2009 MINI John Cooper Works Review
By Kevin Miller
I’ve always thought that the MINI Cooper was a “cute” car, which was as much a marketing gimmick as anything else. With its available bonnet stripes and white, black, or body-colored roof, the car was really only on my radar as one chosen by drivers who are personally expressive and want their cars to be noticed. I’ve also known the vehicles to be competitive in autocross competitions, but assumed the drivers who autocrossed their MINIs simply preferred the Cooper’s look to that of a Miata, Solstice, or Golf.
My opinion changed abruptly when a Mellow Yellow 2009 MINI John Cooper Works was dropped off for a week of evaluation. The huge wheels and brakes, with lowered chassis, give the JCW an aggressive stance. From my very first trip behind the wheel, I realized I had misjudged the people who drive Minis. The car’s incredibly direct steering, coupled with nimble handling and a comfortable, spacious driver’s environment made me realize that people buy MINI Coopers because they are fun to drive.
Of course, the John Cooper Works car I drove is a more-potent version of the Cooper. With 208 HP and 192 lb-ft of torque from its direct-injection turbocharged 1.6 liter four, the JCW has 90 HP more than the base Cooper offered in the US, and 36 more HP than the turbocharged Mini Cooper S. Additionally the JCW has a bespoke sport suspension, bigger brakes, and sport exhaust. Stated 0-60 MPH time is 6.2 seconds, with a top speed of 147 MPH. It is truly the maximum MINI.
At once I was impressed with the feedback the JCW gave me during drives around town, While one could argue that there is no such thing as a car with too much power, I initially though the JCW might come close. Uneven suburban pavement combined with the extremely firm chassis caused the front wheels to lose with the tarmac quite readily, thereby losing traction. Over repetitive expansion joints on the freeway, the firm suspension and short wheelbase causes the car to pitch fore and aft, leading to a very choppy ride. The JCW’s wide tires were eager to follow pavement grooves on acceleration.
While the choppy ride and extreme power may seem like a bit much for the daily commute, getting out to twisty, rural roads really allowed the John Cooper Works to shine. Selecting Sport mode (which alters the throttle response, stability control settings, and steering input) causes the car to truly come alive, with quick acceleration and nimble responses. The sport suspension does an excellent job communicating with the driver, letting the driver know exactly what the car is doing. The JCW was nearly telepathic to drive at extra-legal speeds around winding rural roads near Washington State’s Mt. Rainier.
While I loved driving the John Cooper Works, I wasn’t a fan of some of the ergonomics in the MINI’s cockpit. To start the car, the circular key fob must be docked in a semi-circular port on the dashboard above the driver’s right knee. Though the fob is nearly symmetrical top-to-bottom, it only works top-side up. I must have shoved the fob in incorrectly at least a half-dozen times during my week with the car. After getting the fob in the right spot, the Engine Start/Stop button is pressed to start the car.
The MINI’s incredibly-large analog speedometer is mounted in the center of the dashboard,. Fortunately there is a redundant (digital) speed display on the steering-column-mounted tachometer. At the bottom of the speedometer is a display for the audio system, which contains two lines of text. The controls for the audio system (including controls for the optional iPod interface and Bluetooth phone interface) is comprised of a bunch of tiny buttons arranged in the general shape of the winged MINI logo. The control was not intuitive to use, though once I read the unit’s instructions before I was sufficiently able to operate it. The non-automatic HVAC controls are also arranged in the shape of the MINI logo, and are also less-than-intuitive. Functionality of the iPod interface and the Bluetooth phone interface were top-notch, I was actually very impressed.
Though the front seat of the Cooper is spacious enough for a 6’4” driver like myself, nobody could sit behind me because the back of my seat touched the front edge of the back seat. I was able to install my three year old daughter’s car seat in the back on the passenger side of the car, using the ISOFIX/LATCH attachment points after removing the back seat’s adjustable headrest on that side. The upper tether strap interfered with the rear parcel shelf, which I also had to remove.
During my week with the JCW I needed to haul a large equipment case. I had hoped to fit it in the back of the car by folding down just one half of the 50/50 split-folding rear seat, but that didn’t create enough room for my case. Instead I had to pull the just-installed child seat out and fold down both halves of the back seat. Once folded, the seatbacks sit about 4 inches higher than the regular trunk floor, and there is no means for securing cargo which sits on the folded seatbacks. My equipment case slid across the seats on every corner (no matter how gently I drove), bumping into the back seat’s interior trim and scuffing up the thin carpeting and latches on the seatbacks. A little effort into cargo management would go a long way here.
In any event, my quibbles about the controls and the cargo management were forgotten as soon as I drove off (without the loose cargo, that is). The go-go-go acceleration, a result of the John Cooper Works’ 208 HP and just 2700 lbs curb weight, made me pretty much forget everything else. I looked for every curvy road and open lane I could find, because the JCW is fun to drive, and becomes even more fun the faster it is driven and the more curves it takes. The bespoke exhaust with its large, center-exit pipes below the rear bumper make a magical sound. My vocabulary might not have enough depth to describe the euphoric feeling of the turbocharged car tearing up a curvy road, its grippy tires doing a spectacular job holding the car to the tarmac, while the JCW’s direct, go-kart steering reads my mind from apex to apex. It really was that good. Of course, all of that pleasure comes at a price.
Several weeks ago, Autosavant’s Chris Haak reviewed the MINI Cooper Clubman, and posed the question of whether a $30k small car would really sell well in the US. The car he reviewed had the base 118 HP engine but was very well appointed, and he found it fun to drive. The specification of the John Cooper Works, however, is quite the opposite. Starting at $28,550, the JCW is equipped with go-faster, stop-faster bits, but it is not equipped with the luxury features of the Clubman we tested, like leather seats, heated seats, sunroof, etc. MINI’s press kit for the car describes the John Cooper Works’ interior as having “sporting but sober elegance” which “allows the driver to concentrate on the essential.” That’s another way of saying that there aren’t a lot of extras in the cabin to take the driver’s mind off of driving.
The car I tested wore Mellow Yellow paint, with black bonnet stripes, and black C-pillars and roof. The interior was black cloth with a checkered-flag motif, including matching floor mats. Standard equipment includes a smooth-shifting six-speed manual transmission, 17” alloy wheels with grippy, run-flat 205/45R-17 tires, six-way manually-adjustable seats (without lumbar adjustment), Brembo brakes (12.4″ front/11.0″ rear discs) with red-painted calipers, Antilock Brakes (ABS), Corner Brake Control (CBC), Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), Dynamic Traction Control (DTC), Electronic Differential Lock Control (EDLC), six airbags including side curtain, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers, tilt/telescope steering wheel, and anthracite headliner. The only options included on this car were multi-function steering wheel ($250), black bonnet stripes ($100), and Bluetooth/USB/iPod adapter package ($500), the $650 destination charge, for a total of $30,050. For that $30k, you don’t get heated outside mirrors, sunroof, leather or heated seats, xenon headlamps, or any other creature comforts you might expect in that price range. What you do get is a solid little hot hatchback, which feels substantial in almost every respect.
Of course, you can get a non-John Cooper Works MINI for a more reasonable price. The base Cooper starts at $19,200, and gives you 118 HP/114 lb-ft torque, 15” wheels, and an EPA fuel economy rating of 28/37 MPG. The Cooper S starts at $22,600 and includes a 172 HP/177 lb-ft torque turbocharged four, 16” wheels, and a 26/34 MPG fuel economy rating. The John Cooper Works I tested has an incredible 90 HP more than the base Cooper, and an EPA rating of 25/33 MPG. I drove the car pretty aggressively over nearly 400 miles during my review, and returned an average of 26.7 MPG.
While I can see Americans moving toward premium small cars with high equipment levels (like the loaded Clubman we tested), finding the buyer for a John Cooper Works may be a bit tougher because of its relatively low feature content for the price. It certainly won’t interest every MINI buyer. Of course, included in the price of every MINI is admission into a secret club consisting of friendly, enthusiastic MINI drivers. During the course of my week in the John Cooper Works, when I drove past other MINIs, the drivers smiled and waved, spreading MINI happiness. And that’s the sort of thing you just can’t put a price on.
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