Factory tuning is an interesting topic. It's great to see manufacturers acknowledge our hobby but cautious decision-makers often turn out disappointing and expensive offerings. Yet these factory parts will preserve your warranty, meet local laws and the cost can be spread across your car payments. So there's always a dilemma over whether to go aftermarket or to go factory.
One of the more successful factory tuning programs is John Cooper Works from Mini. Its history can be traced back to 1959 and the original Mini's creation by Sir Alec Issigonis. At the time, John Cooper was a Formula 1 engineer who had successfully introduced the mid-engined layout to the sport in 1955.
Cooper was immediately impressed by the Mini and sent a driver to Monza to test the car in its first year. By 1960 he had six cars entered in the Monte Carlo Rally and was talking to the factory about a tuned version - the first Mini Cooper.
Only 1000 of the original cars were built with a new crank and pistons, bigger valves, ported head, twin carbs and disc brakes.
The Mini Cooper S followed shortly after and again caused a stir on the Monte Carlo Rally - an event they'd dominate for several years. Competition success drove sales success and henceforth the Cooper brand was inextricably associated with Mini.
Before John Cooper's death in 2000, BMW had approached his son Mike to again bring the Cooper magic to Mini to the launch of the new car in '01. Initially, the John Cooper Works parts were available as accessories, allowing you to dress and tune your Mini with a range of parts. More recently, the JCW brand was brought in-house, with BMW's acquisition of the company. Its aim is to create something like the M Division for Mini, where JCW would represent fun and performance.
The first factory-built vehicle was the John Cooper Works GP based on the first generation Cooper S. We had the opportunity to drive the second-gen Mini John Cooper Works shortly after we'd thrown it through, (and got thrown off), the slalom on the Mini Takes The States tour (et 11/08). The car had impressed us with its throttle response and sharp handling, but how would it feel on our daily commute?
Fortunately, the JCW is a riot. The first thing that strikes you is its raucous exhaust. This pipe bangs and pops on the over-run, snarling under acceleration in a way most aftermarket exhausts aren't allowed. We never expected to hear a manufacturer's system sound so good.
That exhaust gives voice to the tuned engine, up from the stock 172hp for the Cooper S to an impressive 207hp and 192 lb-ft of torque. This is possible thanks to a revised turbo, air filter, air-mass sensor, the aforementioned exhaust and catalytic converter, plus the accompanying software tweaks.
All turbocharged Cooper S models get an over-boost function that momentarily increases torque at full throttle. On the JCW, this is even more infectious, encouraging you to keep burying the pedal into the carpet.
When not at full throttle, our JCW experienced some misfiring at part throttle. It's possible this was down due to poor fuel quality but was unexpected from the direct injection engine - certainly the aftermarket has smoother throttle response than this modified Mini.
Misfires aside, the JCW was a blast. And thanks to its enormous brakes and modified suspension, the car feels like a racer. In fact, the engine mods and brakes were requisitioned from the Mini Challenge race series, so it shouldn't be a surprise...
The brake rotors go from 11.6" on the Cooper S to 12.4" on the JCW, with larger red calipers clamping them. Fitted under the same 17" (22 lb) wheels as on the racers, the brakes look huge and perform incredibly well - taking a few stabs to get used to their power.
The sports suspension is 10mm lower and slightly stiffer. It certainly doesn't feel fidgety but the Mk2 Minis are so much better than the first-gen for ride composure.
As with all Minis, the options list is quite staggering. You can specify body kits, interior finishes, accessories and more. We played on the www.miniusa.com website and managed to spec a JCW car to almost $50k. It was a beauty, but it's a little scary when the base price is $29200.
At the almost $30k starting price, the Mini John Cooper Works is up against some strong opposition. It's significantly more than a 200hp GTI and close enough to the BMW 135i that only a serious Mini fan wouldn't be distracted from their mission to buy the ultimate Mini.
But if you want a car that's going to bring a smile to your face every time you fire the motor, the JCW is a hard package to beat. The exciting motor, along with thrilling handling and a class-leading interior mean these little rockets are hard to resist.