Review and photos by Laurance Yap
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What price fun?
In any kind of logical sense, paying almost $42,000 for a John Cooper Works Mini Cooper S seems pretty ridiculous. It’s a tiny little car without much rear seat or trunk space with a bone-jarring ride, a creaky interior and a serious appetite for front tires. It’s almost double the cost of a basic Mini, which in and of itself, is already a pretty entertaining car.
But man, this is the most fun I’ve had in a car for the last several months, if not the whole year.
On top of the basic $30,000 Cooper S, my tester featured the full Works treatment, including a fancy set of double-spoke alloy wheels, retuned suspension, fancy exhaust system, and perhaps most importantly, an engine fitted with an upgraded supercharger that produces 210 horsepower, up almost 50 on the stock S. The price for the JCW package raises the Cooper S price to $37,700. And then there are the options…
Though it takes a while for you to realize it, this car is ludicrously, hilariously fast. While the power is delivered in a long, pretty linear surge right from idle, you quickly realize that so much power in such a light car makes for something pretty rapid. Grab any gear, and the rush of power is instant, and doesn’t abate even as you approach the 7000-rpm redline, the supercharger whining amusingly all the way.
While it’s fast in a straight line, what makes the Works S such a devastating point-to-point weapon is the combination of its tight exterior dimensions, wheels-at-the-corners stance, and huge glass area. Because you can see the ends of the car from where you sit in a seat upholstered in a combination of leather and Nike Sphere-like fabric; and because you feel like you can reach out and touch them, you end up zipping through traffic like a maniac, popping the little Mini into and out of gaps you wouldn’t normally attempt in something larger and less manageable. Were you in just about any other car, all you’d hear and see would be a chorus of honks and flashing lights, but the Works’ cute googly eyes and bulldog stance seem to charm pretty much everyone into complacency; they watch you zip across and past and just smile.
To put it another way: I time my commute in to work every day, and the JCW is the only car I’ve ever driven – and that includes some seriously fast and powerful vehicles – that has actually made an appreciable difference in the average time it takes to get downtown.
It’s so easy to make the most of any little gap in traffic, thanks to the Works’ supremely responsive controls. The steering is sneeze-and-you’re-in-the-next-lane quick, which would normally be bad, but zipping into the next lane is what this car always wants to do. The car almost jumps every time you touch the throttle in the lower gears, and even in its relatively short sixth, there’s always passing power to spare. The brakes bite immediately but the pedal has a relatively long, linear travel, making it easy to precisely judge, and adjust, the pressure on the way into your favourite corner. And the payoff for the suspension’s stiff ride is incredible cornering grip and poise, seemingly regardless of the speed. It creaks and bangs over rough pavement, but, like the rest of the package, feels tough enough that it could stand up to years of endless abuse.
Wish the same could be said for the interior of my tester. While great to look at and touch – anthracite-coloured dash panel, chrome rings around the dash-mounted speedometer and column-mounted tach, padded leather armrests – the car’s cabin, with just over 7,000 km, was a chorus of little squeaks and rattles, especially around the huge glass sunroof, its sliding mesh sunshade, and the rear hatch. Too bad, really, because at least up front, the JCW is as comfortable, roomy, and stylish as any other Mini. It may be narrow, but the door panels are scooped out for more elbow room, and the roof and windshield are both far enough away to give a real sense of airiness, even without the sunroof. The best bits are the details, though.
The Mini has a history of being a giant-killer, of course. In the sixties, when they first broke onto the rally scene, they (sometimes literally) ran circles around bigger, faster competition thanks to their ability to use more of the road and change direction more quickly than anything else. Indeed, such was the little British car’s performance advantage that in its second running at the Rallye Monte-Carlo, French officials all but disqualified the Minis after they swept the three podium positions. Since then, Minis with Cooper badges on them have always represented something special.
So when BMW introduced a new-generation Oxford-built Mini a few years ago, it knew that keeping the Cooper magic alive would have to be part of the package. Working with Michael Cooper, son of the John Cooper whose name was so synonymous with high-performance Minis, it developed a full line of tuner parts from the start – parts which not only enhance the Mini’s entertaining character but also come with a full factory warranty.
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Nowadays, John Cooper Works has more work than it can handle at its own facility; it not only sells parts and accessories, but delivers fully-built cars to customers and runs a one-make racing series. Mike Cooper, when I spoke to him last year, had just ordered his “first nice car”, an Aston Martin DB9, so business was pretty good.
Okay, there’s probably a fair amount of profit margin in a fully-loaded JCW Cooper S (opt for the convertible and word has it you can breach the $50,000 barrier), hardly sensible when you consider just how capable the basic Cooper S is, and the better value it offers in comparison. But after some time spent behind the wheel, it’s hard to begrudge Mini, or Mike Cooper, their earnings. The JCW is simply an amazing little car – a true performance machine that will, on most roads, eat faster and more powerful cars alive, while simultaneously retaining the adorable styling and bubbly personality that makes the basic Mini so attractive to begin with.
As Cooper himself would likely put it, the thing is bloody brilliant.
Technical Data: 2005 John Cooper Works Mini Cooper S
|Options||$3,710 (Premium Package $1,950; auto climate control $520; Harmon Kardon stereo $795; anthracite roofliner $195; chrome line interior $250)|
|Price as tested||$42,905|
|Type||2-door, 4-passenger hatchback|
|Layout||transverse front engine/front-wheel drive|
|Engine||1.6 litre 4 cyinder, SOHC, 16 valves, supercharger, intercooler|
|Horsepower||210 @ 6950 rpm|
|Torque||177 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm|
|Curb weight||1234 kg (2720 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2467 mm (97.1 in.)|
|Length||3655 mm (143.9 in.)|
|Width||1688 mm (66.5 in.)|
|Height||1416 mm (55.7 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||150 litres (5.3 cu. ft.) seats up|
|670 litres (23.7 cu. ft.) seats down|
|Fuel consumption||Fuel consumption City 11.8 L/100 km|
|Hwy: 6.8 L/100 km|
|Warranty||Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km|