2009 MINI John Cooper Works Test Drive
|Topics: Mini Cooper
August 20, 2009
The Cooper Works model is the opposite of a huge SUV. A garage that can barely hold a Hummer might accommodate three skillfully parked MINIs. (Four, if you'd move some of that junk you never use.) Yet there's more than plenty of room inside. A man of small butt can wear a Stetson Walton in the back seat, though the climb back there might be a challenge.
The most entertaining thing about the 2009 MINI John Cooper Works is its balance between power and handling. Its turbocharged, 208-horspower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with direct fuel injection is in perfect harmony with its 205/45R17 Continental SportContact SSRs and sweetly tuned suspension. MINI might have added more horsepower or bigger, stickier tires but that equilibrium would be lost. Piloted with skill, the 208 horses and the narrow but sticky Contis are a perfect match.
An aside, when those gumball Contis wear out, a few birdbrain John Cooper Works model owners might install cheap all-season rubber. They'll then complain how their car's handling has gone to the dogs and the traction control has developed an overactive mother-in-law gland. The answer is the bad replacement all-season tires. When you buy a $31,800 (or any) performance car, put good tires on it. The original-equipment SportContact SSR are among the least-expensive offering in that size, though the Michelin Pilot Exalto 2 costs a bit less and are especially good in the rain. Do not get all-season tires unless you plan to drive it in the snow: All-seasons have less grip both wet and dry.
Red Brembo brakes, a superb anti-lock braking system, traction control, locking differential and electronic stability control help make up for those times when the driver overestimates available traction or, more frequently, his skill. Well driven, you'll never know the ESC or traction control is operating. Both of these computer aids are as if your guardian angel is Aryton Senna: Without admonishment, he pulls back the throttle ever so slightly or drags the brakes another second, just to keep you out of trouble.
Being front-wheel drive, the MINI loses front grip before rear traction fades. When that happens, the proper driving reaction is to lift off the gas at least a little. Some high-priced sports sedans - even some rear drivers - will continue to plow straight ahead at the point. However, either the MINI's ESC or its suspension design slightly reduces rear grip (or allows the fronts to regain traction). This helps the MINI stay on its intended path.
There's plenty of room inside the car. Front leg- and headroom are surprisingly large. The gauges and controls are a bit quirky. The personal-pan-pizza-sized speedometer, mounted in the center of the car, is useful only for scaring passengers: The driver must rely on a small digital readout under the tachometer. Cooling and heating controls are mixed with sound system buttons and few are labeled. An owner would figure it out in no time, but a test driver wound up with some hot, low-volume music.
During normal driving, the steering is somewhat quick: Some would say darty. Tire noise is very noticeable and the run-flat tires are bit harsh riding. In first gear under maximum acceleration, you'll find slightly annoying torque steer: The power makes the nose yaw almost as bad as the turbocharged cars from two decades back.
An important history lesson: John Cooper was a racecar builder. His cars won the Formula 1 World Championship in 1959 and '60. He kicked off the rear-engine revolution in Indy cars in 1961. MINI is now an independent brand of BMW, but is built in Oxford in the United Kingdom.
The basic MINI Cooper starts at about $20,000. The John Cooper Works model is available as the Clubman (mini-station wagon) and Convertible. Among other things, John Cooper Works models receive stiffened suspension, revised ESC turning and a locking differential. During flat-out acceleration the supercharger allows a bit of overboost, increasing torque from a peak of 192 pound-feet to 207.
The great David E. Davis, then of Car and Driver, may have started the sports sedan revolution with his review of the early '70s BMW 2002: "Turn Your Hymnals to 2002" said the headline. (Don't pick nits: The 2002 was a sports sedan, and it had but two doors.) The MINI John Cooper Works model feels a lot like my '76 2002, but with double the horsepower, 50 mph higher top speed, and without the skill-honing trailing throttle oversteer. The interior is much nicer, and even roomier. David E., sorry to say, your religious music books are now long out of date. Today, we're stepping to the "John Cooper Works" march.
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