Having owned a MINI Cooper for the last three years I often found myself rolling my eyes at such terms as “the lowly Cooper” or “the base model”. And as someone who has driven every model of MINI released in the US many many times over the past three years, I can also say that neither of those terms accurately describes the Cooper. In fact I’ve found, in both the initial 2002 spec and the improved 2005 model, the Cooper has its own personality that is quite unique from the Cooper S.

For this review I’m not going to spend time on all areas where the Cooper was improved for the 2005 model year. If you’d like some background information on the changes, I’d recommend checking out this previous MotoringFile story [ 2005 MINI Changes ]. I’m also not going to spend much time on the convertible aspect of this car as that was covered in great detail with our MCSc review. Instead I would like to focus on a few key improvements that have changed the performance characteristics of the car slightly.

For starters, MINI improved the Cooper by fitting a new standard 5-speed Getrag gearbox. For those keeping score at home, Getrag is also the manufacturer of the much admired MCS 6-speed manual. This new Cooper manual transmission shares many of the better characteristics of that unit. First off the new manual gives the 2005 Cooper improved gearing for more mid-range power. It’s not massive but it is subtly apparent if you’re familiar with the previous version of the car. Secondly the stick has a nice notchy feedback to it that is both satisfying and reafirming. The previous Midlands unit, while butter smooth after an initial break-in, never possessed the tactile feeling needed for completely confident shifts. This was especially the case during aggressive driving. That said, the 5-speed Getrag is let down by a clutch that lacks some feedback and is generally a bit too light. This is one area the ’02-’04 model excelled in. While it may feel familiar to MCS owners, it could be considered a step back for those moving from previous Coopers.

Despite the addition of improved gearing and a touch more torque, acceleration is certainly not one of the strong points of the car. That said, if you know how to row the gears, the 2005 Cooper (like those that came before it) certainly feels fast enough around town. The improved gearing gives the car a bit more bite off the line. In fact, it would probably give an ’02-’04 MCS all it could handle in a tight course that didn’t let you to go beyond 30 mph. It’s the acceleration from 45-75mph where the old iron block 4-cylinder runs out of breath, something improved gearing can do little to alleviate.

Handling (with the $550 optional Sports Suspension +) is equivalent to the MCS and technically should be a bit better without that extra weight from the supercharger and intercooler sitting over the front axle. (It’s worth noting however, that SS+ is not available on the convertible.) That said, equipped with the standard 15″ wheels and tires, the car does suffer from limited grip in “spirited driving”. This is especially noticeable in rainy conditions as I found out on one of Chicago’s few roundabouts during a light April mist. I’d highly recommend speccing up the car to at least 16″ wheels and then unceremoniously dumping the runflats in favor of some softer, stickier tires. Of course one nice thing to remember about the Cooper… it has a spare.

Another nice thing about the Cooper is its rather graceful lines at the front of the car. This is one area where the MCS has a hard time competing. Of course, some might say that there’s a nice trade-off under that bulging hood. Nevertheless, this current Cooper (and One outside the US) will be the last MINI to see such a sleek, graceful bonnet. European pedestrian crash regulations will see to that in 2007.

Naturally the convertible top adds a bit of style while sacrificing some performance. This is especially evident in the Cooper. However, those wanting open top motoring will find the MINI’s new convertible top is quite a successful piece of engineering. It’s dual mode operation allows this car to be much more at home in not so perfect weather. There are a few drawbacks of course. Limits visibilty with the top up or down is something one has to get used to in the Cooper Convertible. And then there’s the fact that top (and its related structural bracing) add well over 200lbs which cause this car to suffer a bit more body roll than is seen with the typical MINI.

For those wanting to know more about the convertible aspect of the car, you may want to check out the previous MINI Cooper S Convertible review posted last November.

In the end, one has to look at the 2005 Cooper and Cooper Convertible as one of the best buys on the market. Yes, it only has 115hp. Yes, it does 0-60 in 8+ seconds. But it’s a $17,000 car (21k for the MCc) that has the chassis dynamics (and not to mention fun factor) of almost nothing else on the market. It comes standard (or has available) with almost all the technology built into the MCS, not to mention quite a bit from BMWs costing over twice as much. And while its performance may not be earth-shattering, it always seems to be quick enough around town and just wicked in the twisties. All that and it regularly gets over 30mpg in day to day driving.

In fact, the more I think about it, the only thing that could come close to matching its value is the MINI Cooper S.