Alistair Weaver, VP of Editorial and Editor-in-Chief
It's important not to underestimate the importance of the 2008 Mini John Cooper Works. According to the Munich vision, John Cooper Works is to Mini what the M division is to BMW.
John Cooper was a true Brit, a simple gas station owner who had clever ideas and a working welding torch. He popularized the rear-engine racing car in the 1950s and ultimately built the cars that won the Formula 1 world championship in 1959 and 1960 in his small two-story workshop behind the gas pumps. Then in the 1960s, Cooper transformed the original BMC Mini from a tiny family sedan into a supercar that won the Monte Carlo rally.
When the second-generation BMW-engineered Mini was launched in 2001, John Cooper's son Mike began producing a highly successful tuning kit for the Mini Cooper and Mini Cooper S with BMW's blessing. The kits were so successful that at the end of 2006 BMW bought the rights to the John Cooper Works name as Mini's equivalent of BMW's own M division.
And now the fruits of their labor are about to go on sale in Europe, as the 2008 Mini John Cooper Works and 2008 Mini Clubman John Cooper Works hit the showrooms. These are full production cars, not aftermarket specials, and they trundle down the same production line as the standard Mini.
Direct-Injected and Turbocharged The comparison between M and John Cooper Works is not always flattering for the new Mini supercar. While M has set a demanding standard by transforming BMW cars into unique, fully realized specialty models, the Works treatment focuses on the engine, with only a few styling mods to differentiate the car from its lesser brethren.
The big change is a new, larger-capacity twin-scroll turbocharger and exhaust manifold. Maximum boost pressure has been increased from the 13 psi of the Mini Cooper S to 19 psi here.
The intake valves, pistons and the cylinder head have all been reinforced to cope with the increased temperature, while the compression ratio has been reduced to 10.0:1. There's also a larger air intake to improve the flow into the 1,598cc engine. In addition, the transmission has strengthened gearing to handle the extra available power.
To improve the breathing at the exhaust side of the engine, the catalytic converter and exhaust system have been increased in size to reduce the back-pressure. The new twin stainless-steel exhaust pipes have also been tuned to provide an appropriate soundtrack.
The net result is an engine that develops 208 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and there's 192 pound-feet of torque between 1,850 and 5,600 rpm that can be momentarily increased to 206 lb-ft on overboost. This compares with the 173 hp and 177 lb-ft output of the standard Cooper S. As a result, the Mini's top speed rises from 140 to 148 mph, while acceleration to 100 km/h (62 mph) falls from 7.1 to 6.5 seconds.
These are solid figures that are reinforced by subjective impressions. Turbo lag is minimal and the little engine feels ever eager to rev. The Mini's diminutive size and firm ride contribute to the sensations of speed. It even sounds good, with the occasional pop and fart from the exhaust adding to the sense of fun.
No less important, especially in Europe, is the car's fuel economy. Its average on the European driving cycle of 40.9 mpg is excellent for this class of car, as the rival Ford Focus ST manages just 30.4 mpg.
At the Wheel The standard suspension setup of the Works is unchanged from the standard Cooper S, although Mini's Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) is standard, so the threshold for the Dynamic Stability Control's (DSC) intervention leaves room for a little fun. The DTC can be switched off if you want to play it safe, and the DSC can be switched off if you don't. There is also the usual Sport function that changes the throttle map to provide more boost lower in the rev range and reduces the steering assistance.
Mini has made some bold claims about the Works' new electronically controlled limited-slip differential's ability to eradicate torque steer, but the reality is a little different. Even on a dry road, you're never left in any doubt about which wheels are driving, and the stability control's tendency to smother the power can also be an irritation. It's much better to turn it off and relearn the art of throttle control.
You can opt for a sport suspension on the Works or a dealer-installed John Cooper Works kit that lowers the car by 0.4 inch. But unless you're a track day fanatic or enjoy an intimate relationship with your chiropractor; you're best leaving well alone. The ride is plenty stiff enough in standard guise, although the Clubman version has a better ride and more stable handling, as you'd expect given its longer wheelbase.
The 2008 Mini John Cooper Works is fun in the way that every other Mini is fun. The ultra-responsive steering, positive gearshift and remarkable agility are all present and correct. The uprated brakes are great, too — they're 0.9 inch larger in diameter than those on a Cooper S and are complemented by Brembo calipers.
A Trip to the Aftermarket The kind of people who buy a Works want the world to know about it. There's a new front airdam, rocker-sill skirts, rear valance, twin exhaust pipes and unique 17-inch wheels. Some elements are more successful than others — the rear-end treatment looks clumsy — but no one will be left in any doubt that you've spent the big bucks.
The interior treatment is more subtle. There's some elegant piano-black detailing, an Anthracite-color headliner, a 160-mph speedometer and a few checkered flag badges, but that's about it.
Of course, the "fastest ever production Mini" does not come cheap. The 2008 Mini John Cooper Works is expected to be priced at $29,200 (according to BMW North America's estimates last March, of course), while the Mini Clubman John Cooper Works will begin at $31,450.
For many, the temptation to purchase the fastest, most exclusive Mini will be too good to resist. But the more discerning might think twice. Although this is a nicely executed conversion, the relatively modest increase in performance compared with the standard Mini Cooper S makes the leap in cost difficult to justify. It's a neat tuning job, but this is not Mini's answer to the M3.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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