2003 Mini Cooper S — John Cooper Works Edition First Drive

2003 MINI Cooper Hatchback

(1.6L 4-cyl. Supercharger 6-speed Manual)

Stupor-Inducing Cooper

West Sussex, England: It's no banner headline when a son screws up his father's legacy. Chad McQueen is but a mere shadow of his dad's magnetic screen presence. And were George Jr. half the diplomat his father was, France and the rest of the U.N. would be lining up for the privilege of assassinating Saddam Hussein.

Once in a blue moon, though, there comes a progeny who doesn't let the world down. Brett has done nothing to sully the Hull reputation for hard-hitting hockey. Michael's road racing career has done nothing to tarnish the Andretti name. And I have a funny feeling that motor racing legend John Cooper is looking down from behind the pearly gates with more than a modicum of pride. Mr. Cooper, you see, won two Formula One championships, dominated Formula Junior racing in his delicate and diminutive Norton Manx-powered open-wheeler and revolutionized open-wheel racing by engineering the first rear-engine car to win a world championship event. His enduring legacy, however, will always be the Mini Cooper — the feisty version of Alec Issigonis' little runabout that transformed the world's first transverse-mounted front-engine, front-wheel-drive econocar into a Monte Carlo Rally winner and on-track giant slayer.

By the time all was said and done, 200,000 of the perky little Minis made their way into production — peaking in the late 1960s with the powerful 1,275-cubic-centimeter version that claimed a then incredible 72 horsepower. This all but ensured a place in automotive history for John Cooper, right up there with Jack Brabham, Enzo Ferrari and Carroll Shelby. According to Cooper files, John managed to bag a ride in a prototype of the BMW-produced Cooper S before his death in 2000. One must wonder if that short ride was the inspiration for son Michael to begin producing John Cooper Works-tuned Minis.

While the supercharged version of the Mini, the Cooper S, is adequately powerful, it is far from the rip-snorter many expected. If 163 horsepower are available from the stock version, they must be ponies rather than thoroughbreds. BMW claims a 0-to-60 time in the low 7 seconds for the Cooper S, but I have never been able to duplicate it.

The John Cooper Works edition of the same car suffers no such paucity, even though the West Sussex-based tuning garage claims only a 37-hp increase from its extensive tuning kit and an equally modest 22 extra pound-feet of torque. Yet it feels like much more. Throw on the Work's flowed cylinder head, larger-capacity supercharger and freer-flowing exhaust system and the Cooper S is transformed. What was once a plaything is now a serious sports car. Acceleration that was once Camrylike is now more akin to that of Subaru's WRX. Michael Cooper claims 6.7 seconds for his car's 0-to-100-km/h (62.5 mph) time, but the difference between his version and the factory S feels livelier than the numbers may suggest.

Most apparent is the increase in low-end torque. Where the stock version needs 4,500 rpm before opening its eyes, the tuned version pulls from as low as 3,000 rpm. The Works edition produces more torque from 2,500 rpm all the way to 6,750 than the stock S does at 4,000 rpm. This means that unlike the original, which seems to run out of steam at the top of third gear, the Works edition still pulls hard in fifth; only the extra-tall sixth cog is able to blunt the invigorated 1.6-liter four's grunt.

In fact, the John Cooper Works Mini is one of those rare cars that has "enough" power. Any more might tax the chassis just a bit too much. As it is, the standard front 205/45R17 run-flat radial tires (Michelin or Dunlop) are working overtime trying to contain all that torque. And, because the Works edition arrives at corners carrying much more speed, any more power and the brakes would be overwhelmed.

John Cooper Works will offer a wheel upgrade to 18 inches with lower-profile 205/40R18 performance radials for those needing even more cornering potential to go along with the extra straight-line speed. However, since they are run-flats as well, their reinforced sidewalls stiffen the ride just a bit too much for our potholed roads. There will also be some Work's bucket seats with increased side bolstering to take advantage of the car's greater handling potential.

North American pricing has not been set for the John Cooper Works kit yet, but rumor has it coming in at around $4,500. That includes the aforementioned supercharger, cylinder head, exhaust system, all gaskets, four new spark plugs and the nine and a half hours required to install all the bits at your local BMW dealer. More importantly, the John Cooper Works kit has the same new car warranty as any other BMW-authorized part.

Despite the lofty price, the John Cooper Works tuning kit is a bargain. Put simply, you would be an absolute fool to decide to opt for the extra poke of the Cooper S over the base Cooper and not spring for the full-on Works edition. So equipped, the Mini Cooper S is the hottest hatch on the planet and the car it should have been all along.

Imagine that, the Brits improving on a German car.

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