Don't be confused: Unlike last year's JCW kit, which was a dealer-installed accessory, the 2009 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop and Mini John Cooper Works Clubman are actual production models. The John Cooper Works models effectively replace the kit, and for about the same money, they offer even more power and performance.
The 1.6-liter turbo four from the Cooper S and Clubman S models has been revised for more power, featuring a reworked cylinder head and turbocharger and new intake and exhaust systems similar to those used in the Mini Cooper Challenge race car. Re-mapped ECU programming now allows almost 19 psi of boost (up from 13 psi), bumping output to 208 hp and 192 lb-ft of torque. An overboost function temporarily allows even higher boost for a midrange torque peak of 207 lb-ft - quite a lot of twist for a diminutive four-cylinder.
The exhaust is more vocal than the S exhaust, with a lovely, hard-edged wail at high rpm and no boominess. A resonance tube connects the engine's intake to the inside of the dashboard to transmit additional intake honk when in Sport mode, filling out the acoustic experience. We wish the exhaust were a little louder outside, though, since full-throttle runs through a tunnel weren't quite as entertaining as we had hoped. At low speeds, the modified turbo announces its presence with that oh-so-pleasant whoosh, and the motor generates huge torque everywhere in the rev range.
The base Cooper S (with 172 hp and 177 lb-ft) is already a quick car - but the John Cooper Works Cooper will hit 60 mph in an even quicker 6.2 seconds (the Clubman does it in 6.5.) Both models run on to a decidedly un-mini 148 mph. In place of the S's optional mechanical limited-slip differential, the Works Minis use upgraded front brakes to mitigate wheelspin. The system works very well, helping the cheeky speedster put an impressive amount of power to the ground. And though you'll need a firm grasp on the wheel under acceleration, the system eliminates much of the violent torque steer that the limited-slip cars experience.
The use of an electronic diff is a little surprising. Despite the fact that Mini claims the electronic system helps the car put down more power than the mechanical system, we'd prefer to see the electronic system (and its reduced torque steer) on the less hard-core Cooper S and Clubman S and the mechanical system on the John Cooper Works models.
On curvy, mountain roads, DSC stability control intervenes almost continually to keep wheelspin in check. To help eliminate that problem, BMW fitted the John Cooper Works Minis with the same DTC mode familiar from its rear- and all-wheel-drive cars. In DTC mode, the system's intervention threshold is higher but is still a little too intrusive for our tastes.
With DSC switched completely off, the brake-based electronic limited-slip diff is still active, and though it doesn't pull engine power in response to wheelspin, it does occasionally add enough braking force to the front wheels to feel like it has cut power. On the racetrack, hard runs in the Works Coopers didn't result in any brake fade whatsoever - an impressive performance considering their considerable duty at slowing the car into the corners as well as prohibiting wheelspin on the way out. Push very hard, and you can get the pedal to go a teensy bit squishy, but the Mini's powerful brakes never go away. The aluminum front calipers are painted red and sure do look a whole lot like they should say "Brembo" on them.
The Works' rear end can dance around quite a bit under full braking, especially on a bumpy section of track, but it never feels as though the car will go out of control. And as you would guess, understeer is the Mini's dominant handling characteristic. Lifting in the middle of a long, high-speed turn at max grip will cause the rear end to step out a few degrees - but almost magically, it never comes around more than that. In fact, almost nothing we could do would coax the Mini's rear end out - save for one violent Scandinavian flick and one emergency-brake turn. This is probably for the better, as the Mini's short wheelbase encourages snap-oversteer that takes a good deal of concentration to catch quickly. Still, on the track, the Mini is certainly better than most other front-wheel-drive compact cars (and probably even better than our favorite front-driver, the Volkswagen GTI), but a little more of a rear-end-friendly attitude wouldn't hurt.