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MINI John Cooper Works

Click to view picture galleryThe fastest, most powerful, most
  entertaining hot MINI to come out
  of the factory — the
MINI John Cooper
‘works very well. But at
  4,570 more to buy than the standard
  Cooper S, is it a MINI too far?

OKAY, YOU LIKE MINIs; you like the shape; you like the kart-like, turn-on-a-sixpence, wheel-at-each-corner handling; and, most of all, you just love the poke. In which case I guarantee you will be besotted with the hottest, road-going version of the MINI to be sold out of the showroom yet the latest MINI John Cooper Works.

And it looks it, too. John Cooper Works badges adorn the front and rear, exclusive 17-inch Cross-spoke 'Challenge' light alloy wheels shod with 205/45 Run-flat tyres look the business, as do the red-painted Brembo callipers. A rear roof spoiler, chromed side indicator grilles, a chromed fuel filler cap, chromed door handles, black honeycomb-pattern two-tier front grille, colour-coded bonnet scoop and aerodynamic kit add enough 'bling' while stopping tastefully short of making it look like a WAG's special.

Non dyed-in-the-wool MINI enthusiasts should look on this genuinely go-faster-than-them-all JCW MINI as the equivalent of an 'M' fettled model from BMW's own high-performance stable.

And, like any self-respecting 'M' badged BMW, the MINI JCW can Party — with a capital P. Powered by a tuned version of the standard Cooper S's 1.6-litre engine serving up 208bhp, it rips to 62mph in 6.5 seconds. Keep your right foot planted on the accelerator pedal and the JCW will run until it hits its maximum speed of 148mph. While 208bhp from 1.6 litres is in itself headline stuff, the real power behind the throne is the wide torque spread — 192lb ft of 'grunt' is yours to command from 1,850rpm all the way through to 5,600rpm. On overboost, there's actually even more — up to 206lb ft, to be precise. In anybody's book, that's a heck of a lot of power and torque from a 1.6-litre engine.

For the record, the standard Cooper S makes good use of 173bhp and 177lb ft of torque (192lb ft on overboost) to race past 62mph in 7.1 seconds. The standard 'S' costs 16,425, and it comes with a maximum speed of 140mph. However, you will need 20,995 if you wish to join the much more powerful JCW club. Helping to ease the pain of the additional 4,570 is that you'll be driving one of the fastest hot hatches around. And it's grrrreat!

So where has the extra money gone? For a start, a large wad of it has been spent on modifications to the gearbox, suspension and brakes. And engine. While the JCW uses the same 1.6-litre lump as the Cooper S (it was 2008's International Engine of the Year in the 1.4-1.8-litre category), it has been modified to reliably deliver the extra — and edgier — power. Some of the upgrades have been adapted from the MINI Challenge race car and, as such, do have genuine race-tech pedigree.

Something you might not be expecting is economy. Don't laugh — it's serious business! Okay, drive like a bat out of hell and economy will be the first casualty. However, even the most ardent drivers don't drive everywhere at full tilt. Besides, the JCW is an easy machine to drive sensibly and still have fun! Do so and you could be rewarded with a very creditable 40.9mpg combined cycle figure. We were particularly pleased with our hard-driven 27+mpg and so too, we'd guess, would be most JCW owners. And there's an added bonus: the JCW emits no more CO2 than the standard Cooper S — just 165g/km. Few cars can offer this mix of 'high' performance allied to 'regular' running costs.

Climb aboard and you'll find yourself in a cabin not that much different from the standard Cooper S. The glossy Piano Black interior trim looks smart and if you like the quirkiness of the MINI's switchgear (and a lot of drivers do) then you'll feel at home with the ergonomics. MotorBar's road testers are split 50:50 on this: some love them; others find them irritatingly fiddly — adjusting the air conditioning, for example, calls for the driver to shift his attention from the road to work a small vertically-placed rotary knob.

The dinner-plate sized central speedometer now has a bigger number at the end of its scale — 160mph — but apart from that, a unique-to-the-JCW red-and-chrome gear knob and some 'JCW' branded kick-plates on the doorsills, there's not that much to let the passengers know they're not just sitting in a Cooper S. Other standard kit includes front sports seats, a radio/single CD player with AUX-in connection, drive-away automatic central locking, tyre pressure warning system, electric door mirrors, AirCon, stainless steel pedals, electric front windows and a stop/start button.

The cloth-upholstered seats are also the same, firm-ish Cooper S items. And they do a good job of holding you in place when you start slinging the more powerful JCW around. It's also easy to set a good driving position: the seat is height-adjustable, the steering wheel adjusts for both reach and rake and you feel reassuringly cosseted behind the JCW's leather-wrapped sports steering wheel. The good news is that you don't have to glance across to the centrally-sited speedometer because the rev-counter right in your sight-line also displays a digital speed reading.

You also get a lot of tiny 'airbag' tags which is good news because, should the worst ever happen, there are six airbags to keep you safe: smart front ones for the driver and passenger, front side and side curtain — all standard fit. Naturally there's a host of active safety systems to help keep you out of harm's way in the first place: Dynamic Traction Control, Dynamic Stability Control, Automatic Stability Control+Traction, Corner Braking Control, Electronic Braking Distribution, ABS and Electronic Differential Lock Control. Hill Assist is handy, and those with small children will appreciate the Isofix child seat attachment on the back seat and the passenger airbag deactivation switch.

Slot the flying-saucer-shaped electronic key into its docking slot to the right of the steering wheel, thumb the START button and the JCW comes to life, emitting a sharp bark from the twin polished stainless steel tailpipes of the JCW exhaust. It's the kind of sound that bodes well for the driving to come. Release the traditional handbrake — thank you, MINI; without it there could be no J-turns! — and let slip your mean machine.

The JCW feels rapid right from the off. With as much as 206lb ft of 'pulling' power available during turbocharged overboost, mid-range performance is very bullish. Spirited acceleration is accompanied by a rorty exhaust note with a side-order of 'crackle' on the over-run — loud enough to turn heads without being anti-social. However, you do need the window open to best appreciate it for yourself.

Pressing the small Sport button just ahead of the gear lever activates a bespoke engine control map producing boost earlier in the rev range as well as sharpening up both steering and throttle responses. We liked the sharper throttle pick-up but felt that the electronic power-assisted steering actually imparts better 'feel' in the default normal setting, in which mode it's positive with a keen turn-in that nicely underscores the JCW's 'think and it happens' character. Obviously you need to drive one yourself before coming to a decision.

Back on the power: with bags of easily modulated urge, effortless mechanical 'punch' is there for the taking in virtually any gear — overtaking is accomplished with the cliched but nevertheless true 'simple flex of the driver's right ankle'.

So, is there a downside? What about torque steer? Physics dictates that 206lb ft coming through the front wheels is sure to result in the wheel tugging in your hands from time to time. In the John Cooper works MINI, it's electronically under control; reined-in to the degree that, most of the time, there's just a reminder that — in this BMW — you're being pulled, not pushed. During full-bore starts torque steer can be disconcerting — so they're best done on decent tarmac rather than unevenly cambered roads unless, that is, you're up for a little 'weaving'. Adding to the JCW's driveability is a smooth gear change action, great place-ability and powerful and predictable four-pot Brembo brakes with larger discs that deliver more than enough stopping power.

The JCW makes good use of the standard Cooper S's suspension although there is the option of upgrading to a more hardcore sports handling kit — 10mm lower and race-track hard. Unless you're serious about trackdaying and have all your own teeth, you don't need this. The car's set-up is fine exactly as it comes out of the box.

Now we know that all MINIs are Fun. The JCW's handling can be summed up in two words: Great Fun. Aim the JCW's nose in the direction you want to go and it goes there and ensuring it does so is plenty of grip and traction. You're rarely aware of the traction control's intervention, but it does a lot behind the scenes to ensure handling consistency — especially in the wet, on loose surfaces or if you've overdone the right foot bit when exiting a tight bend. In the interests of an unadulterated red-blooded drive, the JCW MINI also gets a more indulgent stability control system that intervenes only when it's absolutely essential. Splendid stuff!

When you get to know your JCW better you can, if you wish, indulge the chassis' playful side by switching off the traction and the stability control systems. With DSC fully deactivated, the car's Electronic Differential Lock Control delivers an even sportier driving experience. EDLC works when the car is accelerating hard out of corners or tight bends. In this situation, it electronically slows the spinning inside wheel to enhance grip and ensure that all available power is transferred to the road through the wheel with greatest traction. In contrast to the way Dynamic Stability Control and Dynamic Traction Control manage power delivery to the wheels, EDLC does not intervene with the throughput of engine power, meaning the driver is in near total control of the handling of the car.

Comfort, in spite of the undeniably firm ride, is better than you might imagine. That's not to say you should expect to climb out after a 250-mile road trip feeling as refreshed as if you've spent a relaxing day at the local spa. But on smooth road surfaces it's compliant enough and only the very poorly surfaced, uneven roads physically degrade the ride to the point where it feels juddery and you're jiggled around. While on the subject of ride, the JCW is fitted with run-flat tyres but, contrary to expectations, they didn't noticeably mar the ride.

Worth bearing in mind, when you're totting up likely ownership costs, is the MINI tlc package: for a one-off payment of just 150, you can get your JCW serviced for five years or 50,000 miles. An extension of MINI tlc, called tlc XL, is available for 380 and provides servicing for a further three years or 30,000 miles. So, for the fixed cost of 530, all your servicing costs are taken care of for 8 years/80,000 miles. And worth every penny.

You can have a JCW MINI in both Clubman and hatch guise; a Convertible version is also in the pipeline. The hatch we tested has got it all: it's smart, fast and it provides all the bangs for your bucks you could wish for. It's equally adept driven along in top gear at low speeds as it is unruffled in stop-start traffic. Thrash it round a track or pound along the open roads, whatever you do the John Cooper Works MINI just laps it up. And, just like a favourite comedy show, the JCW — whatever your mood when you start out — will end up putting a big '4,570' grin on your face. —

MINI John Cooper Works
| 20,995
Maximum speed: 148mph | 0-62mph: 6.5 seconds
Overall test MPG: 27.8mpg | Power: 208bhp | Torque: 192-206lb ft
CO2: 165g/km | VED: Band D 145 | Insurance group: 17E