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MINI Cooper S John Cooper Works R56 2008 Road Test

Mon, 14 Jul 2008

On the launch in 2006 we found the original pre-production R56 Cooper S a bit antiseptic. We were promised go-kart handling and we got something with as much feel as a TV remote control. So we said so, and MINI Project Leader Horst Radibojevic seemed to take it to heart. He made sure the production cars were a lot more fun to drive. But now it’s almost as if Herr Radibojevic has been losing sleep over our slurs. Because the 211PS John Cooper Works is a little monster.

If you don’t touch anything, it behaves like any other ‘Health & Safety’ sports car with 211PS and an all-up weight of 1,130 kilos. All kinds of initials and acronyms conspire together to turn it into the sort of motor anyone can drive and no one can get into trouble in.

But then, there are a couple of buttons.

Press ‘Sport’ and the throttle response and the steering become sharper, but do not gain any ‘feel’. Press DSC for 1 second and you raise the level at which the electronics step in to keep you on the road. Press DSC for 3 seconds and it’s like opening the lion’s cage because you lose both electronic stability control and traction control and keeping the car on the road is then all down to you.

On a track, that is what you have to do to get the most response and the most fun out of the car. Everything then comes down to basic physics and how good you are at balancing the various forces. You can spin wheels, drift, attempt handbrake turns. It brings out the hooligan in the car.

That’s okay when you’re on a track that you can learn every nuance and undulation of. But it’s not okay on a public road full of surprises.

Then you could get into trouble. Because the car torque steers and tramlines like an old Mk II Golf 16v tweaked to 200bhp. Any variation in surface will have it shifting and squirming all over the place. So best leave it in Sport (if you want) and just switch first stage DSC off.

Then it’s quick and controllable. But you still have to remember you’ve got 211PS and 280Nm torque feeding through the front wheels of a little car.

On country roads its natural pace is 80mph at which the needle of the 160mph central speedometer is exactly vertical. As in the MINI Cooper S, 80 feels like 60 in an ordinary car, and you have to pay attention to the fact you’re going 20mph quicker.

The engine is not at all peaky, so you have instant acceleration in all the gears, even 6th, which gives you sensible cruising of 25mph per 1,000rpm.

There is not a lot of movement in the suspension. It isn’t back-jarring despite 205/45 tyres on 17” wheels. But it cannot absorb sudden undulations. There was one sudden unmarked hump on our route that had it off the ground like a rabbit. And even with all systems on there is a limit to how much clever electronics can influence limited travel suspension.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. They have made it go and handle exactly the way a Cooper S JCW should go and handle, providing tremendous fun for the driver, and an eye-popping ride for the passenger with that dinner plate 160mph speedometer directly in front of her (or his) face.

The upside is they have managed to do all this, yet still certificate the car at 165g/km CO2 and 40.9mpg combined. So the fun doesn’t hit you in the pocket in running costs.

It’s no dearer in tax and fuel than Mr 40mph’s Vectra that you blast past before he even realises you’re in his mirror.

The Cooper S JCW goes on sale on 22nd July. Unfortunately scuba diving, shooting, dog loving, cricketing hooligans with a bit of kit to haul around will have to wait until next year for a Clubman JCW because it’s taking time to get the bodykit right for that.

The main thing about this car is there’s no need to go to a WRX STI, or an EVO or a Caterham, or an Elise or a Boxster or a 350Z to get some hair-raising fun.

You can now do it in a MINI.


Original MINI Cooper/Cooper S test at www.honestjohn.co.uk/road_tests/index.htm?id=249

MINI Cooper Clubman test at /road_tests/index.htm?id=293

For prices, specs, engines and transmissions, dimensions, performance figures and alternatives please click the tabs.

More at www.MINI.co.uk

Technobabble

Not everyone is going to be interested in the car’s technical highlights, so I have separated them.

The engine is boosted from 175PS to 211PS by a variety of heavy-duty tweaks developed in the MINI CHALLENGE race car.

The basic alloy block with iron wet-liners remains the same. Intake valves and seats have been upgraded to withstand higher engine temperatures. Pistons are reinforced, and the cylinder head wall thickness is increased.

Air supply is improved by a different mass airflow sensor, charge airline and a larger air intake. A stronger and bigger twin scroll turbocharger is fitted with charge pressure increased from 0.9 to 1.3 bar. And a new, freer flowing exhaust system brings back “snap, crackle and pop” sound effects on the overrun.

To get the resulting power and torque down to the road or track in all conditions an electronic differential lock control has been used. When accelerating out of a tight bed on a smooth surface this electronically controls the spinning inner wheel to ensure power is fed to the wheel with the most grip. It does not cut engine power.

Dynamic Stability Control and Dynamic Traction Control do, in either full spoilsport or semi spoilsport modes. And on bumpy UK roads I strongly advise at least the semi-spoilsport setting.


Original MINI Cooper/Cooper S test at www.honestjohn.co.uk/road_tests/index.htm?id=249

MINI Cooper Clubman test at /road_tests/index.htm?id=293

For prices, specs, engines and transmissions, dimensions, performance figures and alternatives please click the tabs.

More at www.MINI.co.uk

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