Before we get into the review of this fast and fun car, it's worth putting the Mini Cooper S John Cooper Works in context -- the context of $3-per-gallon gasoline.
The Mini is indeed small; you can really only carry two pre-teens in the back seat. But on your next commute, count the SUV drivers you see stop-and-going in empty vehicles. No passengers. No car-pooling. Then consider that most of these drivers could instantly double their mileage by getting this very fleet, but still frugal (25 mpg city/32 mpg highway), car instead.
Rather than beefing about the cost of oil, the amount of money executives at "big oil" companies make, the astounding profit levels at firms such as ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil, Americans should be hounding Congress for more public transportation and alternative energy funding. But most of all, they should be driving fuel-efficient vehicles.
That's not happening. According to J.D. Power and Associates, while hybrid and four-cylinder auto sales are growing modestly, the number of buyers who opted for V-8 engines in their 2006 cars is unchanged compared to last year, at 25%. Meanwhile, you've probably heard that sales of General Motors' Hummer are booming. Fortunately, buyers are scooping up the somewhat saner Hummer H3, with its anemic five-cylinder motor, while H2 and H1 sales are flat or falling. But the H3 is still a relatively inefficient vehicle in terms of both gas mileage (16 mpg city/20 mpg highway) and size. There's more space in almost any midsize sedan or wagon.
In other words, Americans are whining that they can't find gasoline that costs far less than even the cheapest bottled water, but they're still buying gas-guzzling cars. Did I miss something?
Hopefully, if gas prices stay at this level or go higher, Americans will start to realize they don't need huge SUVs and can do with cars that are somewhat smaller. And, in time, they might even come to realize that small cars, such as this $26,900 Mini Cooper S with a John Cooper Works performance package, are actually enjoyable to drive and can save gobs of gas, especially on the interstate.
What follows is our take on the Mini. If you're currently driving a most-of-the-time empty SUV and cursing Exxon Mobil, we highly recommend that you read what we have to say about it.
From the Driver's Seat
It would be silly to ignore some basic truths about this car.
First, it's designed to be a hotter-than-stock Mini Cooper S, itself a hotter version of the standard Mini Cooper.
Second, that makes it less frugal on gas than the standard Mini Cooper, which gets 28 mpg city/36 mpg highway fuel economy. If you're really serious about saving gas, perhaps you ought to consider the less potent Cooper, which is also less expensive.
But since so many Americans are already driving cars with V-8 engines, I don't expect people to break the speed habit easily. Given that the Cooper Works Mini scoots to 60 mph in a Mini-estimated 6.5 seconds (we think it's probably closer to six seconds flat) and still gets you 25 miles per gallon in city driving, a car like this won't have you missing the punch of your old SUV bruiser. That allows more money to stay in your pocket, with less cash going to "big oil."
Before we start cooing about all the performance baubles of this creature, let's review a bit of Mini history. John Cooper was an aftermarket tuner of cars in England in the 1940s, but he made his name tuning original Minis in the 1960s, souping them up to a point where they were actually raced to wins in the old Formula 1 Constructors Championship series.
After Cooper died, his son Michael carried on the business, and now Mini and Cooper offer a factory-installed, $6,300 package of engine tuning, brakes, exhaust and transmission upgrades that doesn't void your factory warranty but does boost horsepower from 167 to 207, while torque climbs from 162 pound-feet to 180 pound-feet. You also get lighter wheels and tauter suspension.
Mechanically speaking, Cooper Works buyers get a revised Eaton supercharger that allows greater flow pressure and higher rpms, a modified head to allow more compression and a redesigned air box that allows greater airflow (and resonates more aggressively in conjunction with the re-plumbed JCW exhaust kit).
If we lost you back there on the supercharger, what all these new devices mean is greater and more useful power. The stock Cooper S is pretty quick, but you'll find yourself revving the motor relatively hard to get at that torque. It's not a Honda (nyse: HMC - news - people ) with a VTEC motor that requires motorcycle-like revs, but the Cooper S doesn't reach peak torque until 4,000 rpm. If you're used to that lumbering V-8, you'll want more oomph lower in the engine's rpm curve, and that's what the JCW package adds.
You also get a limited-slip differential. This basically prevents tire slip when you accelerate quickly from a stoplight. In addition, there are performance brakes that stop the JCW car a bit more quickly.
Add it all up and you have a small car that accelerates like a serious sports sedan. If you've never driven a Mini, then you don't know the thrill of a car you can drive literally by intuition. Parking is a snap, but more importantly, the steering of this car is uncannily direct. No other car--and I'm a jaded car critic--provides the go-cart-like control of a Mini. Add the JCW ingredients and stir for a Mini that handles synaptically quick.
And the JCW car doesn't feel brutal, the way a lot of factory tuners can. It's still forgiving enough to drive for several hours on the highway, but unlike a giant family hauler, this car will never bore you to sleep, even if you're merely commuting.
Inside, the JCW Mini gets a few upgrades from the factory -- a carbon-fiber trim piece on the dash, some logos, etc. And you can opt for many other upgrades, such as special gauge packages, trim options, fog lamps, navigation and so on.
We're not going to recommend all those extras. As it is, this car is expensive. You can't easily carry more than two passengers, and you certainly can't do the average errand run to Home Depot if you're fetching, say, a bunch of 8-foot lengths of lumber. (Unless, of course, you get a roof rack.) Don't laugh: We've seen Mini owners using a roof rack to carry two-by-fours.
Should You Buy This Car?
And if you're sports-sedan shopping, the Acura RSX Type-S is cheaper, about as fast and about as agile. It's also roomier, with a more usable back seat, and it even gets fuel economy that's nearly equal to the Mini's: 24 mpg city/31 mpg highway.
But remember our premise? If you're jumping out of an SUV, you're unlikely to want a two-seat-only sports car. And you're equally unlikely to buy an Acura RSX Type-S, which -- while more pragmatic than the Mini -- has a very high-revving motor. You have to work the Type-S gearbox to make this Acura go.
The Mini JCW also requires a bit of gearshift rowing through its close-ratio six-speed transmission, but the engine is just a tad more forgiving, and that'll probably spell the difference between a car that's fun for the reformed "boat" driver and a car that convinces said buyer to just go back to steering around a giant hunk of metal.
Do I actually believe anyone who drives a Chevy Suburban would even consider a Mini? Not really. If you drive something that big, I certainly hope you have a family to cart around most of the time.
But given how many people I see driving midsize SUVs -- like Ford Explorers -- around without passengers, it's hard to imagine that at least one car in every household couldn't possibly be smaller and actually fun to drive. All while being less thirsty at the pump.