Model tested: MINI John Cooper Works R56, 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder with six-speed manual - $49,400 (Manufacturer’s List Price)
To be honest, the MINI Cooper S I had just road tested seemed to be such a complete performance package that I was seriously doubting the need for any one to spend even a dollar more on the uprated MINI John Cooper Works edition. I mean, could it really be worth close to another $9000 on top of a Cooper S?
The short answer is yes, but that depends largely on whether you can stretch the budget or the lease out by such a substantial amount. Make no mistake folks, the MINI Cooper S has become a favourite of mine. It’s quick, parking is a breeze, I can still squeeze my surfboard in through the hatch and it’s very good on fuel.
That said, this John Cooper Works MINI is a very special bit of performance kit. Just five minutes after collecting the car I’m thinking of what the press garage manager said: “You’ll like this thing, it goes like stink”.
He’s on the money too. This JCW edition is a veritable race car for the road, and if Paramount Pictures ever makes a sequel to their 2003 Hollywood hit The Italian Job then you can bet they’ll be using the John Cooper Works cars.
On the surface it pretty much looks the same as a Cooper S, but for two or three rather subtle differences. The twin exhaust tips have grown to about twice the size of those on the Copper S and look more like the work of a premium aftermarket tuner (good thing), and you won’t miss the bright red Brembo calipers, which like the venomous spider with the red back, warns potential competitors that this is the potent end of the MINI Cooper arsenal.
Of course, the John Cooper Works badges are there too for those that don’t fall into the enthusiast category.
There's nothing wrong with looking like a tuner car either. After all, that’s exactly what the legendary Mike Cooper and his son John were all about. They were good at it too, taking three legendary Monte Carlo Rally titles, and no less than 16 Grand Prix wins with a revolutionary rear-engine car driven by mostly by Australia’s own Formula One maestro Jack Brabham.
The MINI John Cooper Works is the product of proper racing pedigree and while it might look a lot like its Cooper S sibling, it does everything that 30 to 40 percent better again.
Slip on a set of semi-slicks and you’ll be shaming lots of more powerful cars at the occasional track day, especially on a tight circuit like Queensland’s Morgan Park or even Queensland Raceway.
If there was zero lean on turn in with the Cooper S, there’s even less in the John Cooper Works car. It’s much more about how much additional speed you can carry through a corner, and believe me, this thing can be pushed beyond most drivers’ abilities.
Not only that, it’s the also the extra hammer it will deliver from point-to-point between bends on a twisty bit of road. It’s a bit like a Lotus Elise in that respect: you can flat-foot it as you thread together a series of well-cambered S-bends with remarkable accuracy.
We’re only talking about an additional 20 kilowatts over the Cooper S (from 135kW to 155kW), but with a kerb weight of just 1140kg, it’s enough to propel this MINI from 0-100km/h in just 6.5 seconds. While that’s not world beating stuff as far as straight-line drag racing goes these days, don’t let that dull your enthusiasm, not even by one percent. When you choose a MINI by John Cooper Works, you’re buying a complete performance package that delivers a driving experience more akin to a supercar flat out on a German autobahn.
Standing starts with decent a old dose of throttle are an entirely well behaved exercise without wheel-spin or loss of traction, thanks to the MINI’s electronic limited slip differential lock. It’s an infinitely variable system between 0-50 percent, in comparison with the less liberating permanent 30 percent on the optional LSD that can be fitted to the Cooper S.
There’s more torque too, that’s been bumped up to a stock 260 Newton-metres and under hard acceleration you’ll get another 20Nm for a solid 280 Nm with the much welcomed ‘Overboost’ function.
Right from the word go you can feel that extra punch - and that’s in every forward gear ratio - and just like the Cooper S, it doesn’t let up either. More than that though, there’s heaps of torque in third through fifth, which makes overtaking on freeways a quick and safe exercise.
You’ll love the six-speed manual box in the JCW car too, it seems to slip into gear with more ease and fluidity (think quicker shift times) than on the Cooper S but I can’t tell you why that might be so.
While I mentioned in my MINI Cooper S review that any turbo lag was largely imperceptible to me, throttle response is simply more potent in this car - better even than the previous belt-driven supercharged models I would say. That’s the combination of the intercooled twin-scroll turbocharger working in complete harmony with the direct injection system on-board this car.
While torque steer is at best mild in the Cooper S due to it’s front-wheel drive layout, you would have good reason for thinking that the John Cooper Works edition might be more pronounced, even difficult under hard acceleration. Thankfully that’s not the case. Drill the right pedal to the firewall and there’s only a marginal increase.
Did I mention grip levels? In short, they are extreme, as is the traction from the 205/45 17-inch Dunlop SP Sport rubber. It’s as good as it gets, and that includes some of the high-end supercars we’ve driven in the hairpin-riddled areas of northern Italy. You simply can’t explore the limits of adhesion in this car unless you’re on a race circuit.
I took the John Cooper Works MINI for a little play down my favourite bit of bendy test road and again I’m going to make the comparison with the Elise S. On a wet road, I would rate the MINI ahead in the grip and traction department. Certainly it feels more planted on a greasy surface.
Stopping is never going to be an issue either, as the four-pot Brembos up front are fade free and haul this car up with consummate ease, but you’ll need to sink your foot into it though.
It’s also not a particularly well-maintained stretch of road either, which means a noticeably firmer ride in the John Cooper Works car over the Cooper S. I won’t say it’s too hard, because for any die-hard enthusiast who buys one of these, it will just mean even better communication through the steering wheel. It’s a nice tiller as tillers go too. Extra wide rim, good tactility and some tasty contrasting stitching to match the coloured accents on the roof, side mirrors and bonnet stripes.
Up there in the test criteria of any performance car test is always the engine note, inside and outside the car at different speeds, and the MINI John Cooper Works delivers on that count too. Equipped with a sports tuned exhaust with stainless steel tips, you can literally hear the extra grunt in this car in what is a raspier exhaust note.
I’d pay more to have these split fabric/leather trimmed pews too, although from a design perspective they look identical to those in the Cooper S. They do a better job of holding your torso steadfast in the bendy bits, no matter how severe you attack a corner. They’re also extremely comfortable on a long drive with no aches and pains encountered over the weeklong test period.
Inside, the John Cooper Works car gets a slightly more premium treatment with stitched leather shifter and handbrake gaiters to match the sports steering wheel.
Gone are the white-faced speedometer and tacho gauges, which have been replaced by more business-like black face dials. There’s also some tasteful piano black strips on the fascia and door trim, which look and feel like a step up from the Cooper S.
The harman/kardon audio unit in this car is brilliant. Strong base and excellent clarity on both the highs and lows are a treat, and Bluetooth is standard fitment.
There is the usual suite of active and passive safety equipment, including Dynamic Traction Control, which allows the driver to remap the levels of the traction and stability control systems, meaning more slip before intervention for those track day outings.
As far as MINIs go, it doesn’t come much better than a John Cooper Works edition. This is a highly entertaining driving experience, especially on a windy bit or tarmac. If you can rustle up the extra cash, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed in your purchase.