By on March 9, 2011

There it was: a honk, a pair of grins and waves from two middle aged women in a MINI Cooper. It was time to find out whether these MINI fans approve of my epic (patent pending) Mehta parking lot swagger, or if the allure of the John Cooper Works MINI had reduced them to smiles. After all, the JCW is more than just a serious piece of hot-hatch kit, it’s wake-up call for the non-believer: spend some time in this car and you’ll have no choice but to learn just how crazy people are about their MINIs. And in this cult of the cutesy and subcompact, the John Cooper Works is king. But does any of this actually justify parting with $33,000 for a tiny, front-drive car?

I suspect my onlookers weren’t concerned with the homage to the 50th anniversary of Mr. Cooper’s original win in the world of F1 racing. To most, the John Cooper Works (JCW) is another showroom-spec MINI; a tirelessly cute, two box, three-door with exquisite detailing and distinctly non-Asian chassis “hard points” and proportioning. And since MINIs are trimmed to an owner’s personality, this one’s got the sinister black paint, red top/stripes/mirror skullcaps and black 18” wheels of a would-be Dracula in need of cheeky transportation. The more aggressive chin spoiler and JCW badging proves the point, in a somewhat low-key manner.

The JCW’s (almost) serious looking black/red interior, piano black plastic accents and unique, deconstructed checkered flag dash plaque are perfect MINI fanboi fodder. Every bit and bauble is reasonably expensive to sight and touch, with logical ergonomics from the center stack’s overtly adorable design. I’ve yet to find a soul dark enough to frown at the MINI’s retro toggle switchgear and oversize central speedometer cum ICE screen. The Harmon/Kardon stereo is impressive enough and the high-tech features are dandy, but the inaccurate, micro i-Drive joystick takes patience, control and planning to reach one’s visual destination.

Seat comfort is generally excellent, up front: like every MINI hatchback, the hindquarters work for frathouse tests of loyalty. With feet positioned in the opposite foot well and torso rested against the quarter panel, I leaned-back like a financially-sheltered, Preppy Gangsta. So I enjoyed my time back there, more than my last physical.

But, for a party of two, the JCW-fettled MINI is an enthusiast’s treat: the requisite short ratio 6-speed stick, excellent sightlines, twin scroll turbo-four and an electronic differential keeping 208 horses and 192 lb-ft of torque (at a disturbingly low 1850 revs) in check. Yes, it drives the wrong set of wheels, but here’s the kicker: there’s no torque steer.

Right. Except that’s misleading: the JCW did a fine job eliminating the problems associated with running way too much power to the front wheels. But replacing a well-recognized dynamic with the powertrain equivalent of hydrocodone is unsettling: mash the gas mid-corner and the steering/throttle inputs go numb, especially in first gear. Much like trying to walk after your legs fall asleep, I had no clue what this MINI was doing before redline (quickly) approached in first, and grabbed second in hopes that whatever was going down lingered for the next blast through the powerband. It did, it worked: even with the active handling turned off.

But it wasn’t enjoyable. While the limited-slip-this and electronically-modulated-that kept the JCW straight, it’s a buzzkill. Then again, there’s no MINI worthy of picking off Porkers. Enjoy this fashion statement as-is, at less than full throttle in the twisties. Because, like its brethren, the JCW hatchback is far more fun than can be measured with a stopwatch.

The steering, off the electronic sizzurp, is the perfect blend of light and tight. Ditto the linear throttle/brakes and the MINI’s collective ability for delightfully effortless turn-in. Microseconds later, the grippy rubber held the JCW in place, letting the suspension corner flat in damn near any situation. If not for the traffic-infested streets of Houston, I suspect the JCW’s tendency to understeer at the limit is muted via lift-off oversteer. It felt like it could go there: a lovely notion with a chassis this sorted.

And what about the rest? The JCW MINI is a treat around town, provided you avoid bumps larger than pimples on a tween. Standstill acceleration in the straights is less drug-hazed as in the corners, and highway passing is far too effortless for a motor so tiny: wind the turbo to redline in the upper gears and MINI’s “overboost” feature seemingly adds the torque of a Cummins diesel to the mix. It’s a giggle-inducing experience that, like most MINI attributes, can’t be put in words without sounding like an autojourno’s cop out.

Back to reality: a $33,000 price deep in 370Z Sport and Brembo-5.0 Mustang territory. Perhaps a used 996/Boxster or a pristine C5 Z06 Vette corner killer instead? This is not where hot-hatches should live.

The John Cooper Works MINI is absolutely dying for a game changer (all-wheel drive, anyone?) to differentiate it from the lower echelon models. As it sits, this is a statement for fashionistas looking for a modicum of sports car prowess in their adorably-marketed hatchback. If a MINI completes your look, stick with cheaper models.

TTAC’s Facebook peeps make this review super interactive, if you aren’t a fan of us, hurry up and join the bandwagon already! Here are your personalized answers. Mike Fox: For a small hatchback, it is livable, road noise is pretty tame compared to a Miata. Christian Seabaugh: having not driven the newer WRX,GTI, the JCW appears to be a lousy value, but better at turning heads. James Mackintosh: nope, I’d rather have a Cooper S and your aforementioned $7,600 in the bank. David Hoyt: Go-Karts are nuts, this is still closer to a GTI. Darren Williams: it is “as effing awesome to drive as it is to look at”, but so is a Cooper S. Tony Josephson: back seat is no fun, I suspect the Mazdaspeed3 is a better performance value for most pistonheads and is a more capable urban commuter vehicle too.

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31 Comments on “Review: 2011 MINI John Cooper Works...”

  • avatar

    I’ve yet to find a soul dark enough to frown at the MINI’s retro toggle switchgear and oversize central speedometer cum ICE screen.
    So that explains why I hate the MINI’s IP. The gen1 MINI’s IP was cute; this is one to cause frowns.
    Speaking of small back seats, here’s a six seater that’s only six inches longer than this Mini:

    • 0 avatar

      $34 Large??? I understand this is the ‘special’ version and all, but the last time I checked, there wasn’t really anything MINI that you could call inexpensive.  Shame, really, considering the original car whose legacy they are ripping off here…

  • avatar

    This car—heck, all Minis—has awesome front-seat space.  If you’re north of 6’4″, it’s a great car.
    I’ve never driven the JCW, but if I recall I enjoyed the base Cooper a lot more than I did the Cooper S: smaller & lighter wheels, less brittle ride, more pure steering.  Cost a lot less, too.  I’m sure this a fine car, but I wonder if you’re up against diminishing returns because the base car is so good.

    • 0 avatar

      I feel a case can be made for the S, but the JCW Package costs an awful lot for what you get.

      My personal impressions of MINIs has varied a lot from drive to drive. If you’ve got a curvy road and no other cars they’re certainly fun. In casual driving they don’t feel so lively, ride roughly, and some bits seem cheap. The manual is much more fun than the automatic, but then this is a given.

    • 0 avatar

      Do you guys get the Cooper Classic in the US?  In my opinion it’s the one to get: the trim bits are fine for the price range, and the fifteen-inch wheels help the ride without doing any real harm to the handling.

      Of course, for a further CA$10K less you’re into Fit and Fiesta territory. That’s where the value proposition comes completely unglued.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I almost expected this review to end: “The Mini John Cooper Works maybe a sometimes entertaining car but it is no Panther.”
    FWIW I always liked the look of the reborn Mini (in it’s original two door form, not any of the expansions of the body that have taken place subsequently) but given that I can only afford used I’ve been leery of the reliability.  (Wonder how many owners TrueDelta has participating?)  Although honestly if I want a hot little hatch/wagon I’ll just hoon my fiance’s 2005 Pontiac Vibe.

    • 0 avatar

      While more participants would certainly be helpful, we’ve got a good sample size (43) for the 2009 and decent sample sizes for a few more years. Reliability seems to vary from average (including the 2009 and 2010) to worse than average, but for no year is it terrible:
      One important note: the average odometer reading is low, suggesting that MINIs are often weekend cars rather than daily drivers.

    • 0 avatar

      Dan, I have one of Karesh’s 43 2009’s, so far it’s been solid, aside from a couple minor computer gremlins that the dealer was able to fix.  But my daily driver is an ’87 Specialized, so the Cooper doesn’t get a lot of miles.  Turbos seem to have some issues(timing chain tensioner, fuel pump, carbon build up), but I haven’t heard of any with the base motor.  Some people have problems with the sunroofs, if you’re buying used that’s something to look for.

    • 0 avatar

      Being the owner of 2005 Cooper S (Supercharged version), I’ve come to the conclusion that MINI owners are also a lot more sensitive and picky about things that do go wrong.
      I’ve had a few nit picky issues that were quickly resolved under warranty by the dealer.  Strangely, since my warranty expired, nothing.   Just routine maintenance.   I’m pretty sure I’m not in the minority of MINI owners.  I also noticed that the smallest of thing going wrong, such as maybe some suspension bushing noise, is complained about rather loudly.  Even the dealer asked if I was experiencing excessive noise from the sunroof.  They must have been having a common issue there.   I didn’t have a problem but they said they would check it prior to my warranty expiring anyways.  It’s that kind of service support from MINI that keeps me, and probably other MINI owners obsessively interested in the brand.
      To tell you the truth, my MINI has been more reliable than a 1989 Toyota Corolla I once had and it is a much better and economical drive also.  Is it worth the extra dollars?  Only you can decide that for yourself.

      BTW…the rather harsh bumpy ride can fairly easily be remedied by getting off the runflat tires and moving to regular, and less expensive non-runflat tires. Maybe TTAC can do an article on technologies that have good intention, but are either overkill, too expensive and actually have the wrong effect.
      I do like the JCW, but find it hard to justify the price for the upgrade myself also.

    • 0 avatar

      Funny you opened up that can of worms, Dan. Adding fuel to the “Sajeev is a one trick pony” fire on my hands, check this out:

      As a Panther connoisseur, I actually wonder if the last year of the Panther’s pricing (especially the MGM: hard to find in large quantities in retail, deleted the base trim level, sported little to no discounts) is a little on the MINI side of things. Sort of a dead cat bounce, plus sized and Panther-ized.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Gentle teasing my friend.  I apreciate fanatical devotion, whether it’s a sports team (I’m a Cleveland Browns fan for god’s sake.) or a make and model of car (my father and I still talk about Oldsmobile and the brand has been dead for approxmately a decade and neither one of us has owned one since 2002.) 

      I still can’t help but stop and stare at Town Cars when I see one in an attractive color combo. 

    • 0 avatar

      As a former 2005 Cooper S owner, I can tell you that my ownership experience was both joyful and horrific. Joyful, in that the car was an absolute blast to drive. It was zippy around town, the shifter was fun to row, and I could take some corners about 50% faster than I dared in my previous car (’99 Olds Intrigue). Horrific, in that it gave me problems from about 6700 miles until I finally got a lemon-law-induced refund at about 17K miles.
      It started with the supercharger, which decided to chew itself up for no explainable reason (metal filings in the oil). That was 1 week out of commission. Then immediately upon leaving the dealership after picking up the car, the CEL came on. That was another 2 days to change the O2 sensor. From then on, it was approximately every 2 to 3 weeks when the CEL would come back on and I took it back in for a reflash here, replaced part there, only to head back to the dealer maybe twice a month for the next 10 months. I swear, the whole intake/exhaust system was replaced part by part, trip by trip.
      And then, there were the other issues: a superfast-running clock (gained an hour every 2 weeks), a burned-out foglamp, and a serious problem that developed about a year in-on a cold start, there would literally be NO POWER when I started from a stop, as in push the gas pedal, wait 2 seconds, then revs start to ramp up. It wasn’t until the car warmed up that the engine would be responsive to gas inputs correctly. Get this, when I sent it in for the clock replacement, the genius detailer boy decided to drive my car into a 3-series on the lot, denting the hood, requiring another 5 days out of commission for a replacement.
      I was so f*cking sick and tired of traveling the 40 miles out of my way to the incompetent f*cks at the dealer so often, that I opted to get a refund instead of a replacement, knowing that I’d be asking for trouble with another. I ended up being out about $2700 for usage and taxes, but I was content. I used that refund to buy an apartment in a co-op, and haven’t regretted it since.
      Funny thing is, my replacement car, a 2008 GTI, has been the most reliable car I’ve owned so far. The IP was replaced today under warranty, as the trip counter (avg mpg, driving time, trip distance, etc) wasn’t resetting on cold starts like it should, but this is my first major issue in 3+ years of ownership, and, considering my luck here, I should have many more miles of trouble-free motoring. As much as I pined for that Cooper S and even saved up about half the cost as a down payment, I will NEVER go back. You know the saying, “Fool me once…”

  • avatar

    I liked the base car too, although it is much slower around town.  I think if you were simply always on empty curvy roads, you could enjoy it, but in traffic it would get old fast.  The base S model is perfect, and right at $23k I think.  Any more and you are just paying good money for style.  But, I have to admit, these look really sweet with the 18″ rims, it appears you are trading purer performance for looks.

  • avatar

    Apples to apples is tough on this thing.  As far as I know there is no other car that you can have a factory Union Jack on the roof.  By the numbers though, there is no way to justify it.  WRX, Ralliart, Mazdaspeed, bithcin’ Camaros, and the ‘Stang, all beat it, and that’s not even touching the used market where  S2000s and late model Boxsters abound.

  • avatar

    I’ve yet to find a soul dark enough to frown at the MINI’s retro toggle switchgear and oversize central speedometer cum ICE screen.
    Clearly you haven’t meet my wife! She loves everything about the Mini… except the interior. Too toy-like she claims. She has test driven a Mini two or three times and always comes out saying the same thing: I just can’t live with that silly interior.
    Thus we are going for the next best thing when it comes to head turning – the Volvo C30. It checks all the right boxes: turbo, hatch, small and (very) unique. Sure the Volvo doesn’t have the handling of the Mini (in fact its pretty dull), but honestly during your day-to-day runs to the mall, grabbing lunch, or stopping at the bank do you really take advantage of what is clearly the Mini’s best feature? This is especially true given that we live in flat Florida so the only “curves” we see are parking garage ramps.

  • avatar

    I love the Mini, and have since I drove an early Cooper S several years ago. But I completely agree, pricing is silly. Even the base models are too much for a car in this category. People will pay for the cachet, cool factor and style, but here in Canada a Civic Si is a whoppin’ 25 880$ bucks while the JCW will break the bank at 37 100$ (this is with our dollar 3 cents higher than the US too). And like any quasi BMW even a few options can knock the Mini into the 40 (even 50) grand sector. Infiniti G37s can be had for the same money. Hell, the BMW 3 series starts at the same price as a JCW and provides a full size 230hp sedan. There are so many nice cars for 35-40 grand that I would have a hard time justifying the dosh on one of these, fun and cool as they are.

  • avatar

    I have been known to occassionally frown at the MINI’s retro toggle switchgear and oversize central speedometer cum ICE screen.

    Would it be a good idea to pick up one of the original new Mini’s with the supercharger? I always thought it looked a bit better and the supercharger makes up for the lack of NOISE.

  • avatar

    Re: cute interior…you all have a point.  More to the point, I think most people enjoy the MINI’s center stack (older or newer), but how many enjoy it enough to buy one? That’s gonna be a big difference.

  • avatar

    I got hooked on the MINIs after my wife dragged me in to test drive a convertible.  It was fun, but I just didn’t want yet another convertible (they’re fun, but fragile).  So while we were at the dealership I tested the whole range, from the base Cooper through the JCW.  In the end, I found that I liked the Clubman S the best.  It’s not quite as quick as the JCW, but still has plenty of grunt.  The torque with the turbo just makes it feel like a much bigger engine.

    I was surprised that I liked the Clubman better, but I drove identically-equipped Cooper S and Clubman S cars back-to-back and it won on a couple of fronts.  First, the extra few inches of wheelbase makes it a much more stable car on the freeway.  It’s not as twitchy, which is nice for the commute.  And it didn’t lose any (perceptable) handling in the curves.  I’m sure it’s not quite as quick, but it’s not a huge difference.  It’s also a much more useful car.  The extra space in the back is good for carrying stuff and I can get a child seat in there without making the front passenger seat useless.

    The price shock was what turned me off of buying a new one.  I configured one online and it ended up being $34k.  Sure, you can remove options but where’s the fun in that?  Lucky for me I found a used 2008 built exactly the way I wanted sitting on a Toyota dealer’s lot.  They had no idea what options were on the car (apparently, it’s difficult to open the glove box and look at the window sticker sitting in there) so I talked them down to $6k under book.

    I’ve had a couple of things fixed under warranty since then, the biggest being the timing chain tensioner issue (AKA the “Death Rattle” from the cold start sound) and the dealer experience has been really good.  I also replaced the run-flats with a set of good performance tires, which dealt with all remaining ride quality complaints.

    I don’t think the JCW version is worth the extra scratch, but I can definitely see the appeal.  There are still occasionally times when I’d like a bit more power, but this car isn’t about drag racing.  And I’m honestly not a good enough performance driver to be able to take advantage of the extra HP on curvy roads.  Not yet, anyway.

  • avatar

    We’re 5+ years into a 2006 Mini Cooper S we bought new. We love the car. It is nowhere near as reliable as the Hondas or Volvos we have owned, and our dealer experience has been about a C+/B-. Still, it’s a keeper for probably a few more years. I’ve driven the later S models (turbocharger instead of supercharger) and find the supercharged version superior in every way.
    We consider the back seats vestigial and have only used them occasionally to punish unruly children. We never use the center speedometer readout, preferring instead the digital readout at the base of the tachometer.
    We actually bought the “S” after doing a T-chart comparison with an early 1990s Porsche 911, having set a $25,000 total limit (taxes, tags, etc.). The main determining factors were new vs. used and the seating position. Looking back, it still looks like the right decision.
    We run ours on 16″ rims instead of the 17″ rims that came with the car; it’s a better set up for a daily driver and local road conditions.

  • avatar

    I know this is an odd thing to nitpick, but as a graphic designer, I think the ‘John Cooper WORKS’ logo is badly designed. The word WORKS is twice as large (roughly) as the rest of the logo, and from a glance it’s almost like it makes a quality control statement: Oh, this one is functional. I ‘get’ the idea that they want to emphasize the fact that the JCW cars are special, but it just looks strange to me, like the designer didn’t speak English as their first language (or second or third, even) and just chose to emphasize one word randomly.
    As for $33K for one of these? If it float your boat, why not? But not for me.

    • 0 avatar

      As a former Industrial Design student, I agree: the logo is terrible, very downmarket for such an upscale hatchback.  I think a signature-like script (Diamler anyone?) is far more fitting to the man and the car.

  • avatar

    “But it wasn’t enjoyable. While the limited-slip-this and electronically-modulated-that kept the JCW straight, it’s a buzzkill.”
    Flaming piece of garbage?

  • avatar

    I test drove a manual mini S a couple weeks ago and thought it was a blast to drive. Told them to give me a call when/if they get any JCW models in. 

    I currently drive a speed3 (And drive my dads 335i and C5 vette fairly often) and the mini was a nice change of pace. Not nearly as fast but it’s super nimble, fun and actually made me consider getting one. 25k for a turbo one seems alright (GTI, WRX, and Speed3 are all right around there) but north of 30k is just ridiculous. I priced out a Cooper s for 25k with basically just the cold weather package and a manual but it’s pretty easy to add 10k. I’m just more of an engine and fun factor than an options guy. I figure you could upgrade the engine and the shocks on the S to get it close to the JCW without spending 5k.

  • avatar

    I’m a year in to owning my 2010 Clubman S, I absolutely love it! No major issues (knock on wood), a couple little ones addressed by the dealer… I hope it keeps me this much in love for the foreseeable future.

  • avatar

    As has been mentioned, the problem is not what the Mini is, it’s what else is out there.  Why would you pay 33K for a JCW mini when the GTI has just as much grunt with more space and better appointments for less coin?  Or the MSP3 is available for less with more power.  I just don’t see a compelling argument for the JCW mini.  But, then again, I don’t find “adorable design” compelling.  

  • avatar

    Waaaay overpriced. A Camaro SS or Mustang GT are less money!

  • avatar

    As much as I loved screaming around in my ’03 JCW, when I thought about getting a new Works car and priced it out at $41K I decided to buy a slightly used ’08 Corvette instead – for less money, as many if not more grins, and surprisingly nearly the same miles per gallon.
    The MINI was more fun for me when it was new and still had a cultish following of enthusiasts. Now every texting teen is gong down the road in one, most oblivious to the history – racing or otherwise of the car.

  • avatar

    Good review and an interesting car, but I just can’t see throwing that kind of cash at a front wheel drive “sports” car, torque steer completely absent or not.  But here in southern California, I can easily live with RWD due to roads and climate and will never switch.  For unknown reasons, AWD and 4WD versions of sedans sell quite well;  seems like people will buy anything here at any price just for the badge.  I’ll keep milking my first generation Miata and enjoying it on the twisty canyon roads.

  • avatar

    I currently have a 2010 Civic Coupe with 220,000kms on it with zero issues. I like Minis but can’t afford an unreliable car. I also can’t live with the ugly crazy dash in the Mark 2’s. I would buy a Mk1 with the nice clean dash but it would now be 12 years old if I found the last year, 2006. The odds of finding one of those is very unlikely.

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