toeing. The cool way
to change gear is
now available on
MINIs hottest the
John Cooper Works
AFTER A WEEK driving the MINI Cooper, we said it was "Fun with a capital F". Then we spent a week topless with the Cooper Convertible, and understood
why it was 2005's best-selling convertible. Next up for an in-depth MotorBar road test was the Cooper S. "Fun spelt F-U-N," we said. "No wonder lucky owners just love 'em to bits." Things couldn't get much better, we thought.
But we were wrong. After seven days behind the wheel of the Works Cooper S Automatic, we made an alarming discovery. We'd run out of suitable F-words!
When our test car arrived it looked suitably mean 'n' moody in its dark metallic grey livery. We knew it was versatile and it was equipped with BMW's close-ratio six-speed automatic transmission with neat Step-tronic 'paddles' on the steering wheel. The auto 'box also incorporates Adaptive Transmission Control, which allows the transmission to adapt over time to fit with the driver's individual driving style. For some this represents heresy of the highest order, their view being that like oil and water sporting performance and automatic transmission just don't mix. And us? Well, we thought we'd stick with our usual 'suck it and see' approach.
The JCW option is now a factory-fit performance upgrade ordered by one in nine Cooper S owners. As well as boosting power to 210bhp (manual gearbox models), it adds JCW sports brakes and a limited slip differential. Instantly apparent is that, compared to a 'standard' Cooper S, the Works car has demonstrably more grunt borne out by forceful mid-range poke that sees 50-75mph in 4th gear taking 5.4 seconds
and a zero to 62mph time of 6.6 seconds. Maximum speed is also up, from 138 to 143mph.
In auto-shifting guise you get a potent 203bhp (that's 33bhp more than the standard Cooper S's 170), which will get you from zero to
62mph in 7.3 seconds. While these figures are stirring even on paper, they're nowhere near as thrilling as when they're experienced for
real with the JC-branded Eaton supercharger trying to outdo the barking twin-exhaust note as the orange needle races round to its 6,750rpm red line. Dynamite!
Before we get onto the Works car's dynamics, we'll briefly mention the interior as there can't be many people left today who don't know
what the iconic MINI cabin looks like. Suffice to say that inside it is pure Cooper S and unmistakably BMW MINI: well-known styling cues are unmissable. In particular the large, round instrument cluster (with dials for oil pressure, oil temperature, water temperature and fuel) positioned dead centre in the middle of the dash, and the classic single row of 'old-school' rally-style toggle switches, each separated by neat chromed hoops, at the base of the centre console. Our Works car had the two separate but cheek-to-cheek pod-style rev-counter and speedometer set atop the steering column; both clearly visible through the top arc of the leather steering wheel rim.
Sporty cloth seats with effective but not too prominent side bolstering keep the driver and front passenger located during spirited driving. Well-positioned, rubber-ribbed polished stainless steel pedals ensure the driver's feet never slip and the driving position is first rate. From a practical viewpoint, the Works model functions perfectly well as day-to-day transport. You can if they're not too chunky! take along
a couple of adult passengers in the two-plus-two rear and while it's no Volvo estate the MINI's easily-folded 50:50 split rear seatbacks mean you can accommodate quite large loads when the need arises. Access to the load bay through the rear hatch is good. And if you pack right, the small boot will actually hold bags for two.
Driving thrills is what this Works MINI is all about. The upgrades consist of a modified cylinder head with higher compression, modified engine electronics and increased throughput injectors. Fitted JCW tuning goodies include an air filter system, 16-inch disc brakes and callipers, two chromed and engraved exhaust pipe finishers and 'Works' badges on the lower front grille and tailgate. The Eaton supercharger has
also been tweaked to ram in more air. Stab the throttle to provoke
it and you'll find that the Works engine is without doubt RAW: rorty
Yet despite its blatant performance bias, the 4-cylinder 1,598cc unit
is accommodatingly flexible. It will uncomplainingly indulge you with as much chilled-out city driving as you demand. However, don't be deceived this is a boy-racer's car engineered for grown-ups. And
the secret of its appeal? Genuine driver involvement.
Involvement that starts with a satisfying feeling that you, the driver, are a key component of the car. You don't just sit in the Works; you are part of it. All the inputs are geared towards satisfying, stimulating and informing you. The steering is incisive with non-stop dialogue from the tyres and the road surface beneath them. Traction is unrelenting not even a hint of scrabble or torque steer no matter how brutal
you are with the power.
Make no mistake. This is most definitely a MINI for the out-and-out enthusiast. At close to peak revs the gutsy, tuned whine of the super-charger fills the cabin. No apologies for that it's precisely the sound-track any red-blooded aficionado wants to hear. Major controls are light yet measured in their responses and neatly interlock with the scare-free handling, which has that alert, genuine race-feel. Very few cars can match the Works Cooper S's blend of performance and agility. 'Point it and power down' gets the job done effectively.
For maximum pleasure, kill the stereo and pick yourself a challenging, undulating B-road littered with some black-hearted bends. Power delivery is smooth and relentless 203bhp put down with an authority that keeps the driver totally at ease. And no unpleasant surprises lurking in the chassis either. Being front-wheel drive, you don't have
to worry about the tail wagging the dog.
MINI behaves badly or wickedly. That perfectly sums up the Aisin six-speed auto set-up. For the first couple of days of our road test
we sat on the fence, unable to decide if it was really appropriate. But
then we started to fully exploit it and it was brilliant.
Use it as you would a sequential manual via the well-sited and initially stiff feeling floor-mounted selector lever and you quickly appreciate why the built-in resistance is there: it makes it easy to sense that you've selected the next gear ratio. You only need to nudge it forward or back about half an inch to change. Forward takes you down the gearbox; pulling back takes you up. The selected gear is always shown in the LED window inset in the speedometer: M1-M6 for manual; P, R, N, D and SD for auto.
Better still are the steering wheel-mounted shift-paddles. Sitting proud on the horizontal spokes of the wheel close to the perforated leather-rim, they're ideally placed for instant finger/thumb activation that doesn't even require your hand to move from the wheel. Unlike other F1-style paddle-shift systems they both effect up and down changes so the driver doesn't have to spend time thinking about which one's for up and which one's for down. Push back with one of your fingertips to go up a gear; push forward with your thumb pad to drop down a gear.
Gear changes are sharp and clean. And you can drop down more than one gear at a time. And as a keen driver you can drive this Works auto as a performance car should really be driven by ear. You don't need to check the revs or the gear display. The aural signals and the feel of the power are clear enough for the driver to stay perfectly in tune with his car. Although the auto is half a second slower off the line than a manual Works 'S', the auto manages to feel virtually as punchy.
Even better is that not only do you get a Sport mode that can be
used to sharpen up the standard Drive program (simply tap the lever sideways from Drive to engage Sport Drive), but you can also use the paddles to 'go manual' at any time in both Drive or Sport Drive. Perfect if you suddenly need to overtake or call up some engine braking. Or
if you just fancy an adrenaline top-up. A day's hard driving over some taxing routes and we were cleanly off the fence: MINI + Works + Steptronic Auto = Bloody marvellous, as Michael Caine might say.
Get your fingers moving and make full use of the intermediate gears when the supercharger's siren song is at its most beguiling and you'll be delighted by the Works car's ability to flow through fast corners perfectly flat. In the dry you'll back-off long before the MINI. The
16-inch 195/55 run-flat Dunlops proved to be compliant yet provided good grip and stability over uneven surfaces.
The uprated brakes 16-inch disc brakes and callipers are nicely progressive but potent enough to scrub road speed with a vengeance when you need them to. The standard ABS incorporates Electronic Braking Distribution and Cornering Brake Control and is ably backed up by the Automatic Stability Control Plus Traction system that can be deactivated at the flick of a switch. Passive safety kit includes Smart front airbags and side airbags for the driver and passenger, and there's also a Run Flat Indicator just in case.
Considering the Works MINI's blatant handling-biased character, you might think that it could be a tad too highly strung for cruising duties. Not so. We were pleasantly surprised on this score. Because if you show it a motorway, it will coast unfussed all day long at three-figure speeds. More impressive was just how refined it proved to be when held to a steady cruise, with minimal road and wind noise and a comfortable, supple ride.
Deceptive, too so much so that it should carry a large 'this car can damage your licence' sticker on the 150mph speedometer. For the record, the auto-specced Works S maxes out at an honest 140mph. But even when it's serenely eating up the motorway miles, performance is no further than a lazy finger flick away. Double-tap either steering wheel paddle and the car comes alive, dropping down to fourth to blast past slower-moving traffic. All this driving enjoyment doesn't have a hidden penalty at the pumps, either. Our overall test consumption worked out to 25.9mpg and we were having a great time. Some less hardcore driving should see a figure closer to the official 31.4mpg.
The Works Cooper S is the ultimate performance MINI. It comes with
a desirable image, great road presence, real character and a harmon-ious 'all of a piece' feel that brings together entertaining handling and seriously impressive performance for real driver involvement.
What is a certainty is that the fun-factor increases as you move
up the MINI performance league. Logically, then, the Works Cooper S should be the MINI that's got the MAX. It is. Not only that, but in Steptronic auto spec the more you drive it, the more you'll like this super-eager superhatch. And, as you can see, it's got us totally stumped for an appropriate F-word.
John Cooper Works MINI Cooper S Auto | £19,544
Maximum speed: 140mph | 0-62mph: 7.3 seconds
Test MPG: 25.9mpg | Power: 203bhp | Torque: 180lb ft
Visit MINI's website