Mini John Cooper Works Review: 2009 Model | John Cooper Works | Car Buyers Guide

2009 MINI JCW Review

I'm sitting at my computer, beavering away (which means I was working – nothing to do with the other kind of beavering that goes on on the Internet) when an email pops in from Mini Ireland inviting me to drive the Mini John Cooper Works at Donington Park. Nothing unusual about that, you might think... except for the fact that there's a Mini Cooper S JCW sitting right outside my front door. Still, lumping one around Donington sounds like a lark so I gratefully accept the invitation. I don't know whether I'll be able to write about my experience, given that I've already reviewed the car in question but I'll worry about that later.

It's not until I arrive at Donington several weeks later that I discover that this isn't a Mini Cooper with a bunch of JCW parts bolted on – this is a factory model that comes pre-modified out of the box. I seeee! Great, I've got something to write about now. Unfortunately, I won't be able to write about my Donington experience. Mini UK has set up a lame 'Mini Donington' (har har) in the car park, as well as a couple of handling exercises designed to demonstrate how stability control, brake-force distribution and the ‘electronic differential’ all work. I normally don't mind these kinds of exercises as they give you a feel for the car prior to the main event (which is usually a thrash around the track), but because the main event involved driving around a different part of the car park it quickly lost its allure. I'm also amazed at how each carmaker sets these demonstrations up as if stability control was some new-fangled invention and we'd never driven a car thus equipped ever before.

We were later timed around 'Mini Donington' but there wasn't any timing gear (it was timed by hand) and because the track was painted onto the ground it was pretty easy for unsporting types to cut lumps out of corners. As you may have guessed, no, I didn't post the fastest time and no, I'm not very good at losing. They did let us loose in one of their Mini Challenge race cars later in the day, although I heard after that, despite all the nannying, some numbnut hack still managed to hit the only thing you could possibly hit in the entire car park and wrote it off. Had we been on the proper track, a gravel trap would have stopped the errant driver long before the Mini made contact with anything solid. But I digress.

Fortunately, I had a feeling that the 'track' experience would yield very little useful information so I made sure to glean as much as I could about the new Mini John Cooper Works while out on the road route. As mentioned, the car you see here is more than a Mini with a pile of bolt-on accessories, but a whole new model that comes with quite a few performance enhancements you can't buy from the JCW catalogue. For a start, it's got a reinforced cylinder head, new intake valves and pistons, a larger turbo-charger and new exhaust boosting the 1.6-litre engine's output to 211hp and 280Nm or torque. This is a LOT of power for a 1,160kg skateboard: 0-100km/h takes only 6.5 seconds, faster than just about any hot hatch on the market, and its top speed is an entirely believable 240km/h, but it's the mid-range grunt that really shocks – the Mini JCW is capable of overtaking with incredible urgency once you've got about 2,000 rpm dialled in and the vigorous nature of its acceleration doesn't really subside until you're well past 150km/h and the Mini's brick-like aerodynamics come into play.

Naturally, the chassis and drivetrain has been beefed accordingly as well, with a strengthened gearbox, sport suspension, fantastic Brembo brakes, standard ESC and an 'Electronic Differential Lock Control' (EDLC) which uses the ABS system to control wheelspin instead of a mechanical limited slip differential. Now, the Mini John Cooper Works I drove a few weeks ago had an optional mechanical differential and, while it can only offer a 30 percent lock up (versus the EDLC's 50 percent), it was a delight to use, offering improved traction and uncorrupted feedback, making the car more exploitable and thrashable than ever. Mini claims the new electronic system is faster around a track and, although it's undoubtedly very effective in putting all that extra power to the ground, it all feels a bit digital and clinical compared to the mechanical differential. With the EDLC, you sit there with your foot planted and let the car sort everything out for you, while the mechanical differential still requires some input from the driver to find the right blend of power and traction. EDLC intervention is like being in the middle of telling a joke when someone interrupts you to correct a minor detail – it ruins your flow and kills the apex-clipping punch line. Yes, it's faster but is that really the point?

With so much torque on offer, low-speed torque steer is understandably a bit of a problem under hard acceleration, but once the Mini JCW gets into its stride it's less of an issue and the Mini's legendary steering feel exerts its dominance once more. Indeed, if you find a fast and challenging back road (without any hairpins), neither torque steer nor the EDLC makes its unwanted presence felt and in this environment the Mini JCW is truly a remarkable little motor – fast, agile, engaging and genuinely exciting. It corners a lot harder than I expect and, thanks to those awesome Brembo stoppers, it sheds speed with more urgency than just about any hot hatch I can think of. It's so addictively quick and entertaining, in fact, I would be seriously worried about my licence if I owned one.

Despite the high entertainment factor, the Mini JCW is a difficult car to recommend. For a start, the ride is rather stiff, which makes it a difficult car to exploit and enjoy on Irish roads, and the Clubman really isn't any more comfortable despite the longer wheelbase. (In fact, the Clubman proved to be a lot less exciting and engaging to drive than the short version, for some odd reason). Secondly, it's massively expensive at €39,495. Granted, you get a bodykit, air conditioning, 17-inch alloy wheels and a host of other features are standard, but you'd expect better value from a hot hatch with CO2 emission levels low enough to qualify it for VRT Band D. A Ford Focus ST or VW Golf GTI both undercut it on price and offer similarly enjoyable driving experiences with considerably better ride quality and vastly more practicality. Perhaps the most irritating aspect of owning a Mini JCW would be having to explain to people that it's not a Mini fitted with JCW accessories but a standalone model. In the 1960s, a Mini Cooper wasn't just a badge on the arse; it was a standard Mini factory fitted with Cooper parts. Those who couldn't stretch to a Cooper or a Cooper S bought bolt-on Cooper Works parts for their boggo model but they didn't own an official Cooper model. Life was simple. Following this launch, you have a Mini Cooper, Mini Cooper S (neither of which have anything to do with John Cooper), a Mini Cooper or Cooper S fitted with JCW parts and the Mini John Cooper Works which shares its badges, though not many parts, with the modified standard cars. It's badge milking run amok.

Personally, I'd be happier with the standard 175hp Cooper S fitted with a Chilli pack, a limited slip differential and a JCW exhaust system because even when you kit it up to the levels of the Mini Cooper Works it's still a whopping seven grand cheaper. You'll have the look, the badge, a proper differential and it's only 0.6 seconds slower to 100km/h. The factory Mini John Cooper Works definitely takes things up a notch over the standard Cooper S but charging 25 percent more for the privilege is a bit rich. It's even cheekier than inviting us all to Donington Park only to direct us to a coned-off car park instead.


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