Why the Mini Cooper will supercharge your 2020

Forget the familiar styling and ignore the bonnet badge – the supercharged R53 Cooper S is a Mini like no other.

Words Nathan Chadwick Photography Jordan Butters

Mini Cooper (R53)

Engine 1598cc, 4-cyl, SOHC Transmission FWD, 6-speed manual Power 160bhp@6000rpm

Torque 155lb-ft@4000rpm Weight 1140kg 0-60mph 4.8sec, Top speed 126mph Economy 33mpg


MW’s Mini sub-brand is one of the great successes of 21st century motoring. The six bodystyles each blend upmarket aspersions and everyman likeability with cheeky charm. Like the Fiat 500 it inspired, the Anglo-German hatch is an enduring hit. Clap eyes on a well-maintained R53 Mini Cooper S today and it’s still enticing.

The white roof sears against the sky and the shoulder line rises towards the rear of the car – a clever conceit that summons squatting aggression. Edge closer and there’s detailing for days: a half-moon hoop of a rear spoiler, chunky black trim which emphasises swollen wheelarches and deeper bumpers, splayed racing stripes either side of the bonnet scoop, and a pair of centre-exit exhausts.

Time to act quickly, before the unique sound of this supercharged Mini is drowned out by the sound of buyers stampeding to buy one while prices are still ridiculously low... Remarkably, when the Mini ACV 30 concept that took the first steps towards re-imagining the Mini for the modern age was unveiled in 1997, Longbridge was still producing original Minis. With a history which snaked back to 1959, the final retro rapscallions boasted multi-point injection and standard-fit airbag but it wasn’t enough – it was too long in the tooth. The new millennium demanded a fresh Mini.

Enjoying the read? Why not buy a full issue of Modern Classics magazine! Just £4.60!


BMW Group responded with a new sub-brand: Mini. The venture sprung to life in summer 2001, offering the three-door R50 hatchback in two naturally-aspirated specifications: the One and the Cooper. Both models use the same 1.6-litre engine, five-speed manual and bodyshell, but the Cooper benefits from a retuned ECU and standard alloy wheels. Neither were fast but both were fun and, for a few months, that was enough. Then Mini unveiled its first hot hatch.

Introduced in 2002, the R53 Cooper S took the familiar concept and made it a lot faster. Key changes include a six-speed Getrag manual gearbox, firmer suspension, better brakes, stronger engine internals and an Eaton M45 supercharger. Peak power rose to 163bhp, before a minor 2004 facelift liberated an extra nine horses. A convertible appeared the same year, and remained available until 2008, but the Cooper S hatchback was dead and gone by 2006. Its replacement added power at the expense of individuality – the second generation R56 Cooper S gets its go from a conventional turbocharger.Twist the key and it’s clear the latter was a mistake.

The R53 fires to a raucous 1000rpm idle that’s all bouncing, gravelly exhaust noise, but blip the throttle and it’s overlaid with a cutting, steady scream. Distinctive, reactive and so much cooler than a turbo, that’ll be the supercharger. Fizzing away in the engine bay, it implores you to trigger it again and again – but there’s plenty more to take in before we pull away. The colossal speedo grabs you first – a huge white circle in the centre of a rolling dashboard, yet it’s only one part of the stylised interior. Wherever you look, the R53’s insides are rounded and retro. Best of all, the wiper and indicator controls are tiny Zeppelins, connected to the car with spindly arms and perfectly matched to the dials’ Jet Age typeface. Only the cassette deck suggests that this car is 16 years old.

Get Modern Classics magazine delivered to your door every month with a subscription!


As charming as the visuals are, don’t be fooled. You’re in for a raucous ride… literally. The R53's ride transmits every road imperfection up through your spine until you give up and start consciously avoiding manhole covers. Much of the blame can be attributed to this car’s combination of optional 17in ‘S-Spoke’ alloys and standard-fit runflat rubber. It’s a different story when you put the city behind you and give in to the this Mini’s insistent urge to go and play.

At this point the Cooper S rushes to reward you. Sitting close to the floor and squished in place by the standard sports seats, there’s a frantic feeling of speed that starts the second you pass 3000rpm and runs all the way past 6500rpm to the redline. Crests and cambers tug the wheel between your wrists, demanding twitching corrections with every buck and twist.

The ride remains bruisingly boisterous, but the chassis itself is wide, low and on your side. Only the absence of feedback from the brakes threatens to wreck the party mood. Rollicking across the Peak District, the R53 evokes the spirit of the original 1965 Mini Cooper S and makes the later R56 look a little… sensible.

Hook into a turn and the R53 Cooper S continues to delight. The hydraulically-assisted steering rack is staggeringly sharp, swivelling the car with each input before you’ve finished moving your hands and, though feel is in short supply, there’s a welcome swell of weight as the car takes its line.

Enjoying the read? Why not buy a full issue of Modern Classics magazine! Just £4.60!


Push a little harder and even the solid suspension makes sense, spidering messages up through the seat and faithfully reporting back on how much each axle has left to give. Keep the four-pot spinning above 4000rpm and you’re in for a moment of Mini magic, with a hit of torque snapping the car straight to the supercharger’s siren call.

Hinge the floor-mounted throttle to the deck and the R53 pushes harder still, the drive-by-wire doing little to dampen the supercharger’s razor response. Through the midrange, no naturally-aspirated competitor could hope to keep up. Rise to the last 500 revs and the exhaust note shifts to a serrated scream, mingling with the supercharger to buzz through the car until you pop the clutch. The gearshift is a stunner – short and filled with liquid feedback which signposts the next gear for quick, accurate changes to throw you right back into the action.

Brimmed with sounds and sensations, the Cooper S isn’t about sophistication. Buy a Mark V Golf GTI if you want that. Given a succession of corners and a chance to charge at them, the R53 is exhaust-popping, rev-matching, wheel-tugging, line-hugging, supercharger-squealing fun.

Get Modern Classics magazine delivered to your door every month with a subscription!


Modern Classics view

Early 2000s hot hatches still sit in a position of market flux – they’ve lost the lustre of the shiny-new, yet are still too young to be considered bona fide hot hatches. As a result, there are bargains to be had. Even the best R53 on the market, complete with a dealer-fit assortment of John Cooper Works parts and finished in a desirable hue, will find a new home for less than £5000, while a rough and rusty project should only cost three figures. Somewhere in the middle, £2500 easily secures a usable, presentable Cooper S.

If that’s not enough to send you on a Mini adventure, there are also signs that the current buyer apathy to 2000s front-drivers is beginning to lift. Just look at the EP3 Honda Civic Type R and Renaultsport Clio 172 and 182. After a sordid period where many examples were wrecked or ruined, interest in standard survivors has rocketed in recent months. Today, both models outstrip the value of their less loved successors. R56 owners should be looking worried.

With its eager steering and uniquely-aspirated engine, the R53 Cooper S can’t be judged on first glance. The styling might be dip-dye, but the drive is do or die. Up mountains, down valleys, over crests and round twisting turns, it’s with you all the way. It can’t quite claim the most adept handling in its price range, and it’s a long, long way from the most comfortable thing on four wheels, but it’s an honest hoot on any back road. From the grinning grille to skuh-weeee of the supercharger, the R53 just wants to make you happy.


Enjoying the read? Why not buy a full issue of Modern Classics magazine! Just £4.60!

Lewis Plumb