Mike Cooper doesn't miss a detail. The energetic forty-eight-year-old chairman of John Cooper Works and son of the eponymous founder and racing legend ushers a multinational group of journalists into his garage here in southern England. As we cross the threshold of his gleaming showroom, three young Sussex lasses--"my girls," says Cooper without a hint of irony--wearing matching T-shirts with "MINI" emblazoned unsubtly across their chests smile and offer refreshment. Cooper is nothing if not a gracious host, and entertaining the press must be child's play compared with having BMW AG to tea and agreeing to develop a performance variant of the Mini Cooper S. Imagine the repercussions to fame, fortune, and the family name, not to mention Anglo-German diplomacy, if he got it wrong.
But he got it right. The Cooper S Works package does Cooper and Mini's parent, BMW, proud while answering the calls of Mini enthusiasts for more power and torque than the 163 horsepower and 155 pound-feet provided by the supercharged 1.6-liter SOHC four in the stock Cooper S. The tuning kit, fully covered by the factory warranty, is now available at dealers for installation in new and used Cooper S Minis. Consisting primarily of a new supercharger with Teflon-coated vanes, a new cylinder head, and a replacement exhaust system, the Works package increases power to about 200 horsepower at 6950 rpm and torque to 177 pound-feet at 4000 rpm (U.S. SAE figures were being determined as we went to press).
Why all the new metal, you ask? "We tried chip work," says Cooper, "and the most we ever got with the ECU (electronic control unit) was 1.5 horsepower. And when we changed the exhaust manifold, we got only two horsepower. The only thing we do to the ECU," he adds, "is adjust the fuel flow." The new cylinder head, which has different porting, flow, inlet, and exhaust capabilities, provides extra power; dissipates excess heat from the new supercharger, which otherwise would ruin the valves; and lowers fuel consumption, such that the Works model should have the same EPA ratings as the regular Cooper S. (The Mini's engine is built in Brazil in a BMW-Chrysler joint venture that was established before the DaimlerChrysler merger; BMW, loath to use an engine that now is tied to its archrival, Mercedes, will replace it in 2006 with a Peugeot unit, for which Cooper already is developing a Works version.)
"We stopped at 200 horsepower for durability reasons," says Cooper, "and because there would be traction problems at the front wheels if you had much more power off the line." Although first-gear launches are not much improved, Cooper's efforts to maximize the Mini are evident as the tach needle passes 3000 rpm. Coming on cam at about 4000 rpm, the little engine's strong, linear, and smooth blower screams merrily all the way to nearly 7000 rpm. Pulling power between 5000 and 6000 rpm in fourth and fifth gears is incredible, and the Mini rockets to triple digits faster than you can say "John Cooper Works." Even sixth gear, at 3500 to 4000 rpm, is not in a dead zone. When we followed our photographer--no timid driver--on both motorway and secondary roads on a ten-mile run to a photo site, he could not shake our diminutive Mini from the rear-view mirror of his BMW 540i.
The Mini Cooper S Works is fluid, refined, fun, and very fast. Aside from the engine's dramatically increased oomph, which is expected to cut the 0-to-60-mph time by three-quarters of a second to about 6.3 seconds, the best thing about the car is its overall integrity. The suspension, steering, and brakes, which are strengths of the stock model, are untouched. Discreet badges front and rear distinguish the car from lesser Minis. Although the Works Mini is not a factory effort, it feels and acts like one, with none of the cobbled-together character afflicting so many tuner cars. "I wanted to make sure it was not just built on heritage," says Cooper.
The Works package will cost about $5000 with installation. The Cooper S starts at $20,000, but its average transaction price is closer to $23,000, which means that a Cooper S Works easily could reach $30,000. At that price, the Mazda RX-8 and the Nissan 350Z surely will make more sense to many buyers, but then again, the Mini Cooper S is its own very different--and very delicious--cup of tea.