MF Garage: Back Behind the Wheel of My R53

Recently my wife and I left the Twin Cities for the fine city of Chicago. Involved in that move was packing up my R53 and my wife’s Honda CRV with all the things that weren’t going with the movers. Seats folded down, we all know how spacious the MINI can be. Even laden down with our TV and other miscellanea, the car was still fun to drive. The 400 mile trip passed easily in my R53, but sadly, it would be nearly a month before I got behind the wheel of my favorite car again.

We spent a month in company-provided housing downtown, which was fun in its own right, but there was only one parking space provided. Rather than dropping $32/day, Gabe was kind enough to let me park my MINI at MotoringFile HQ until we found permanent digs. That left me stuck with the CRV — a car about as exciting as a boiled egg. It handled feet of fresh snow duty without a hitch, and hauled all the things we needed to haul around, but the CRV is definitely an A-to-B kind of vehicle. So when we found a place to rent and call our own for a while, it was time to get back behind the wheel of a real car again.

Even covered in six inches of snow, I was glad to see the old boy again. I put the key in, turned to start, then pushed the clutch in. My MINI fired right to life, just like it always does. Sitting in the cockpit, I was reminded of all the things that really set the MINI apart. I fit in it better than any other car I’ve ever driven. The seats are sculpted and more comfortable than the Honda I’d been driving for the last month. That, and they’re heated. Man, have I missed those heated seats. Best of all though, was the noise the car was making — that happy, burbling growl. Notching into first, I pulled out of the snowy parking spot to that pleasant snarl and the oh-so-sweet whine of the supercharger. The slushy street was the only thing keeping me from just burying the throttle.

It was nice to be down low again — back in a car with a proper center of gravity. The feel of wheels at the corners was refreshing as well. It’s great to be back in something so balanced and sure-footed. Most of all, I was thrilled by the MINI’s weight. Gabe is fond of saying that lightness is the MINI’s defining characteristic of driving character. I think he’s right. There’s something effortless about my MINI — about all MINIs. Sure, it’s not the fastest car on the road, but it’s the epitome of getting out of its own way.

It’s not all great in my car right this moment though. The control arm bushings are badly worn, and subsequently the tires are getting to the end of their tread life. But for all the slop in the front end, my MINI is still utterly charming. For all the things I can name and the hundred more I can’t put my finger on, a month away from my MINI has helped me appreciate it all the more. It’s reminded me of just how much I enjoy my R53. At nearly 90,000 miles, it’s still the most fun I get to regularly have on four wheels. For all the newer MINIs that tempt me from time to time (can anyone say Paceman?), I always come back to this car — to all its faults and all its charm.

  • jbkONE

    great writeup!  I feel the same way about my R50.  I don’t get to road-trip as much as I used to, but last w/e I went almost 800 miles to Ocala, FL and back in two days and it was great.  It’s not the most comfortable interstate floater, nor the most nimble track carver, but it has an enduring charm that never disappoints and does both with a confidence that belies it’s size and power.  And those heated seats…mmmmm.

  • I had a choice:  Buy a new R56 exactly the way I wanted, or buy a 1-yr-old used R53 with extended warranty, and only 10,000mi on the clock.  I loved the power delivery of the supercharged motor and the steering. Great little car.

    • Hatether56

      The R53 is dead. LONG LIVE THE R53!!!!

  • Anonymous

    My feelings exactly. Nice Read.

  • Evan

    It is really something how these cars continue to evoke grins and passion.

    While we drive our E90 most of the time because of the two year old, and it is a great handling car, there is nothing like slipping back behind the wheel of my 2004 R50. It’s so pure and immediate in everything it does. With 84k miles on the clock, it stills goes like it always has. Last year I replaced said control arm bushings and got new tires with an alignment. I didn’t realize what I had been missing over the last 10k miles- it drove just like new.

    I will always keep my R50, now slowly budgeting for the “8 year old, nearing 100k mile” repairs of strut mounts, struts and spark plugs. It is so worth it though. Still solid after all this time. People are floored when I tell them how old MINI Cooper is now.

    The current MINIs are good cars, quieter, more efficient, more tech, but there’s nothing like an R50/53. 🙂

    Let’s Motor!

  • Tim Daniel

    I’m still in love with my R53, but the passion is waning. One big problem for me is road/tire noise. My car seems to eat tires long before they’re due, resulting in very loud road noise in the cabin. Does anyone have an idea what might cause this? Wheel alignment? Control arm bushings like Nathaniel mentioned above? 

    • Some tires are definitely more quiet than others. As for wear, you’ve got to rotate them like crazy first of all. Worn control arm bushings and bent strut tops can both cause excessive tire wear in addition. That said, there’s a reason I put Khumos on my MINI — they’re a good tire, but they’re also relatively inexpensive.

      • Tim Daniel

        Thanks for your response, Nathaniel. I do rotate them, usually every 10,000-15,000 km or so when I do an oil change. I suppose I should get the control arm bushings checked at my next service…

        • Yeah, I’d recommend every 6,500-8,000 kms or so if you can stand it. i try to do mine every 4000-5000 miles.

    • Brian

      This would happen to me ALL the time when I would take my car to get aligned at the dealership. Once I went to a MINI specialist they told me change a couple bushings and aligned it the right way. Problem solved, my tires last how they should. And My R53 has 202 WHP.

    • Brian

      This would happen to me ALL the time when I would take my car to get aligned at the dealership. Once I went to a MINI specialist they told me change a couple bushings and aligned it the right way. Problem solved, my tires last how they should. And My R53 has 202 WHP.

  • Bob Hayhurst

    Nice Piece Nathaniel; besides the news that gets reported here, storys like this set MF apart from the other blogs I read. Not sucking up; I’m just saying.

    The ’03 S I had was absolutely awesome. It handled like no other car I had ever owned and made all the right noises. Was it perfect? No, but it sure felt like it.

    My current car is an ’07 S w/jcw upgrade and it too is an astonishing car. 120 k and I still look forward to a short trip to the grocery store or the west coast for MTTS. Sadly, I won’t keep this car; it’ll be sacrificed for a ’12 jcw, so it will have an honorable exit.

    Having said that, my advice to you is, if you can, keep the R53. They don’t make them anymore…

  • The R53 is the ultimate point-and-go car. Whether it’s zipping around traffic on downtown streets or taking a high-speed sweeper at Mosport, this damn car always invokes the utmost confidence out of me as a driver.  I’ve driven the R56 a few times, and I just added a BMW 1M to my roster, but the R53 is the only one with that all-over je ne sais quoi

    • R Burns

      Having driven a few times a R56 S while i owned a R53, i was disappointed too.

      BUT once i owned a R56 S, i happend to appreciate it after days/weeks of riding, actually it takes a moment to understand the R56 S magnificience

      …that you can’t approach by driving a R56 episodically 😉

  • VanMINI

    Nathaniel, nice read – @BobHayhurst:disqus  are we talking a viking funeral?

    • Bob Hayhurst

      nothing like a MINI floating down a fjord at dawn ablaze… 🙂

  • Nathaniel – I completely understand. We’re the same 2 car family – CR-V and R53 (JCW). I drive the CR-V more often because I’m home with my son all day and it’s easier getting him buckled into his car seat. But, boy when I get to drive my JCW… ah, heaven. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I know the feeling! I bought a 2005 R53 S in December 2005 and immediately drove it from LA to Guatemala where I lived. After six years I came back to LA but couldn’t drive back. It came in a container. After two months it arrived. So nice to be driving the MC S again! Thanks for the story.

    • jbkONE

      Man!  That sounds like an awesome trip!  Did you post pics or a travelog anywhere?

      • Anonymous

        Actually I bought the MCS in December 2004 while in LA for Christmas. It wasnt planned. There was one for sale setup just as I would have ordered it so I bought it on sight. ‘t had to get back to Guatemala for work so we did the trip in 5 days. You can see the 2005 BRG MCS in front of Lake Amatitlan at

  • Miguel Bryant

    MotoringFile HQ hahaha you mean his basement in Chicago suburbs lol

    • Yes… I have my own underground parking garage that Nathaniel left his car at. 

      • Yeah, it’s like the bat cave down there — equal parts wine cellar, garage and dungeon. The bones of Gabe’s enemies hang from the walls. 

  • Frank Granados

    Quite remarkable that a design that is over 10 years old still ellicits much talk and passion among MINI aficionados.

    My 2005 R53 S (Purchased new almost 7 years ago) is pushing 90K miles, and like aged wine, it tastes today better than ever. I keep on top of its maintenance, change its oil every 7K miles, have added a reduction pulley, Ultrik lightweight crankshaft pulley upgrade and Powerflex polyurethane bushings all over the front. By the way, ever since replacing the crap stock bushings to Powerflex brand the car rides and handles the way it should have from factory. Furthermore, tire wear and alignment were vastly improved in addition to braking. Reduced handling prowess, tracking problems, “mushy” feeling steering/front end and premature tire wear are all symptomatic to worn out suspension and engine bushings.

    Next in the list, I am also in bad need of new tires and quite possibly I am also looking at replacing the clutch, both of which I’d like to get done next month. As another poster said, it is so worth it keeping these cars well maintained and still beats a new car payment on a vehicle with full factory warranty.

    The key to happy post-warranty ownership has been pre-emptive maintenance and having an excellent independent shop that knows MINIs (and BMWs) inside out.

    My wife drives a R55 ’08 Clubman S auto. Great car but I like my R53 S better. Looks and feels more “MINI” to me.

    For those of you with small children and do not drive your MINis frequently.. Shame on you! My two boys (Ages 5 & 2) ride in my R53 all the time and love it. MINIs have been the only cars they have ridden ever since coming home from the hospital. Now they both ride front facing and the 5 year old already sits by himself and buckles up himself. Placing the 2 year old is really easy and comfortable in the MINI. In these cars you can almost stand in when inside. I find most 4 door sedans and SUVs to be harder to place children in the back seat. You have to bend in way more.

    Just my humble opinion of course!

    Long live the R53 and the passion that made it possible (That torch is sadly extinct at MINI today). Frank Sthepenson designed a masterpiece, a car that refuses to age and wants to be forever young.

  • DC

    I have a ’10 JCW Clubman and I love it, but at times I still miss my R50. It just can’t match the R50/53 in terms of road feel.  I’ve been tempted to get an R53 (or maybe find a GP) and reading an article like this only pushes me further in that direction…

  • Krossgordon

    Funny, we are a family of four with a CR-V and an R50 combo as well. Consider the Honda the family truckster, and the kids of course prefer “fun” trips in the MINI

  • Makar

    Fantastic! My R53 has the same color, and currently staying in a workshop for some paint repair. I’m also behind a wheel of Honda, but even more boring – it’s a Pilot, so can’t wait to see my boy again! Great-great-great feeling to see your MINI again after a long break!

  • SYCO R53

    Yay for the R53!  Just did a service today and overall inspection and had to replace those (labor intensive) front lower control arm bushings.  Do it!  You’ll be glad you did.  Nice and buttoned down again.