ;)

  • http://www.motoringfile.com/ Gabe

    I think that you're missing the point of the review.

  • GEC

    Great article, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I have to say that I've driven pretty much every BMW built since 1972, including the much-lauded and never quite equalled 2002ti and tii and with the single exception of a Z8. The e46 M3 is brilliant, and arguably one of the quickest cars on the planet that can be used as a daily driver. I agree that it is ridiculous amounts of power, but in the hands of a capable driver, that's never been a particularly bad thing. I actually preferred the old e36 (1995 to 1999) M3 better, as it was incredibly well powered but also very go-kart like in terms of steering response. I put one into an opposite lock tail out slide at around 90 one day and the grin on my face took days to fade.

    That said, the new M3 is completely wasted in the US unless you live in Nevada or the midwest where you can hammer it out to 100+. I've got a '97 540i that I had in Germany for four years, and it's almost boring to drive on the east coast – I mean the thing is pulling around 1500 rpm at 60.

    The Cooper S is an altogether different beast. For the price, it's probably the most fun you can have in something with 4 wheels. No, it cannot match the M3 in terms of sheer power, refinement, or luxury, but for our American roads it's a much more appropriate vehicle and you can enjoy it at 8/10ths on some twisty back roads. I drove one a few months ago and the poor chap from the dealership almost had a stroke when I rotated it through a hairpin. If you're looking for a ball of a ride for less than 25 grand, buy an MCS. If you're looking for something to drive on your 60 mile commute to work, haul a kid or two, and do the grocery shopping whilst still being able to track it on the weekends, buy an M3. I personally prefer the standard 6-speed over the SMG II as there's nothing more fun than a properly executed second-to-third double clutch! I know the SMG is quicker than I can be, but it takes the skill out of the equation, doesn't it?


  • mcsdan

    I owned an E46 M3 SMG and MCS Works at the same time. I eventually got rid of the M3 since compared to the MCS Works the M3 steering was vague, brakes faded quickly and the M3 felt too heavy. Sure in a straight line the M3 is very fast but cornering and in gear acceleration there is not much in it. However this is a Works MCS. I had a stock MCS for 3 months before the works pack put on and the MCS just lacked something. Works pack on. Big smile on. Bye Bye M3.

    Only complaint with MCS is under heavy braking it feels a bit light so watch the back end. Complaints with M3 were the SMG downshift was too slow and often snatched, and the exhaust note that sounded like a bag of spanners especially when cold, as well as the vague steering and bad brakes already mentioned.

    M3 still a superb car. MCS Works better everyday car. On the track I'd take an Elise.

  • Joe

    I have a '95 M3 and a stock MC40, and I have to say that the mini is much more fun if you're going to slide turns at 30-50mph, or if you otherwise get your thrills more from breaking (that sums it up for me). And my wife and two year old daughter like it more. Otherwise, this comparison just seems silly.

    The initial acceleration of the mini is very poor, bordering on unacceptable, with a severe hiccup unless you totally ride the clutch through first gear, and its handling is also very poor at high speeds (over, say 80 mph) – not much different from my minivan.

    With the M3, throttle response, high speed driving, and overall feel are in a completely different class. Don't get me wrong, I'm selling the M3 and keeping the mini, but it's just heresy to put the M3 in this comparison.

  • David Lee

    Has anyone driven the new Mercedes SLK 350 and compared it to a MCS. The merc is quicker off the mark than the bimmer but not as much fun as a JCW mini. Here in Australia the bimmer costs $149,000.00, the SLK is $112,900.00 and the mini with the works is $51,000.00.

  • Paul Elwyn

    We're trading our 04 BMW 330Ci coupe in two weeks for an 05 MCS. The BMW has the Sport/Premium packages, 6 speed and 18″ wheel option. I've driven two MCS demos, and both came closer than the BMW to capturing the fun of our last Porsche, an 85 Carerra coupe with 62k. The 330Ci is lovely, competent and satisfying, but too refined, too quiet. The MCS, of course, isn't as fast as the 3.2 Carerra or the 330Ci, but on the narrow, kinky roads I seek on my Guzzi V11 LeMans and BMW Boxers, the MCS is at home in the same way the Carerra is.

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