Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
At first glance the JCW Clubman doesn't look dramatically different from a regular Cooper or Cooper S. A pair of small John Cooper Works badges grace the lower right corners of the front grille and tail-gate. The most obvious visual distinction for the JCW is the wheels. Back when Sir Alec Issignosis created the original Austin Mini in the late 1950s it included a number of innovations like newly developed 10-inch wheels. In 2008, such tiny footwear would be laughed off the road, so the JCW gets 17-inch alloys wrapped in 205/45-17 Continental rubber.
Remember that winter weather we mentioned? Those 17-inch tires were the biggest issue with this MINI since the car came to us wearing a summer compound, totally unsuited to snow and ice. Before I began writing about cars I spent 17 years as an engineer working on electronic slip control systems like ABS, traction and stability control. These systems can do amazing things to keep you out of trouble and help prevent accidents. Unfortunately, as good as slip control can be, it can only help a driver use the maximum amount of traction available. The key there is available traction.
Here's where those tires play a bottle neck. If you run summer tires on snowy roads, slip control can't make traction where there is no physical grip between the tire and road. In my neighborhood, there is a long hill going up one of the side streets. On my way home from the grocery store I decided to go up that road and as I climbed the hill, the traction control light was flashing as the system worked feverishly to keep wheel spin under control.
All the while the car got slower and slower until it finally came to a complete stop about two-thirds of the way up. Ultimately, the MINI just would not go further. I ended up backing into a driveway, turning around and going back down the hill and taking another route home. If you have a car with high performance summer tires and you plan to drive it in winter weather, the first thing you should do is go buy an extra set of rims and a proper set of winter tires – you won't be sorry. Just swap the tires in November and March (or whenever the snow melts away) and you'll be good to go.
Having said all that, within the limits of traction, the MINI's slip control system worked great. Peddle pulsation during ABS was just enough to let you know through your foot that the system was active without being annoying. The TCS/ESC managed the speed of the individual wheels quietly without jerking the steering wheel around or even the car.
One of the particularly welcome options on the JCW is the heated seat package, which came in handy on a couple of 17-degree mornings. Regardless of whether the thermal enhancement was active, the seats were comfortable although a bit more thigh support would be welcome. The rest of the JCW interior is pretty standard MINI, although many of the trim bits are now finished in a glossy piano black. The center of the dash is dominated by the over sized speedometer, with the smaller tach sitting in a pod on top of the steering column. The integrated bluetooth connectivity worked well with our phones and the voice recognition was easily able to take commands and dial for us.
Opting for the Clubman version of the MINI moves the rear axle three inches further away from the front and stretches the overall length of the body by 9.6 inches. Any adult who has tried to climb into the back seat of a MINI hardtop will find themselves in very confined space. That extra length in the Clubman makes all the difference in the world. A pair of adults can sit in the second row in relative comfort. Access to that space is enhanced by an extra rear-hinged half door on the passenger side. In the back, the top-hinged hatch is replaced by a pair of side-hinged vertically slit doors. Frankly, we'd rather have the hatch and skip the thick central obstruction in the rear view mirror.
The heart of the John Cooper Works MINI lies under the hood where its 1.6L engine has spent time at the gym. A twin scroll turbocharger and direct fuel injection push the output to 208 horsepower and a mighty 192 lb-ft of torque, making this the only gas-engined MINI to out-torque the diesel version. Best of all, like other direct-injected turbos, this one has a nice fat torque curve peaking all the way from 1,850 rpm to 5,600 rpm.
This is one sweet little powerplant and it never wants for thrust. On the few occasions when dry pavement was available, a stab of the throttle brought acceleration aplenty with no noticeable throttle lag. Even with all that torque available, the combination of good suspension geometry and the slip control system mean that even under maximum acceleration, the MINI goes exactly where you point it. Like other MINIs, the JCW has great steering feedback as well. Unlike so many cars with electric power steering, the MINI is one of the only examples, along with the Honda Fit, that actually allows you to sense what is happening at the front corners when you are changing direction.
On smooth, dry pavement those summer tires work well with the beefed up suspension and steering to provide excellent ability to change direction on a dime. When the pavement degrades as it so often does around these parts (actually smooth pavement is more the exception than the rule), things can get a bit jiggly. The ride quality of the JCW is noticeably harsher than lesser models.
One of the nice things about even this most powerful of MINIs is decent fuel economy. Over a week of driving in a mix of stop and go urban and highway environments, the JCW went 27 miles for every gallon of petrol. It certainly doesn't doesn't compete with the 47-mpg European spec MINI diesel we tried last summer, but if you are looking for acceleration, the JCW is the choice.
The problem of winter traction is easily remedied with snow tires. Not so easily corrected is the price tag. At a base price of $31,450 delivered ($29,200 for the MINI hardtop) the JCW Clubman is not cheap. Is it worth the price? That depends. A big part of the MINI's driving appeal is the wonderfully balanced go-kart handling that is present on even a standard Cooper or Cooper S at much lower price. The ultimate dry road grip isn't quite as high and they don't accelerate as quick, but those lesser models are still a joy to drive. If you live up one of the canyon roads in southern California, the extra performance of the JCW might be worth it to you. Only those signing the check can decide. Just don't forget the snow tires.