Google ‘second-generation Mini’ and the very first suggestion is ‘problems’. Look further and you’ll discover something called the ‘death rattle’. It all sounds rather ominous, but what’s the truth?
The second-gen, ‘R56’ Mini appeared in November 2006. Though it looked similar to the first ‘new Mini’, in fact it was significantly larger and every panel was new. As was what lay beneath, including revamped rear suspension, run-flat tyres and electric power steering. There was also an all-new engine, shared with the Peugeot/Citroën group though engineered by BMW and built in the UK.
Which one to buy?
Options included an auto gearbox and a Sport package featuring uprated springs, dampers and anti-roll bars. DSC was standard, as was a Sport button to sharpen the responses of the throttle and add weight to the electric power steering.
Budget aside, the real question is how much performance do you want? For the Cooper S, the turbocharged engine delivered a potent 173bhp (compared with the outgoing car’s 168bhp) and 177lb ft all the way from 1600 to 5000rpm, with an overboost function adding an extra 15lb ft under hard acceleration, bringing the total to a very punchy 192lb ft. This translated to 0-62mph in 7.1sec and a top speed of 140mph. (In 2010 power rose to 181bhp, giving 0-62 in 7.0sec and 142mph.)
In 2008 BMW launched the John Cooper Works Challenge – a purpose-built race car, from its plumbed-in fire extinguisher to its Dunlop racing slicks – and towards the end of that year came the JCW road car. It was a Cooper S with extra boost pressure (208bhp and 206lb ft on overboost), a low-back-pressure exhaust, stiffer suspension, 17in alloys, Brembo brakes, and DSC, DTC (Dynamic Traction Control) and EDLC (Electronic Differential Lock Control). All had a bespoke six-speed Getrag manual ’box and BMW claimed 0-62mph in 6.5sec and 148mph.
Impressive stats, and we loved the way it drove, too. But then came the first reports of engine problems. So how do you find a good Cooper S or JCW, and how do you keep it that way? Read on.
Performance and specs
Engine 1598cc, turbocharged in-line four-cylinder
Power 173bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 192lb ft @ 1700-4500rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Max speed 140mph
Fuel consumption 42mpg
Price when new £15,995
Insurance group 32
Dimensions and weight
Kerb weight 1130 kg
• The biggest concern, bar none, is the so-called engine death rattle. By no means all but a significant number of engines are affected. These are noisy, ‘tappety’ engines at the best of times (blame direct injection), but the so-called death rattle when starting from cold is unmistakeable.
• It’s the sound of the timing chain thrashing around, and if you don’t fix it you risk valves hitting pistons.
• The cause is usually a low oil level. With insufficient oil pressure to activate the tensioner at start-up, the chain rattles and eventually stretches, while the plastic guide-rails get worn or broken, making the situation worse.
• The death rattle can happen as early as 25,000 miles. Some people replace only the tensioner, but if the rattle has been going on for some time, it’s recommended to replace the whole set: chain, tensioner and guides (£550-600 fitted by a specialist).
• So, with any R56 engine it’s essential the oil level is checked regularly. BMW itself says using up to a litre every 1000 miles is not exceptional, so if you’re buying privately, quiz the owner about how often they check the oil.
• Many engines also suffer carboning-up of the inlet valves (another downside of direct injection) causing lumpy running. Again, not all get it, and some sooner than others. The solution is decoking by walnut-shell blasting (c£250).
• The high-pressure fuel pumps are another weak spot, especially when cold (c£200 to replace).
• The gearboxes are robust, but clutches wear quickly. Some cars cover as little as 25,000 miles (c£600). If the pedal is very stiff or biting right at the top, it’s on the way out.
• Front wishbone bushes wear, particularly if the larger wheels and brakes are fitted. They tend to go after 40,000-50,000 miles. A lot of owners tend to fit poly bushes; around £300 all-in. Tramlining is a clue something is amiss, but check for excess movement on a ramp.
• Check the brake pipes – It’s not unusual to see them rusting badly on some early cars and it’s several hours’ labour to replace them.
• Panoramic sunroofs sometimes stick in their runners, especially in hot weather. Otherwise there are no particular issues, but check all the toys are working.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
• mini2.com - forums, advice, etc
• minitorque.com - forums, advice, etc
• 1320.co.uk - specialist, tuning, etc
• minitechessex.co.uk - specialist
Summary and prices
Cooper Ss start at around £5.5k for a private sale with average to high miles. £6k gets a high-mileage car from a dealer. £7k gives you a choice of literally dozens of ’07 and ’08 cars with average miles, full service histories and often only a couple of owners. Stretch another grand and you’re into one-owner and/or low-milers. Also, the first ’09/’10 cars start around £8k. £10k buys the best ’09/’10 cars with low miles and all the right kit (Chili pack, etc) and is the entry point for higher-mileage JCWs. £12k-13k, meanwhile, buys a ’09/’10 JCW with low to average miles.
Words: Peter Tomalin