BMW's baby Mini Cooper S goes up against the Motor City's Ford SVT Focus. By Kelly Stennick Date Posted 08-26-2003 A year ago we conducted a sport hatchback comparison test to determine which pint-sized, yet powerful, hatchback vehicle reigned supreme. Our only disappointment came from the fact that we couldn't get our hands on a Mini Cooper at the time to add as a fourth participant. Anticipating numerous future testing opportunities with the all-new, all-cute Cooper S, we wanted to make sure we weren't let down a second time, so instead of counting on manufacturer-supplied test cars this time around, we bought our own Cooper S. For this year's sporty three-door hatchback test, our contenders were determined by a couple of simple rules. First, the winner of our 2002 Sport Hatchbacks Comparison Test, the Ford SVT Focus, was invited back to defend its title. Second, only models that have been fully redesigned or received significant updates since the last test could participate this time around. When we ran through the list of qualifying vehicles, we realized there was only one — the previously elusive Mini Cooper S. In addition to our real-world testing on local surface streets, freeways and the occasional twisty canyon road, we also took the SVT Focus and Cooper S out for some track time at Willow Springs International Motorsports Park, taking advantage of the 1.5-mile Streets of Willow road course. While lathering up with several tubes of 50-SPF sunblock, our editorial test team wondered, "Will the Mini prevail this time around?" Only last year we loved the SVT Focus best of all. Will we remain loyal to the Focus, or will cuteness win us over? Read on to see which of these sporty hatchbacks our editors would most like to park in their own garages. ----- Second Place - 2002 Mini Cooper S Not many cars in the sporty hatchback class have made their mark on the segment quite like the Mini Cooper. The arrival of the 2002 Cooper was a moment that Mini enthusiasts had waited for since 1967, when the original British-built cutie was removed from the American car market due to tightening U.S. emissions standards. We've been in love with the Mini since its return last spring, and while we've reviewed it independently several times, our sporty hatchback comparison test forced us to put aside our Mini mania and compare the Cooper S directly to a competing vehicle — the SVT Focus, a car only last year we deemed number one in its class. We had hoped to use Mini's latest performance-tuned, 200-horsepower, John Cooper Works Edition Cooper S instead of our stock Cooper S, but the folks at Mini couldn't provide us with a test vehicle. As the Cooper S has been part of our long-term fleet for the past year, we've become intimately familiar with the car. Our car is fitted with a sport package that consists of stability control, sport seats, front foglamps, a rear spoiler, 17-inch wheels and run-flat tires and xenon headlights. Those options bring our car up from its base price of $19,850, to a total MSRP of $21,500. While the standard Mini Cooper gets a 1.6-liter engine which produces just 115 horsepower, the performance-enhanced Cooper S runs on a supercharged version of that engine that produces 163 hp at 6,000 rpm and 155 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. We were pleased with the Cooper's smooth performance once the revs started to climb, but found the petite coupe short on low-end torque, and therefore a little weak off the line and a bit soft when exiting turns. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, and it received high marks with a few caveats. One editor complained that the clutch was especially touchy when launching from a complete stop and that it felt a bit notchy throughout the whole shift pattern. Another editor logged a more optimistic opinion saying that the Cooper S' gearbox produced a more positive feel after each shift was completed — more so than the SVT Focus' gearbox. On the handling course, the Mini had the opportunity to really showcase its talents. Although both hatchbacks recorded exactly the same quarter-mile time, with the Cooper S crossing the finish line at 85 mph and the Focus at 84 mph, the Mini accomplished its lap on the road course 1.5 seconds quicker than the Ford — a seemingly minute difference in the real world, but several car lengths on a racetrack. The Mini's super-stiff sport suspension may be a bit uncomfortable for everyday driving, but it sure adds to the Mini's racecar feel, making it feel right at home on the track. The tight suspension keeps the car glued to the road. Combined with agile, quick steering, the Cooper S was very feisty and go-kartlike. We did experience serious understeer when the car was pushed hard through the corners, forcing us to use the emergency brake to counter the action, but overall it did well at the track. With standard four-wheel disc antilock brakes and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), the Mini, like the Ford, turned in outstanding braking distances, stopping from 60 to 0 mph in just over 114 feet. Our test driver noted that the Coop benefited from a stiff, progressive brake pedal and minimal ABS noise and vibration. As distinctive as the Cooper S looks on the outside, some might argue that the interior is even more unique. The design, materials and gauge layout are more than unconventional, they're downright funky. This is certainly an amusing car to drive, and the trendy cabin only adds to the fun factor. The extra-large speedometer is placed in the middle of the dash, while the tachometer sits solo over the two-spoke leather steering wheel. The one-touch, power-down window controls are part of a row of silver toggle switches across the center stack, with the power four-door lock and the shut-off switch alongside of them. There's an amazing mix of materials used, including large plastic trim pieces that aim to replicate brushed aluminum. The Mini has a standard six-speaker stereo with CD player. While serviceable enough, the head unit's small control buttons and lack of tuning knob made it less user-friendly than the Ford's. Additionally, you can't get an in-dash changer as an option (a trunk-mounted changer is a dealer-installed option). Climb into the front seats and you'll find them nicely sculpted out of soft leatherette (vinyl made to look like leather). The cushioning seems sufficient at first, but after being beat up for many miles by the Mini's stiff suspension and hard run-flat tires, it no longer seems adequate. The sport seats have height adjustment for both driver and passenger, but the adjustment levers feel cheap. The Mini's rear seat is surprisingly roomy for such a compact car, but not an area in which you'd want to stow your best friend or spouse for more than a few quick miles. Stashing kids in the back is certainly easier, but anyone over 10 may find something to complain about, especially if full-size front-seat occupants have their seats positioned all the way back. Hiproom in the two-passenger bench seat is just wide enough to accommodate this narrow writer who, at 5 feet 7 inches, also complained about the rear armrests being too high. With this small of a car, one wouldn't expect the armrests to be placed at Jolly Green Giant height. Obviously, this car is meant for buzzing around town, as there is barely enough room in the rear cargo area to stow a weekend's worth of luggage for two. There's just 5.3 cubic feet of cargo space, unless you fold the 50/50-split rear seats in an effort to utilize every inch of the Mini's maximum 24 cubic feet of capacity. As with many small cars, the interior is designed first and foremost for passenger space, with interior storage compartments relegated to a distant second place. The Cooper S is no exception. If you need to hide a cell phone from plain view, your only option is the glovebox, or possibly one of the small door bins. One benefit is that the glovebox is air conditioned, in case you decide to store quasi-perishables, such as a makeup bag loaded with extra heat-sensitive lip gloss, or a new tray of Dairy Milk chocolates. A second-place finish in this two-car comparison certainly doesn't constitute a major loss in our opinion. But alongside the roominess and simple ergonomics that the SVT Focus offers, it's hard for us to overlook the Cooper S' lack of storage capacity and quirky features. That being said, Mini Coopers continue to fly off the dealer lots, and we believe that our minor criticisms of the Cooper S when compared to the SVT Focus won't allow the Mini sales team to take any vacation time. The Mini is still a hot car that people want to drive, as well as simply talk about. Just ask us — we're experts in both areas. ----- Ups: Unique styling, go-kartlike handling, many standard features for low price. Downs: Limited cargo space, rough ride for everyday driving, questionable reliability. The Bottom Line: The Mini Cooper S provides great driving fun, but when it comes to everyday drivability it can't match the Focus. MSRP of Test Vehicle: $21,500 (including destination charge) ----- Second Opinions: Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says: We were hoping for a John Cooper Works Edition Cooper S for this comparison test, but the Mini folks couldn't oblige. Instead, we pitted our long-term Electric Blue Cooper S against the SVT Focus hatchback, the car that won our last Sport Hatchback Comparison Test. As an avowed fan of the Mini, I feel somewhat traitorous saying this, but the SVT is still a better choice for the person seeking maximum bang for the buck. The Mini was fun at the track, but its massive understeer tendency forced me into regular use of the handbrake (a first for me on the tight Streets of Willow road course). It also lacked a limited-slip differential — as did the SVT Focus. However, the Focus' suspension tuning allowed the inside wheel to maintain contact with the pavement when powering out of corners. The Mini's just went up in smoke. Add in the Mini's inherent lack of low-end torque and you're left with a car that has to be hammered on for maximum performance. Acceleration and braking figures were essentially equal to the SVT, with the Mini having a slight advantage in lap times. Get away from the track and the Cooper S suspension, especially when equipped with the Sport Package and 17-inch wheels and run-flat tires, makes you suffer every road blemish and imperfection. The Mini beats the Focus on available premium features and, in my opinion, exterior styling. But neither of those issues makes up for the higher price, lower ride quality and cramped rear seat. Overall performance is basically a wash between the two, so the Focus SVT retains its crown in the sporty hatchback arena. Road Test Editor John DiPietro says: I have to admit I was reluctantly taken by the Mini. I don't have a high tolerance for hype, whether related to entertainers, sports, music, fashion or cars. And the Mini has had a maximum amount of hype, recently given a second wind via the movie The Italian Job. But when all that is swept aside and the Cooper is simply driven, it's easy to see why this car with the goofy grin and big eyes elicits the same expression from its pilot after a run through some favorite stretch of ribbonlike asphalt. This is one of the best-handling cars I've ever driven; it's easy to place, very communicative, well-balanced and has astounding grip. On a tight road, the Mini can easily hang with (or even leave a few turns back) many "real" sports cars. Yes, the ride is stiff, but it really doesn't bother me much, as the roads around here in SoCal are not nearly as brutal as those back east. Of course, if I still lived in Boston, I might be singing a different tune. Although some drivers feel that there's not enough power down low, I don't agree. The Cooper S feels zippy around town and when you spin the tach past 3,500 rpm, the supercharger makes its presence known with a swell of power that belies the motor's mere 1.6 liters of displacement. And in terms of gearshift feel, the Mini narrowly beats the Focus; the Cooper's tranny has a more positive feel when clicking into each gear than does the SVT's stick. When asked which car I would choose, I have to admit I was on the fence for a long time — both of these little buggers are a lot of fun, and yes, the more comfortable Focus would make a better daily driver. But for me, the edgy Cooper S has greater appeal by virtue of its more engaging, albeit more demanding, personality. Just like some people I know…. ----- First Place - 2003 Ford SVT Focus Last year we chose the Ford SVT Focus as our favorite sport hatchback, and this year we are pleased to stand behind our first choice. The Mini Cooper S may take the SVT Focus in the cute department, but when push comes to shove, the Focus offers a total package that's hard to beat. As in our previous comparison test, the SVT Focus wowed us by excelling in numerous categories. It pulled impressive numbers on the track and throughout instrumented testing, plus provided a comfortable, intuitive cabin during real-world driving. And it still boasted a price tag of just $20,255 (including destination). Our SVT Focus test car carried only minimal optional equipment. It featured the Audiophile package which included an in-dash six-disc CD changer over the standard single CD unit, plus high-intensity discharge lights. The rest of our fun came straight off the SVT Focus' standard equipment list. The SVT (Special Vehicle Team) version of the Focus is based on the lesser Focus ZX3 hatchback. Compared to the ZX3 model, the SVT Focus gets a Cosworth-developed 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine; six-speed transmission; sport-tuned suspension; larger brakes; 17-inch wheels and tires; and sporty interior and exterior treatments. In contrast to a regular Focus ZX3 hatchback's engine, the SVT's power plant features stronger connecting rods, lightweight pistons (along with a higher compression ratio) and a freer-flowing cylinder head. The intake camshaft timing is variable, which helps to improve low-end torque, and a dual-stage intake manifold bolsters high-end power. The result is 170 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 145 pound-feet of torque at 5,500 rpm, with redline set at 7,200 rpm, and a smooth, linear delivery of power that provides plenty of driving excitement at the push of a pedal. The six-speed manual transmission exhibited easy action once we got used to the feel of the gearbox. One editor noted that the shifter wasn't as positive as he would have liked, with a bit of a rubbery feel, but missed shifts were rare. Both the Ford and the Mini turned in fine performances on the track, with the Mini having a slight edge in straight acceleration and lap times. Our resident test driver noted that the Focus was very predictable, with a wide power band that made it easy to drive fast. Experienced drivers can coax even a quicker time from the Cooper S, but since most drivers don't qualify as professionals, we're confident that neither car will disappoint. We readily acknowledge that the sport-tuned suspension is just that, tuned for sport, and therefore we didn't deduct points for the stiff ride over bumps. Pitting the SVT Focus' ride quality against the Cooper S' ride that we've always admitted was a bit harsh, we used the very technical, highly scientific ponytail test to determine which ride would be most easily tolerated during everyday driving. The ponytail test is built around one small, ponytail-wearing three-year-old strapped into her rear-seat-anchored safety chair. As test driver and young co-pilot navigate a predetermined route of freeway and surface street mileage, the test driver looks in the rearview mirror, gauging how high the little blonde ponytails bounce over each bump. While both the Ford and Mini sent the little locks a-jumping, the toddler's head appeared to be less bobblelike while riding in the Focus. For the most part, we found the Focus' steering to be sharp and crisp with good feedback and weighting. After comparing notes, though, two editors found that they had experienced the same loss of power assist when the car was stopped and the wheel was turned sharply. Both times this happened during tight parking situations. When a car is built for driving excitement, as the SVT Focus is, stopping power is as important, if not more so, than acceleration prowess. The Focus didn't disappoint. With larger brakes than the ZX3 (and rear discs in place of the base hatchback's drums), the SVT version was able to reach a complete halt in just 115 feet during a 60-to-0-mph brake test. While racing over hill and dale, we forced ourselves to slow down and put aside the driving performance of the SVT Focus in order to consider the interior as well. Although opinions about the unique design of the asymmetrical dash differ vastly from editor to editor, all seemed to conclude that the white-faced gauges were attractive and easy to read. Same for the climate control operation — three big, easy-to-reach and -operate dials received high marks for their self-evident simplicity. The audio system, much like the rest of the Focus' interior features, was logically placed and intuitive with large preset buttons and dial volume control. The only drawback is that there's no tuning knob, rather just a seek button. After punching the button numerous times to travel quickly from one end of the radio dial to the other, we realized just how convenient it is to have a simple knob to spin. Resting our bums in the front seats was a pleasurable experience. We appreciated the firm, well-shaped seats with good bolstering and adjustable lumbar, with our only complaint being the hard-to-reach twist-knob for seat back recline. Rear-seat occupants were nearly as lucky, since the Focus is more spacious than many small hatchbacks, with about six and a half inches more legroom than the Cooper S, as well as generous padding and under thigh support. Two rear passengers also had ample hiproom, even with a bulky child seat installed between them (we did have to remove and stow the middle headrest in order to anchor the child seat flush against the rear seat back). During our outing to the high-desert raceway for performance testing, we loaded a large ice chest, two beach chairs and plenty of unhealthy snack items, which the Focus' deep, rear cargo area swallowed up eagerly. We used the sturdy cargo cover to hide our wares from our fellow editors until we decided we were ready to share. The rear hatch door was easy to slam shut, but could only be opened using the key fob or a dash-mounted button since there was no release handle on the hatch itself, even if the car was already unlocked. While the main cargo area was vast, Ford had obviously decided against adding many storage compartments in the interior. With no center console, one must resort to the glovebox, door bins or a small drawer at the bottom of the center stack in which to hide items such as cell phones, garage door openers and extra tubes of toddler-bribing Mini M&Ms. Cupholders, two in the front and two in the rear are small, and the front holders would not accommodate a tallish bottle due to interference from the bottom of the dash. So you want an inexpensive, fun-to-drive passenger and cargo-carrying vehicle? For a second year in a row, we heartily recommend the SVT Focus. While we enjoyed our time in the Cooper S immensely, its lack of cargo capacity and bumpy ride would be a challenge during routine jaunts about town. The SVT Focus, with its dynamic handling characteristics and roomy interior, should make your everyday commute and aggressive driving outings a real pleasure. ----- Ups: Impressive powertrain, low price, roomy interior. Downs: Past reliability issues, minor interior design idiosyncrasies. The Bottom Line: The best all-around sport hatchback you can find, and for less than $20,000 to boot. MSRP of Test Vehicle: $20,255 (including destination charge) ----- Second Opinions: Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says: It's not uncommon to see yesterday's benchmark performance car transformed into today's "has-been wannabe." Time waits for no man, or machine, especially in the world of cutting-edge high performance. It is for this reason that the SVT Focus' excellent showing during this comparison test is all the more impressive. Last year it soundly trounced the Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S, and this year it once again proved fully capable when confronted by the current "it car" that everyone seems to love: BMW's Mini Cooper S. The Focus' advantage comes not from superior performance, but from a total package that provides enthusiast fun on the weekends and real-world driving pleasure for the daily grind. The suspension soaks up public road craters with ease while not feeling floppy on the smooth tarmac of the Streets of Willow racetrack. The engine's wide power band and refined nature combines with a fluid six-speed shifter to make hot lapping or canyon carving a thrill, and the interior dimensions translate into realistic accommodations for four full-size adults. Even the dashboard is more functional. The white-faced instruments feature a speedo properly located in front of the driver and an oil pressure and oil temperature gauge (we don't know of another sub-$20,000 car that offers this level or performance-oriented instrumentation). I'd like just a bit more front legroom, and I'm fully aware of the Focus' excessive recall history. However, I'll put up with a few trips to the dealer for some minor updates if every moment spent behind the wheel is a pure delight (with no unwanted side effects due to its performance-car nature). This Ford continues to be an amazing smile-per-mile bargain. Road Test Editor John DiPietro says: Many things about the Focus SVT make it very likable. It's got a great chassis that provides nimble, communicative handling along with a supple ride that won't have you thinking you had to make a compromise for entertainment while unraveling a winding road. Comfortable seats, simple controls and room in back for two adults round out the SVT's endearing qualities. I was rather ambivalent about the powertrain; although a smooth operator, the hopped-up 2.0-liter four left me wanting a bit more; it just didn't feel as eager as I expected. Part of that sensation was probably due to the "heavy flywheel" effect — it seemed that the engine didn't spin up or down as quickly as that in the Mini. Since the Focus' debut, I've warmed up to the exterior styling (of the three-door) and the SVT tweaks (such as the aggressive front fascia and 17-inch wheels) make it plain that this isn't just a commuter's Focus. The interior is a mixed bag; excellent seats and instruments but a hideous dash. All things considered, the SVT makes more sense than the Mini; it provides nearly identical handling prowess along with a better ride and more room for those assigned to the rear seats. But I'll admit I'm not always the most sensible guy, so I still have to go with the Mini for its supercharged fun factor. ----- Conclusion After taking off our rose-colored glasses, and considering our long-term Mini Cooper S alongside the Ford SVT Focus, do we still adore our Mini? Well, sure. We aren't so fickled as to allow our editorial pendulum to swing from love to hate after a week's worth of competitive testing. But if asked by a roving man on the street which car is our recommendation in the sporty hatchback category, we would have to put our long-term Mini relationship aside, and admit that the SVT Focus offers greater cargo capacity, a softer ride and more intuitive interior features. In short, the Ford provides a better real-world experience, and in this case, does so for $1,245 less.