2008 MINI Cooper S + 2008 John Cooper Works Edition – Road Test

Having grown up in the UK for the most part, the Mini has always been an integral part of the road-scape for me. Although it had a bit of a cult following over here in North America, there were numerous versions of the Mini in Britain and Europe. From the familiar and traditional 2-door version to a station wagon (Clubman), to a panel van version and a pickup – the mini was everywhere. The Post Office had what seemed like millions of them and they seemed to be standard issue for every traveling salesman. And let’s not forget the movie “The Italian Job” – it just wouldn’t have been the same if they’d used VW Beetles, would it?

When the Mini was redesigned in the mid ‘80’s a lot of people in Britain were upset because it was nothing like the original – it was just downright ugly. British Leyland – or whatever it was called at the time – was derided for designing such a dog. A “Mini Classic” continued and outsold the newer version for more than two decades. Forever hampered by weekly wildcat strikes, by a union that thought that people would always buy the crap they were building because it was British, BL struggled for years. The company was eventually sold and carved up, with various parts sold to other manufacturers. More than a few Brits were upset that German manufacturer – BMW, had gobbled up the Mini, Rolls Royce and Rover.

Fortunately, the German giant returned MINI to its former glory and changed the name to appear in all-caps to differentiate it from the past. The new MINI looked like a modern rendition of the beloved icon, but it came with modern conveniences and safety features like airbags and ABS brakes. Instantly recognizable, BMW won the hearts of people around the world with their version of the MINI that arrived in 2001.

This week is a special 2-For-1 Road Test – Two MINI’s for the price of one. As is the case with most vehicles there’s a regular version and a top-of-the-line version. Essentially they are the same vehicle but with various enhancements and a change to the fun quotient. While the base model Cooper and the Cooper S – JCW  (John Cooper Works) look similar, they are actually two completely different cars. In this review, I’ll point out the differences of the John Cooper Works version (JCW) whenever applicable….

First Impressions
Too often a car is ruined when it goes through a re-design – even a minor one, but thankfully BMW didn’t mess with a good thing and left well enough alone. In fact so much so that unless you’re a MINI owner or MINI geek, you won’t be able to tell the difference between the 2006 and 2007/2008 versions of the mini – even though the 2007 model was “all-new.” For the newest model, the MINI is larger overall and gets an optional 6-speed automatic transmission with Steptronic, replacing a 5-speed automatic. A 6-speed manual transmission is definitely the way to go because the 6-speed auto is a burden on the already underpowered 4-cylinder engine – even with the paddle-shifters. The JCW version that we tested was a 6-speed manual and the difference is stunning – it also has a bigger engine and a turbo, so that helps for sure.

Stepping inside, I found the seat quite comfortable with a height adjustment in addition to the fore and aft sliding/tilt, but lacking a lumbar bolster. The material is certainly made of high-quality cloth with a very faint checkered pattern. The 3-stage heated seats are the best I’ve ever experienced with both the intense heat, and the speed at which they come up to temp. The heat radiates right up into the shoulder region and takes only seconds to reach the full temperature. I got into the car after my wife had been driving and thought she’d had the heater on full-blast, but it was only the seats she had on. It was like a sauna! I had to open a window to get some air.

The JCW was fitted with very pleasant red leather interior (my wife hated the color). The seats were height-adjustable and it also included a lumbar adjustment for both front occupants. Immediately after picking up the car we embarked on a 2 ½ hour road trip taking us even further from home, we got to enjoy the full benefits of the comfortable seats. On the return trip we were really pushing the comfort level with a 4+ hour journey.

The fat leather-wrapped steering wheel is the perfect size and has tilt and telescopic adjustments, as well as the audio and cruise controls on the spokes. When you adjust the steering wheel, the info/tachometer gauge moves with it so it’s always perfectly placed.

Closing the door, brought back childhood memories because somehow BMW have reproduced the solid thunk of the door to sound exactly like the Mini of yore. Very cool and very retro.

2008 MINI Cooper S John Cooper Works Edition, Iain Shankland,

Firing up the 1.6 litre engine requires that you put the entire key fob into a slot in the dash and push a button. Even the fob has a style to it and the circle theme permeates throughout the entire car – from the MINI logo to the large round speedometer to various buttons and dials and even the door pulls – circles are everywhere!

The JCW test vehicle with the Comfort Package was a little different – it includes a keyless entry and keyless start system. There are little buttons on the door handles to lock/unlock and to start the MINI you just depress the clutch and push the button.

2008 MINI Cooper S John Cooper Works Edition, Iain Shankland,
Driving around town the MINI is in its element – it’s the perfect little car for urban areas. Parking is a breeze with the size of the MINI, as well as the nicely weighted steering. All this, combined with very good gas mileage and the MINI is all that 90% of the population actually need for day to day driving. The engine is reasonably quiet around town, but as speeds up to 90 mph [140 kph] the noise levels became quite unbearable. Let’s be honest though – the MINI is about style – not speed, so keeping the forward motion to a more legal level wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

The JCW was better insulated than the Cooper version, so road noise was better kept in check, unfortunately that was negated by the ever-present rumble of the exhaust system – in the minds of some young driver’s that would be a plus and they’d pay extra for the pleasure … that sais, I must be getting old!  Around town it’s a wonderful and unmistakable sound that encourages you to give it welly just to hear it sing. On our longer road trip however, it became very annoying and extremely irritating within 15 minutes. To suffer it for hours at a time was really an endurance test. For short journeys of perhaps 30 – 45 minutes it’s OK, but any longer than that it’s almost unbearable in this old guy’s opinion. Certainly something to think about – I’d go for everything but the exhaust system in the JCW MINI.

Just like the original Mini, the steering is very sharp and responsive. The suspension is far superior to the original however, soaking up expansion joints and potholes with aplomb and virtually no shuddering over badly aligned railroad tracks – very impressive.

The base Cooper 1.6L engine is terrific around town, but freeway driving appeared to tax it. I found that I constantly used the paddle shifters just to keep the engine’s power in a respectable range to be useful. There’s a Sport button that will change the transmission’s shift points, the throttle response and the steering for more entertaining and aggressive driving – I found it tiresome with it constantly downshifting when I just wanted a little more gas to pick up speed. I honestly think a manual transmission would be the way to go with the MINI.

The JCW is a completely different animal. There’s no need to thrash the engine to keep up with traffic because I tended to be out front in the JCW MINI. It also had a Sport button, and because it was a manual transmission it obviously couldn’t re-map the transmission – so it re-maps the electric power steering to sharpen its response as well as the throttle response. With the Sport selected and the JCW suspension bits – it’s like it’s riding on rails!! With zero body roll and a very unforgiving spring/shock set up, this car just screams to be tossed with abandon into corners at speeds bordering on psychotic! Twitch the steering wheel and you’ve made a 90 degree turn with no sensation of having done so – this is so much fun it should almost be illegal on city streets!

Driving the Cooper automatic and entering the freeway was – how shall I say it – painful. Plenty of noise, with a gradual increase of speed – until running out of roadway just before entering the throngs of traffic. Fortunately, it wasn’t so bad that I actually slowed other traffic up as I entered, but I’m positive that other less-than-enthusiastic drivers out there will cause a bit of a panic as they leisurely get up to freeway speeds and merge into flowing traffic. Hills and bridges were a constant annoyance because we so easily lost momentum – then came the mandatory downshifting and it began all over again! On occasions, even flat roads caused a loss of momentum too.  For a 170+hp engine this seems shocking – it should have been more than adequate for the size of the vehicle.  All that I can chalk it up to would be the weight and added safety features that are bogging it down. Surprisingly, however, the 0-60 times were far better than I’d expected. After pushing the Sport button and letting the automatic shift on its own, the times were consistently in the low 9-second range – with my best being at 8.9 seconds.

2008 MINI Cooper S John Cooper Works Edition, Iain Shankland,

As for the JCW, the instant power from the turbo 1.6L engine makes all the difference in the world. On one occasion I let it rip to the point that I entered the freeway at almost twice the speed limit!! Getting to that point was both exhilarating and terrifying. To think the Cooper S JCW is capable of this type of speed at a reasonably affordable price (in the U.S.) terrifies me. Young inexperienced drivers are going to kill themselves in this car. Fortunately, the steering, suspension and brakes are equal to the go pedal. The 0 – 60 times were more exhilarating in the JCW with 6.6 seconds being the average, and 6.5 being the best. There was plenty of wheel spin before the tires gripped and off  I went. The JCW MINI test vehicle was hampered by winter tires, so I think the times could be much better with the summer rubber, not to mention some more practice time for me (I only had one dry day to get the testing done).

The anti-theft audio system is a single CD AM/FM/MP3 unit with an auxiliary input (I never did find it the auxiliary though) and 6 premium speakers. Sound quality is adequate, but not outstanding. The radio/CD information is along the bottom of the centre speedometer, while the CD unit is completely separate. The obvious button for controlling the volume isn’t actually that button at all – it changes the radio station! One thing of note: I couldn’t see the lower-right information while wearing my polarized sunglasses – it just looked blank.

As comfortable as the rear seats are to sit in, once the seatback is returned to its upright position for the front occupant, you can forget about foot space and legroom if rear occupants are tall. There is just enough room under the seat for my size 8 shoes with zero wiggle room unless the front occupant raises the seat height. The front seatback is scooped out for knees, which helps considerably, and headroom isn’t too bad either. With the rear seats in the upright position, the cargo area is a small but reasonable 5.7 cu-ft, and it increases to 24 cu-ft when they’re folded flat for maximum capacity – the seats split 50/50. There’s a small glove box that holds the owner’s manual and very little else. Because the test vehicle had the standard single-disc CD player, there was an additional mini glove box that usually houses the 6-disc CD changer.

2008 MINI Cooper S John Cooper Works Edition, Iain Shankland,

A few standard features on the MINI Cooper include: 17” wheels and tires, 8-way manually adjustable front seats, illuminated and cooled glove box, tilt and telescoping steering wheel column, window lifts one-touch open (close only for driver), engine Start/Stop button, 6-speed manual/optional auto transmission, electric vehicle-speed sensitive power-steering, front and rear anti-roll (stabilizer) bars, fully electronic “drive-by-wire” throttle system, anti-theft AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system Auxiliary input and Premium 6-speakers.

the Cooper S adds: Bi-xenon headlights, Headlight washer system with heated nozzles, twin chrome exhaust tips, center, Front Sport Seats, Multi-function leather sport steering wheel.

And the John Cooper Works Kit (only available with the manual transmission) adds: Increased horsepower and torque over that of the standard S model, along with a more muscular exhaust note and distinctive JCW badging. The power increases from 172 to

189 hp with maximum torque extended from 177 ft-lb between 1,000 and 5,000 rpm to 185 ft-lb between 1,750 and 5,000 rpm. In combination with the MINI’s standard overboost function, peak torque with the tuning kit reaches a temporary level of up to 200 ft-lb between 1,750 and 4,500 rpm. A stainless steel, parallel-flow, low backpressure Sport Exhaust System adds a throatier, more powerful exhaust note, and has distinctive-looking twin chrome exhaust tips engraved with the John Cooper Works logos. It also includes Enhanced Electronic Control Unit programming – recalibrated to optimize power output. The John Cooper Works Tuning Kit has an MSRP of $1,595 [$2,342.50 Cdn] plus a recommended installation labour time of two hours. I’m guessing the labor will be a couple hundred bucks, but what a deal for what you get!

2008 MINI Cooper S John Cooper Works Edition, Iain Shankland,

The MINI is stuffed with many safety features. Among them are: Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS), Automatic Stability Control + Traction (ASC+T), Brake Assist, Cornering Brake Control (CBC), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), Hill Assist, Heated exterior mirrors, Tire Pressure Warning (TPW), Advanced Head Protection System (AHPS), front and rear, Side thorax airbags for driver and front passenger, Side-impact door protection, Seat belt pyrotechnical tensioning system with force limiters.

The Conclusion
The MINI is a great little car, but one that’s more for booting around town than anything else. My wife called it a perfect “Chick” car. (She called the JCW version a Racer Chick car – too much car for most women). I don’t know if I insult it that much, but I couldn’t live with the lack of power coming from the base engine. Burying the throttle every time I wanted to pick up a little speed became very annoying, very fast. The paddle-shifters helped me to – sort-of – keep up with traffic, and it added a little bit of flair to the drive, but a manual would be the transmission of choice, in a heartbeat. Actually, I’d skip the Cooper entirely and go straight to the Cooper S with a manual transmission. As for usefulness, the MINI is very adaptable with the folding rear seats, but I’m not so sure rear passengers will appreciate the seating even though the headroom and shoulder room are very good – bruised shins will certainly become an issue for anyone taller than 5’ 6” tall – as long as the driver is also on the short side.

The JCW kicks the fun factor up by an enormous amount – we’re talking, it is almost my favorite car! The racket coming from the exhaust is just too overbearing for me because I do a lot of highway driving (probably 90% of my driving is highway). For around town and screaming down the twisty back roads – there’s nothing to beat this car – it’s amazing.

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All MINI’s come with a comprehensive 4 year /50,000 miles [80,000 kms] Bumper to Bumper warranty – including no-charge scheduled maintenance and 4 years/ unlimited distance Roadside Assistance.

Pricing for the 2008 MINI Cooper:
As tested: (Premium Package + Sport Package + Auto): $23,600 [$29,700 Cdn]
Base Price: $18,050 [$25,900 Cdn].
Destination & Delivery: USA – $650 / Canada – $1,499

Pricing for the 2008 MINI Cooper S JCW:
As tested: $32,758 [$39,292 Cdn]
(Premium Pkg + Sport Pkg + Chrome Pkg + JCW Tuning Kit + Ltd Slip Differential + Comfort Access + Piano Black Int. trim + Leather)
Base Price: $21,200 [$30,600 Cdn].
Destination & Delivery: USA – $650 / Canada – $1,499

Fuel Consumption: [Premium Fuel – 91 Octane]
The 1.6 Litre 4-cylinder is rated at 30 mpg City [7.8 L/100 kms] and 41 mpg Highway [5.7 L/100 kms]. I averaged a very good 28 mpg [8.4 L/100 kms] in very heavy-footed mixed driving and 29.8 mpg [7.9 L/100 kms] on 100% freeway driving.

Cooper S JCW: The 1.6 L Turbocharged 4-cylinder is rated at 30.5 mpg City [7.7 L/100 kms] and 40.6 mpg Highway [5.8 L/100 kms]. I averaged a very good 28.7 mpg [8.2 L/100 kms] in very heavy-footed mixed driving and 25.3 mpg [9.3 L/100 kms] during 100% freeway driving at over 85 mph.

Loaded with safety features
Superb fuel economy
Perfect for around town or in the city
JCW: Blindingly fast, with a suspension to match
Racecar for the streets

Cooper: So slow it makes the Toyota Matrix feel fast – buy it with the manual transmission or get the Cooper S.
JCW: The racket from the exhaust is over-bearing

 Back Seat Driver Test: 4 out of 10
For tall drivers – unless you really hate 2 people, you wouldn’t stick them in the back seat. It’s only fit for legless humans (and I don’t mean drunk ones). For shorter drivers – the rear seat is comfortable, with toes/feet being an issue if the front occupants don’t crank up the seat height.  Comments from rear passengers on long-distance journeys indicate that despite knowing it’s a solid, safe car, it produces a rather uneasy feeling – even in those who don’t have issues with claustrophobia or motion sickness.  Short journeys are not so bad but it’s certainly not the best choice for long hauls.

2008 MINI Cooper S John Cooper Works Edition, Iain Shankland,

Immediate Competition:
Cooper: Honda Civic, Hyundai Tiburon, Mazda3, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Smart Fortwo, Volvo C30, VW Golf

Cooper S JCW: Honda Civic Si, MAZDASPEED3, Volvo C30 T5, Volkswagen GTI

By The Numbers…
MINI Cooper S
Powertrain:        1.6 Litre DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder engine; 6-speed automatic with Steptronic semi-manual mode and paddle shifters, FWD.
Horsepower:         118 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque:                  114 @ 4,250 rpm
0 – 60 mph            8.9 seconds
Top Speed             Electronically Limited To 126 mph / 194 km/h

MINI Cooper S John Cooper Work Edition
Powertrain:          1.6 Litre DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder turbo-charged engine; 6-speed manual transmission, FWD.
Horsepower:         189 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque:                  185 @ 1,750 – 5,000 rpm (temporary level of up to 200 ft-lb between 1,750 and 4,500 rpm)
0 – 60 mph            6.5 seconds
Top Speed             Electronically Limited To 126 mph / 194 km/h

Interior – JCW in { } where different
10 – Quality
8 – Noise, Vibration & Harshness (NVH)
5 – Cargo Area/Trunk Space
10 – Special Features (Heated Seats/ Sunroof etc)

9 – Ease of Entry/Exit
9 – Front Roominess
7 – Rear Roominess
10 – Driving Position/Controls

10 – Drool Factor
10 – Fit & Finish

5 – Engine  {10}
5 – Transmission  {10}
9 – Ride & Handling {10}

Ownership Value
10 – Bang for the $$  {8}
10 – Fuel Economy
127 {136} Total / 150

2008 MINI Cooper S John Cooper Works Edition, Iain Shankland,

Copyright © 2008 by Iain Shankland. All rights reserved.
Text / Images: Iain Shankland
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