Going from an early 2002 Cooper to a 2005 Cooper S is dramatic in every way. First off there’s the power. While the biggest difference is in the middle and higher rev range, it’s all around a very noticeable change.. Then there’s the look. While there’s certainly less beauty with the large hood bulge, it’s an overall more aggressive appearance. Finally (and probably one of the biggest changes going from an ’02 to an ’05) there’s the huge improvement in build quality. All these combine to make my 2005 MCS feel like a thoroughly improved car from the ’02 Cooper I came from.

I picked up my new all black Cooper S (full spec here) from David Olenick at Knauz MINI on Friday June 5th. David had called earlier in the day to confirm that the car had just gotten there and Knauz would aim for a Saturday delivery. In the end David out did himself and pushed the car through prep within hours for a late Friday afternoon delivery. Kudos to all involved for making that possible.

The Cooper S was immediately put to work early the next morning with a trip to northern Wisconsin. Highway miles were easy as pie in the MCS with the sixth gear and just the right lumbar support dialed in. However, let me be the first to say that you don’t order 18″ wheels on a MINI to smooth out the highway ride. While it’s not that much worse than the ride most are used to with the S-lites or other 17″ wheel/runflat combos, there is a bit less rubber between you and those midwest frost heaves. It’s even worse going north on Interstate 196 in southwest Michigan. So much so that our 3 series wagon (sport pack, manual, SS exhaust, and ghetto looking MINI shift knob!) has now been drafted into all future Michigan service per my wife.

In the city, the Cooper S is right at home. With the new gearing and LSD the car is like a full-size slingshot just ready to be launched anytime anywhere. It’s also in this environment that the new exhaust note really becomes a great feature. While it could be a bit deeper, it’s still a great way to let folks know that this isn’t just some cute car.

The JCW 18″ wheels add to the effect. I’ve really grown accustom to knife edge handling that the larger wheels deliver. While you give up a small amount of comfort, there’s more on edge feel and composure compared to my old 17″ wheel tire set-up. They also look massive and do an admirable job of filling out those huge wheel wells that Mr. Stephanson penned. With the combination of the plastic arches and the high belt-line, my Black MCS with JCW wheels has a serious and sporty look about it. There can be no confusion as to the ultimate purpose of this car; cornering.

Unfortunately the end of my first week of ownership came to a crashing halt on a Saturday night when I was hit from behind. While I won’t go over all the details again here (you can read it all here) I can say that the car was fixed quickly and perfectly by Knauz MINI’s body shop. Only 12 hours later I was on my way down to Indianapolis for the USGP weekend.

Again the MCS performed well on the highway cruising at speeds that threatened MINI’s strict break-in procedure. I was also happy to report that after 1000 miles in Chicago’s roughest roads (and after hitting two or three monster potholes) the steering wheel was deadly still at high speeds and the wheels and tires appeared to be in perfect condition. More than can be said for the majority of the F1 field that weekend. That said I still sleep better at night knowing that I have full wheel tire coverage via add-on insurance offered by the dealer. Typically I wouldn’t recommend such a measure. However when the combo of the two approaching (actually surpassing it with the R95’s and R90s) 2k, it’s probably not a bad idea. Of course getting discounts on accessories upon purchase is also not a bad idea either.

So why would I spring for an option that, despite looking good and feeling great, has an obvious (if not over-blown at times) downside? Well to put it bluntly, I love the look and ultimately the on-road feel. They also do a great job at setting the car apart from handful of MINIs seen on a daily basis in and around the area. And as far as I’m concerned that’s the end of the story. After a month I would order them again in a heart-beat. In fact, perhaps the only other wheel I would have considered on the car would have been the 18″ Tecnomagnesio Detroit F1 (ironically something not available in the US). The Dunlop runflats are another story. They’ll probably be un-ceremonially replaced when worn beyond daily summer use. And of course a set of s-lites with all-seasons await winter duty come this November.

The other additions I’ve made to the MCS are really no brainers and are highly recommended:

There have only been a couple of disappointments with the car. For starters the leather/cloth seat covers don’t fit as snugly as I’ve seen most other MINIs (especially on the seat cushion bolsters). While the leather looks a bit better after being broken in, the fit and finish still isn’t ideal. Another is interior lighting on the speedometer (and especially the odometer) that isn’t as uniform as my ’02 Cooper. And finally, like other owners of MCS, I’ve come to know well the cold start idle issue. Of course the good news is that all of these are the type of problems that can be serviced at a good dealer anytime during the first four years or 50,000 miles of the full warranty. Such as it is, I’m certainly not concerned about any of them.

The 2005 MCS features three key improvements that equal one huge difference from all the Cooper S before it. We’ve all heard about it and we all know how well it’s been received. But until you live with the 2005 MCS on a daily basis you don’t realize what a change it is to the character of the car. Suddenly the MCS is a low-end torque machine. You can now easily maintain a healthy loss of traction all the way through first gear with DSC off. Upon moving into second, you announce your arrival with a huge burst of spinning rubber on pavement, the likes of which only a JCW equipped or modified pulley MCS could achieve before the 2005. Better yet, you can just about do all this with DSC on thanks to BMW’s long standing tradition of allowing the driver some fun before the electronic aids come to the rescue. It all makes for an added dimension to the MCS. One that is frankly hard to pass-up as an owner of a previous MINI.

One month, 1500 miles, and a big thumbs up.