Yeah, but what’s it like to live with? John Cooper Works Edition Mini

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This is the forth installment in my series where I compare used car choices that cost somewhere around the price of a new fully equipped Miata.  The idea is to see what else that amount of money buys.  Are there options for faster or better cars?  How do they stack up?

I usually stick to later model cars that could be reasonably expected to provide reliable daily service.  I will also not review anything that gets above the 30’s in fair market price.  All fun type cars. No boring cars.

I will share what they are like to live with in daily use.  The good stuff and the annoyances.  Hopefully, this will help those who are considering purchasing one.  Don’t look for performance data, specs, and such.  You can find all that elsewhere.  These are all strictly my opinions and experiences.  Your mileage may vary.  Owners are welcome to chime in with their experiences.

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This month I am driving a John Cooper Works edition Mini.  This example is a 2011 model with just over 20k miles on the clock.  The JCW edition is the Cooper S on steroids.  More power, torque, tuned suspension, bigger wheels, trick electronic diff, and trim options.  You can expect to pay a couple grand premium over a standard S but Minis tend to be affordable in the used market.

Some of that affordability is due to a reputation for some quality and reliability issues.  Some of the reputation is earned.  Not all.  Most of the bad rap comes from repair costs of the automatic transmission and engine issues.  The first one is easy.  Don’t get the automatic.

The Mini is often touted as being built by BMW.  Well, sort of.  It’s designed by BMW and built in the U.K. with the ’06 and earlier cars having a Chrysler based four banger.  It’s the Chrysler based engine that is the real concern.  Most complaints center around it.  Properly maintained and not abused it can provide good service.  It is important to have the engine fully checked out before your purchase.  Newer models have an improved engine design shared with Peugeot and Citroen.

BMW has worked steadily on refining and improving the motor.  The JCW version is a good running engine with plenty of power.  The twin-scroll turbo provides lots of low end punch and no turbo lag.  BMW has turbos figured out.  The around town grunt puts the Porsche Cayman to shame.  Technically, the Cayman may have slightly better performance numbers but you have to wind it out to get there.  Not the Mini.  Good power is available at any rpm.

The six speed has well spaced ratios though the shifter is a bit notchy.  Exhaust note is perfectly suited to the car.  You can accent it by pressing the Sport button which also makes for a nice burble and pop on overrun.  It’s what the Miata should sound like. The Sport button also sharpens up the steering and throttle response which starts out pretty good anyway.

The chassis is taught and nicely balance.  The ride is firm but better than the Lexus ISF in spite of the short wheelbase.  The low profile tires on big wheels contribute to the stiffness but also provide impressive grip.  Front wheel drive vices are well controlled.  I’m not a fan of FWD performance cars but I like this one.  It has a collection of mechanical and electronic tricks which keep the front drive tamed even with 208 hp.  There is no torque steer.  You can accelerate from a stop with your hands off the wheel and it will go straight.  Turn off the traction control and it’s a different story.  For that reason, the car is the most fun zipping around at 8/10’s.  Pressed hard, there is some interference by the onboard nannies.

Still, you find yourself tempted to blow off the grocery store run and find an empty parking lot to hoon around a bit.  The car just begs you to do it.  The thing is a hoot to drive and puts a smile on your face.  In fact, it’s hard to take much of the world seriously while looking out over the goofy Mini dashboard.  Mini owners also tend to smile and wave at each other, sort of like Porsche owners used to do back in the ’70’s.

Minis are reasonably practical as long as the back seat isn’t important.  It nips into garages and parking places easily and, unlike many small cars, you sit up high with the adults in traffic.  In traffic with trucks and SUVs, I always felt like a bug that was about to be squashed when I was in my Miata.  You don’t have that feeling in a Mini.  The front passenger space is quite roomy.  Seats are decent but I would have liked a nice set of sport seats to go with the JCW package.  Assembly and materials quality may not be BMW standards but neither is the price.  The car is rattle free and overall it is reasonably good for it’s class.  Annoyances are few:  The cheap feeling center console kept getting bumped open with my elbow.  Rear seat headrests block some rear vision.  The sport and traction control buttons are behind the shifter on the floor. Really, just nits to pick.

The retro styled dash also goes its own way on minor controls.  The stalks are momentary switches. It’s a push button on the end of the stalk for fixed speed intermittent wipers.  Toggle switches on the console control the windows.  You get used to it, though I prefer window switches on the doors.  Controls for climate and entertainment are easier to figure out than most in spite of the unusual styling.  I wonder if we will ever get standardized locations for secondary controls in cars?  It’s always a challenge when you get into a strange car at night.  Absent from the dash are gauges.  You get a speedo, tach, and fuel gauge. That’s it.  Not even a temp gauge.  That bothers me, especially considering the reliability concerns.  Gas mileage is not a concern.   It is upper twenties around town and upper thirties on the highway.

I guess you have figured out that I like the car. It has some issues but, in the smiles per dollar index, it rates pretty high.  The JCW edition is a bit more hard core than the standard S but I like it.  There aren’t that many of them on the used market but S versions are plentiful.  The S and even the standard car are fun for the money.  Just remember to get the manual transmission and have that Chrysler engine checked out.