Names That Mean Tiny And Big: 2003 Mini Cooper S vs 2002 Nissan Maxima

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Welcome back to another fun-filled week of crappy old cars! Today, we’re playing another silly name game and looking at a Mini and a Maxima. Why? Well, why not? Before we get there though, let’s see how last week wrapped up:

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That’s what I expected, but I didn’t expect the little LeCar to be quite so polarizing. You all seem to really love them, or really hate them. Me, I could have fun with either of those choices, but the Monterey is more to my current tastes, I think.

Today we have some disparity in size as well, as you can see by the two cars’ names. One of them isn’t nearly as small as it used to be, however, and the other never was as big as its name might suggest. You’ll be happy to know that both of today’s entries run and drive, but of course as usual there are some caveats. Let’s take a look.

2003 Mini Cooper S – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: Supercharged 1.6 liter inline 4, 6 speed manual, FWD

Location: Commerce Township, MI

Odometer reading: 101,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

I’ve been a fan of the “new” Mini Cooper ever since it appeared in the US in 2002. I test drove one back then and loved it, but couldn’t quite swing the price. Since then I’ve been watching the used market for them, watching the values drop, and now that they’re in cash-purchase range, I’m interested again. But if this is what $2,500 will get you, maybe I should reconsider. Or wait a little longer.

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This is the Cooper S model, which by all accounts is the one to get if you’re going to get one. It has a supercharged engine and a Getrag six-speed manual, which is much stronger than the Rover-sourced five-speed of the standard Mini Cooper. There was an automatic available too, but the less said about a Mini with an automatic the better.

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So on paper at least, this should be a good deal. It has low miles, and the seller says it runs well. And yet, it looks like every warning light on the dash is lit, it’s somehow missing a taillight, and the whole car has a “ridden hard and put away wet” vibe to it. Not to mention, it’s a Midwest car, so there’s the question of rust; as much as it pains me to realize it, this is now a nearly twenty-year-old car. That’s a lot of winters.

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I have also heard that from a maintenance standpoint these cars are not for the faint of heart. But they are an absolute hoot to drive, and that much should still be true even of an old threadbare one like this. Is the fun to be had worth the potential heartbreak? That’s the eternal question with cars like this, isn’t it?

2002 Nissan Maxima GLE – $2,300

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.5 liter V6, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Bellingham, WA

Odometer reading: 152,000 miles

Runs/drives? Sure does

Nissan’s flagship Maxima is going away next year, another casualty in the automobile market’s War on Sedans. It’s a shame, because there was a time when the Maxima was a well-respected sports sedan, the darling of automotive magazines and drivers alike. Nissan’s sedans in general don’t have the most respectable reuptation these days, but old Maximas like this are really nice cars.

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This 2002 model is powered by Nissan’s ubiquitous VQ35DE engine, which has been stuffed under the hoods of everything from the Altima to the Pathfinder, as well as several Infiniti models. It’s a solid engine with a good reputation. In this comfort-oriented GLE model, it’s backed by a four-speed automatic. Sportier versions of the Maxima could be had with five- or six-speed manuals and some other performance goodies that this one doesn’t have. But this one probably wins in the comfort and ride department.

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The seller says it has had some recent work done and runs well, and it doesn’t have many miles on it. These are reliable cars in general, so there shouldn’t be any issues there. There is some weirdness with the paint on one rear quarter panel and door; I can’t tell if the clearcoat is bad, or if it’s badly-painted repair work, or what, but it sticks out like a sore thumb on a black car.

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The inside looks better, with nice leather seats in good condition. And being the GLE model, this car will have all the bells and whistles on it. At least, all the bells and whistles available twenty years ago, which means standard equipment on base-model cars these days.

So that’s our Monday: a fun but fragile hatchback and frumpy version of a sports sedan. Which one will it be?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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66 Responses

  1. I just said goodbye to my ’02 Maxima GLE automatic after about 19 years of faithful service. A lot of things started going on it recently and the rust was spreading (Canadian climate).
    It was a very comfortable car and fast. Best car I ever owned except for probably my new one (2021 Sonata SEL which I’ve had it less than a week and only driven it once on a short trip so far).

  2. I’ve owned versions of both of these (‘06 Mini S convertible and an ‘02 Maxima SE with manual) and I enjoyed both. The Maxima was dead reliable, pretty quick and luxurious for the time, and overall a great ownership experience. The Mini never left me stranded, but had multiple small problems from random leaks to motor mounts to switches breaking off in my fingers to random trim pieces falling off. Got really good at taking the whole front end off, and even at dropping the front subframe.

    The Mini is the one I regret selling. Put a huge smile on my face every time I drove it. Just don’t let it be your only car.

  3. Never saw the appeal of a sedan when you could have all the utility of a hatch, plus a rear wiper so you can actually see out the back during spitty rain or whatever. Mini, even with all the obvious caveats, is an easy choice. It’s a shame they’re so fragile, but great while they last.

    I won’t miss sedans when they’re gone, but the wagon and hatch-filled future I’ve always dreamed of is going to be a sour CUV reality, so that’s a real monkey’s paw situation. Not unlike the pyrrhic victory of growing up on French House only to see the goddamn Chainsmokers rule the land.

  4. I had a 2003 Maxima (sadly automatic), but it had nice cloth seats and a shitload of underbody rust (Hello, Cleveland!). It only cost 1600 bucks and, just like the 1997 Maxima (that was much better overall) I had prior, it really came alive on the highway. Great cars to go cross-country in, not so great if you don’t like occasionally topping off oil in between changes and getting 20-21mpg. It was perfectly reasonable A-to-B transportation until I replaced it with a much less reliable but more enjoyable BMW.

    Hence, I vote for the trashy Mini. If it runs it will be fun, and it’s such junk that you won’t feel bad experimenting with pick-n-pull parts. Still have a soft spot for old Maximas though. Underrated and pleasant cars, so long as you don’t mind “meh” mileage and keeping an eye on the dipstick.

  5. I had an ’02 Maxima SE back in the day, and it was a Pretty Good Car. Fast and comfortable, and IMO the most handsome generation of Maxima they ever made. Mine had the 4 speed auto, and I really wish I would have held out for the 6 speed stick. The gears in the auto were very obviously compromised to squeeze out the best 0-60 time possible – 1st and 2nd were pretty close ratio, and the 2-3 shift happened just after 60 mph. The 2-3 gear step was *huge*. As a consequence, the car felt really quick at low speeds, but it was (relatively speaking) a dog in the higher gears.
    The ’02 was the first year of the VQ35DE, and I don’t think they quite had cam phaser durability down pat yet. By the time I got rid of mine with 150,000-ish miles on the clock, the engine was feeling worn out, and would clatter on 87 octane when it never did when new. It was also on its second set of half shafts and third set of rotors by then.
    The ABS system was also junk in that car: it scared the daylights out of my wife once when the ABS went into full ‘you’re on slick ice!’ mode in the middle of a sunny summer day, and stole all her brake line pressure. Eventually it quit clicking and threw the ABS light and she was able to stop the car. Changed the wheel speed sensor but it pulled the same shit one more time (but with me driving that time). Fortunately we didn’t hit anything either time. After that we didn’t trust it and just pulled the ABS fuse.
    That didn’t come out as a ringing endorsement. Still, I liked that car when it was younger and everything was right. I wouldn’t mind driving one again.

  6. How is this even a question?! I’ve driven one (1) ‘02 Mini since ‘05. Never been stranded. Everything that can break is well documented, and the community is massive & supportive. Oh, and and the list of cars that are more fun to drive on the road (in real life)? Not a very long list…

    1. Oh you and I should be friends.

      I’m attempting to put an R53 back together after a crash with a full rebuild while adding the common upgrades. I’m banking on it being the best driving experience known to man but good lord is this thing a pain to work on. I sometimes wonder if it’s worth it.

  7. My wife owned two of the fourth generation Maxima and my friend owned a fifth gen. They were so unkillable we sent both of them off to college with teenage girls and they even survived that. If you want reliable, comfortable, and competent transportation, get the Maxima.

    1. except this one is in the mileage territory that expensive things like transmissions and AC systems will need replaced sooner than later, and that whole passenger side appears to have been replaced and painted with single stage black. the Cooper is also a bit more scary, but between the two it at least looks OK from 20 Feet away at 20 miles an hour.

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