This month sees the return of the famous Cooper brand – a name that shot to prominence in the Fifties when its racing cars scored a string of F3 and F1 titles with Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham behind the wheel.
However, it wasn't until the classic Mini blasted on to the scene in 1959 that John Cooper became a household name. The arrival of Alec Issigonis's masterpiece heralded one of the most successful partnerships in motorsport history, with works-prepared, Cooper-badged Minis winning the Monte Carlo Rally no less than three times.
Now, of course, there's a new MINI – and a Cooper version to boot. But with its 1.6-litre engine pumping out a modest 115bhp, some people feel that the BMW hatchback lacks the sporting edge associated with the British icon, and are unwilling to wait until April 2002 for the supercharged 'S' version.
Which is why the Sussex-based Cooper garages has spent the past 18 months developing a high-performance model. Called the MINI Cooper Works, and marketed under the company's new 'John Cooper Works' banner, the newcomer offers a more exciting driver-oriented package. To achieve this, JCW's engineers have extensively adapted the engine's cylinder head, increased the compression ratio and fitted a freer-flowing induction system.
These modifications, combined with changes to the engine management system, have resulted in new outputs of 131bhp at 5,750rpm and 162Nm of torque at 5,000rpm – increases of 16bhp and 13Nm respectively. As a result, the car dashes from 0-60mph half a second quicker than a standard Cooper and can reach 127mph. This package has also injected a sense of fun into the otherwise quite mature MINI driving experience. And even at tickover, there's a throaty exhaust note.
Blip the throttle and you can hear air being sucked greedily through the induction system. Slot the weighty, well oiled gearlever into first, bury your foot to the floor and something unprecedented occurs – the ASC traction light blinks on. Where even a complete hooligan would have problems waking the standard Cooper's traction control in the dry, the Works has just enough power to overcome the front tyres' grip. It might not sound like a lot, but that extra 13Nm of torque has been spread throughout the rev range, making the engine more responsive at low revs and lively above 5,000rpm.
None of the unit's natural smoothness has been lost, either, and JCW is currently developing a suspension and brake upgrade for the Works. In the meantime, however, the car is riding on optional 17-inch alloys and the suspension for the forthcoming Cooper 'S', for which the firm is also developing a 200bhp conversion. Cornering poise, grip and steering feel have all been improved without losing ride quality. And of course, no Cooper-tuned MINI comes without visual touches. So the newcomer gets Works badges on the boot and side air intakes, engraved door sills and mats. In addition, our test car had an optional factory-fit bodykit with more aggressive bumpers, deeper side skirts and a more prominent roof spoiler. The Works treatment, including the fitting, costs £2,500 and comes with a full three-year warranty.
However, as with the classic Mini – which JCW continues to supply tuning parts for – those into DIY can order the kit separately for £1,750 plus VAT.
Faster and more responsive than the Cooper, yet equally as smooth and refined, the Works edition brings a welcome dose of fun to the MINI family. Those looking for the ultimate Cooper driving experience may wish to wait for the supercharged 'S'. But in the meantime, this can rightly claim to be the best MINI yet.
by Euan Sey