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2009 MINI John Cooper WorksHappiness around every corner
Except for a racing shifter kart, I haven't had this much fun in a motor vehicle in years. The 2009 MINI John Cooper Works hardtop edition is an old-school rush. Come to think of if, the kart kicked the fire out of my ribs, so the Cooper Works model is the most entertaining vehicle I've driven since I piloted the trailer portion of a hook-and-ladder fire truck.
The MINI John Cooper Works hardtop is just flat fun to drive-aggressively fast. Since it doesn't have hoonishly high horsepower, an assertive driver must rely on higher cornering speeds and precise line selection. Drivers of high-horsepower cars can stop in the turns and overcome lack of driving skill with power. (Those who can't shoot, buy a more powerful gun. Those who can't drive, get a more powerful car. This is also the reason for "enhancement" drugs.)
I have grown tired of gargantuan pickups that are harder to keep between the lane lines than an 80,000-pound Freightliner. I'm worn out with 6,500-pound, eight-passenger, 370-horsepower station wagons that get single-digit miles per gallon blowing down the Interstate at 15 over the 70 mph speed limit. I'm sick of 300- to 600-horsepower cars that any dimbulb with an 810 credit rating can drive off the lot. Back in the day, Formula 1 Grand Prix racecars didn't make that much power. Check the odometer on a used seven-year-old Viper or Porsche Turbo: It's often less than 10,000 miles. That means the owner scared the snot out of himself the first time he stood on the gas and parked it in the garage to hold his buddies beer cans.
The Cooper Works model is the opposite of those. A garage that would barely accept a single Tahoe, 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 could 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. Heating and cooling 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 a bit 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 started 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.
About the Author
Mac Demere is an automotive journalist and high-performance driving instructor who has competed in the NASCAR Southwest Tour and Rolex 24 at Daytona.