What's the best handling European car that's also practical for the street? Some might say a 911, Elise or M3, but if you earn peanuts like us, these cars are beyond your measly budget. So lower your sights a little to around $30k for a new car and there are still some decent choices: the R32 would be nice, but they've been discontinued; an A4 or 128i aren't bad choices, either, but neither are tailored to the performance enthusiast. So what else?
The phrase, "big things come in small packages" reminded us of our experience last year behind the wheel of a John Cooper Works (JCW) Mini. With 207hp and 192 lb-ft of torque, the 2700 lb factory-tuned car came with a bold exhaust note, zippy acceleration, tight suspension and enormous brakes. At $30k it's pricey compared to vehicles with similar power, but the JCW was an enthusiast's car, offering a well-balanced package for fun daily driving and weekend track events. Take the factory program further with some aftermarket tuning and anybody could make this FWD hatchback a monster, as demonstrated by Kris Derentz from Las Vegas.
Kris switched from Japanese to German imports for the more sophisticated styling and refined engineering. "When I was 17 I had a '95 Civic," he told us. "It got me into the Japanese car scene. I then went back and forth between trucks, but six years ago I got seriously into building cars."
His first major project car was a 350Z, followed by an Evo. Both proved to be quick but didn't meet his needs, so he purchased a twin-turbo BMW 335i. Unfortunately, that wasn't the solution either. "I sold the BMW because I wanted something sporty and fun to drive like the Evo, yet be more comfortable and practical. The John Cooper Works Mini was the best of both worlds," he explained.
The JCW version is considered the ultimate Mini; it's the equivalent of BMW's M program, if you like. The John Cooper nameplate has a long and respected motorsport history dating back to when the Formula One engineer and tuner started working with the original Mini. By 1961, his name became synonymous with the Mini itself, giving birth to the Mini Cooper.
The Cooper has remained in the Mini line-up ever since, with the John Cooper Works badge being resurrected for the newer R55 and R56 cars, which allowed dealers to offer accessories and performance parts to customers. The fully-equipped JCW Mini is the flagship model at any Mini dealer, and Kris picked up an '09 model at about the same time as he started a website called timeattackforums.com It embodied his passion for road racing, and Kris decided to turn his Mini into a promotional tool to draw people into the site and time attack racing. "For that reason, everything had to be functional on the car. I try not to put anything on there just to be on there," he explained.
To prepare the Mini for frequent track abuse, the chassis improvements came first. The JCW Mini already had a tuned suspension compared to the regular Mini, with stiffer spring rates and a 10mm lowered stance. However, Kris required a more adjustable system for road courses and went for BR Racing's 16-way coilovers, adjustable for bump, rebound and ride height. Solid camber plates would also allow further geometry adjustment.
The stock 17'' JCW wheels only weighed 22 lb, but Kris wanted lighter. So for daily use he picked up 18'' CCW Classic wheels, weighing less than 20 lb each, with 215/40 Falken tires stretched around. And for the track, he returned to his Japanese roots, picking Volk Racing wheels, which tipped the scales at less than 17 lb and allowed wider 225/45 tires.
Fortunately, the JCW came with 12.4'' rotors up front and Brembo four-piston calipers, so all he did was swap the lines, fluid and pads. The next logical step would have been to beef up the engine, but he wanted to save that till last. "I wanted to get a feel for the car on the track without engine mods" he reasoned.
So he decided to swap the seats for Recaro Pole Positions upholstered in black leather with red stitching. He then tossed the rear seats as well, picking up a plastic seat-delete cover and wrapping it in carbon fiber.
Kris estimated to have saved 50-70 lb with the seat swap, but the addition of a rollbar would counteract the advantage. He spoke to friends at Davis Fabrication in Las Vegas to fabricate the bar. "I helped design it but we modeled it off the Porsche GT3RS cage, mimicking the crossbar and how the cage fits. I also decided to use chromoly instead of steel to save extra weight."
For the exterior, Kris simply cleaned it up by color-match painting the plastic trim after he'd replaced the factory flares with European versions that didn't have the unsightly reflectors. He also removed chrome trim from the fender vents and light rings. Not wanting to go overboard, he left the headlight housings, handles and belt line in chrome to break up the black car.
There were some factory parts that didn't come with the JCW kit, so Kris installed Mini's flat-bottom undertray. "Not a lot of people know about it," he revealed. "It comes with the factory aero kit and the Mini Challenge cars run it." The piece smooths airflow under the car, reducing drag. It also allowed Kris to run a Mini Motorsports race diffuser. "You can't find them in the US. It was only available to Mini Challenge teams in Germany and the UK. In fact, it took six months of emailing and calling overseas just to get it," he recalled.
Last, but not least, came the motor. The JCW had a peppy 1.6L turbo but, as with all factory-boosted cars, there was power to uncork. So Kris started with an intake from DDM Works. "It's the only intake that tried downpipes from two different companies but was unhappy with both, so returned to Davis Fabrication where they developed a cat-less 2.5'' downpipe which fed into the stock exhaust. Merging all the components and increasing the boost was a custom tune by Mynes Performance.
After our photos were taken, Kris parted with his JCW Mini. But before returning it to stock, he competed in more than ten time attack competitions. Its best finish was second in class. "I've driven rear-, front- and all-wheel drive cars," he told us. "And even though the Mini is front-drive, it has a unique character. It's a cliché, but it truly is like driving a go-kart on the street, and I'm happy with how it came out."
2009 Mini Cooper Works
Owner: Kris Derentz
Location: Las Vegas, NV
Occupation: medical equipment
Engine: 1.6L inline-four 16v turbo with DDM Works Race intake, Samco Sport intercooler and radiator hoses, Davis Fabrication cat-less downpipe, Forge Motorsport intercooler, Mynes custom tune, Craven Speed PSIclone boost gauge adapter and hot-link coupler
Drivetrain: six-speed manual transmission
Brakes: OE JCW 12.4'' front rotors with four-piston Brembo calipers, 11'' rear rotors, Goodridge stainless lines, Motul RBF fluid, Carbon Tech XP10 and XP8 pads (track)
Suspension: BC Racing coilovers and camber plates, H-Sport Competition upper and lower camber arms and rear sway bar, Power Grid adjustable end-links
Wheels & Tires: 18x8'' front, 18x8.5'' rear CCW Classic wheels with 215/35 R18 Falken FK-452 tires (street), 17x7.5'' Volk Racing TE37 wheels with 225/45 R17 Falken RT-615 tires (track)
Exterior: OE JCW v2 front bumper with brake ducts, side skirts and rear bumper, Mini Motorsports Challenge rear diffuser and flat-bottom undertray, color-matched European fenders with light rings, Cooper S rear spoiler, Cooper fuel door conversion
Interior: Recaro Pole Position seats in leather red stitching, Crow Formula six-point harnesses, Davis Fabrication rollbar, Shrader Performance rear seat delete with carbon overlay, Craven Speed A-Frame gauge pods with Stri DSD-SLM 2 boost and water temp gauges
Audio/Visual: Infinity Reference 6022si, 3022cf and 9623i speakers
Thanks: Stephanie, Ryan, Mike, Brandon and Trevor, Robert at Falken, Danny at BC Racing, Ed at Recaro USA and 702Graphics