LANDING A WORKS DRIVE
How do you put a price on fun? It's not always an easy question to answer and we've driven several supercars that aren't any more smile-inducing than a hotted-up shopping hatch. Manufacturers spend millions on developing hugely competent machines that just seem to lack the grin factor. One way to virtually guarantee yourself a smile broad enough to post a wok into is to search out a used MINI Cooper S John Cooper Works edition or, to save mileage on my keyboard, the JCW. With a punchy 1.6-litre turbo engine, livewire steering and a chassis that really puts you in control, this is a car that knows how to show you a good time. Here's how to find one that still has a lot of entertaining left in it.
The Cooper badge carries with it a certain weight of heritage; of giant-killing exploits on the Monte Carlo Rally and bank heists in Turin. Things went a bit quiet for Cooper between 1971 and 1990 when the original hot Mini enjoyed its swansong, but the badge was dusted down and resurrected on the R53 version of the 'New' MINI from BMW in 2001. The car we look at here is the second generation R56 MINI which arrived in 2006. The Cooper S JCW edition made its debut in July 2008, arriving in UK dealerships priced at £20,500.
In many ways, this marked the R56's coming of age as a sporting hatch and with 211bhp under the bonnet - and aftermarket potential for a whole lot more - the JCW quickly became a favourite not just of those who just wanted the swishest MINI, but also of those who found that blowing away a Ferrari F430 on a trackday just never gets old. It quickly won Auto Express' Best Hot Hatch award and many more followed. This generation was replaced by the all-new MINI 'F56' model at the start of 2014.
What You Get
From the outside at least, there are lots of little tweaks to let passers by know you've bought the ultimate MINI. Chief amongst these are special 17" alloy wheels, a more obvious giveaway than the John Cooper Works logos you'll find on the grille, the boot and the door trim. Anoraks may also spot the chromed finish for the side indicator grilles, fuel filler cap and door handles, while the honeycomb black radiator grille and body-coloured engine scoop also add a little bling. MINI also sold a Clubman estate version that was dressed very similarly and makes a great left field choice.
Standard safety equipment includes six airbags - front, side and curtain - plus an Isofix child seat attachment at the rear and loads of electronic safety systems to keep you out of trouble. Apart from DTC (Dynamic Traction Control) and DSC (Dynamic Stability Control), these include ABS with Electronic Brake Distribution, Corner Braking Control and Hill Assist to stop you drifting backwards on uphill junctions. Remote central locking, an alarm and an immobiliser are of course standard fit.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The 1.6-litre engine was co-developed by PSA Peugeot Citroen and BMW and is a real standout, offering decent reliability and modest fuel consumption. The transmission is also tough although the suspension can suffer from tired shocks and bushings if the car has been used enthusiastically. If body control is anything other than rock solid or there is a lot of thumping coming from each corner under compression, you could be looking at a sizeable bill.
Just about the most important thing to do is to make sure your JCW actually is a JCW. Many owners of 184bhp Cooper S hatches had the engine upgraded by MINI to match the JCW's 211bhp output and then misleadingly advertise the car. On a privately upgraded Cooper S, you won't be getting features like the Sport button, the upgraded stereo, the bigger brakes or the lovely piano black interior.
Customer reliability indices suggest that owners are happier with this 2nd generation MINI model than they had been with its predecessor. Check for kerbed alloys and uneven tyre wear that might indicate tracking that's been knocked out of alignment. Steer clear of cars that have obviously had a hard life on track. Look for semi-slick tyres, aftermarket induction kits and Nurburgring lap cards in the glove box. The stiffer suspension option is something that's not great on British roads either.
approx based on a 2012 MINI Cooper S JCW hatchback excl. VAT) Expect to pay around £140 for a clutch assembly. Front brake pads are around £70, a full exhaust about £360, an alternator around £130 and a tyre around £135. A starter motor is about £120.
On the Road
The basis for this JCW model is an engine originally developed for the MINI Challenge one-make race series. It's based of course on the turbocharged 1.6-litre engine used in the standard Cooper S, but benefits from revisions to the cylinder head, pistons and turbocharger, all of which boost power to a hefty 211bhp. There's also a tweaked exhaust system. The 0-60mph sprint detains this MINI for only 6.5s and it'll run onto a 148mph top speed, enough to put the frighteners on some serious performance cars. More importantly, thanks to 260Nm of torque accessible from under 2,000rpm and an almost total lack of turbo-lag, pulling power is instant in almost any gear. If you do need more, pressing this 'Sport' button in front of the gear lever offers another 20Nm of torque, accessible from even lower speeds, plus sharper steering and throttle response.
BMW's answer here was to invest in a whole raft of electronic trickery to help it make the most of its power output. The Dynamic Stability Control and Dynamic Traction Control work in tandem, giving a certain amount of leeway before intervening. They can also be disengaged entirely, leaving only the clever EDLC Electronic Differential Lock Control system to keep you spinning all that power uselessly away. Essentially a very clever limited slip differential, this works when the car is accelerating hard out of corners, slowing the spinning inside rear wheel to give better grip and ensuring that all the available power is transferred to the wheel best able to use it. If you habitually drive your car hard, you'll notice the difference immediately, especially in the wet.
The MINI Cooper S John Cooper Works makes an extremely desirable used purchase and prices reflect this fact. Whereas a 2008 Volkswagen Golf GTI is now be worth somewhere in the region of £8,000, the JCW has held onto its value far more tenaciously. Why? It's a more covetable purchase and demand is strong. What price fun? We think that question has been answered quite succinctly.