Driven: 2009 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works Convertible

By Seyth Miersma

March 23, 2010

—Ann Arbor, Michigan

This is an extremely worthwhile car for enthusiasts.

Anyone that has driven, ridden in, read about, or even paid a little bit of attention to the universe of Mini cars over the last few years, probably can understand that having the letters “JCW” attached to one’s Mini can mean magical things in terms of urgency and athletic handling. So, when the arrival of this John Cooper Works convertible happened to coincide with the first really beautiful week of spring weather we’ve had so far this year in southeast Michigan, we were understandably stoked.

The JCW package from the factory gives this Mini a few major performance advantages over the standard (and damn good) Mini Cooper S. A larger turbo and other engine modifications make the familiar 1.6-liter four good for a whopping 208 horsepower and 192 pound-feet of torque—significant improvements over the lesser car’s 172 horsepower and 177 pound-feet. The JCW folks also add larger brakes, front and rear, to help reign in all of that added power. While the car does come equipped as standard with dynamic traction and stability control, owners are asked to pony up several hundreds of dollars more for the sports suspension upgrade and the roll-stiffening tower brace. (More on those in a minute.) Thankfully, there’s not much of a weight penalty for this added kit, with the JCW ‘vert tipping the scales at only 22 more pounds than the Cooper S Convertible.

The overall effect of all this fiddling? Well, the open-top Mini is really quite fast.

The added power gives the JCW acceleration that is truly visceral, especially when one makes the effort to keep the revs up before dropping the clutch on first gear—starting more mildly will reveal turbocharger lag under 3000 rpm. As on the Cooper S, there’s torque steer to be found here, but honestly, who cares? We kept our hands firmly on the steering wheel and let the Mini pull us with amusing rapidity from corner to corner, hot little four-banger engine note wailing in the open air the entire time. The power delivery is so urgent, and the throttle tip-in and attendant acceleration so immediate that the Mini often feels like the best car in the world for traversing short stints of fantastic road.

And that’s without the upgraded suspension components, as we’ve pointed out. Here’s our take. The basic Mini suspension and chassis tuning is so good that the added power doesn’t do a whole lot to get the car into trouble. Grip is still ample, handling is still cart-like, and we never felt anything less than completely in control when pushing the car on public roads. Our biggest complaint was some nasty bump-steer when cornering under power. Adding the sports suspension and tower brace will be worthwhile for those who intend on tracking their Mini, and aren’t unreasonably expensive (about $700 for both) for that purpose, but aren’t critically necessary for those who mainly aim for enthusiastic road driving. The car doesn’t feel anything close to soft or sloppy without the performance underpinnings.

On all other driver involvement fronts, consider the JCW Convertible to be the equivalent of each other blindingly good Mini ‘vert. Steering is precise, rapid to react, and combines with the short wheelbase to make the car one of the best-rotating in the business. There’s a lot of road feel on offer through the seat of your pants. Driving position is excellent for many sizes of human being, with sightlines being excellent, excepting the top-down rear-view, where the “bustle” cuts visibility in half.

There is, among this glorious package of riotous fun and bulldog good looks, a pretty major problem with the JCW Convertible. Namely, ours will run you almost $39,000. Think you can manage with the absolute stripper version of the car? That’ll be $34,950 (that’s including the destination charge), please.

Don’t get us wrong, we don’t want to fall into the trap of saying, “This car is small, so it should be cheap,” it’s just that that kind of money can buy you some really persuasive vehicles. Nissan’s brilliant 370Z Roadster can be had in the same price range ($36,970 MSRP). So can the new 2011 Ford Mustang GT Convertible and its 5.0-liter, 412 horsepower V-8 (probably around $35,500 MSRP). So can parent company BMW’s more luxurious and rear-drive 128i Convertible ($34,200 MSRP).

The JCW “thing” seems to be ability as a track-day weapon, but we’re hard-pressed to think of part-time racers that would also opt for the heavier, more expensive open car instead of the Mini coupe.

So, in a vacuum, the JCW Convertible is absolutely brilliant. It is, as we said to start, a very worthwhile vehicle to have in the world. The car probably makes a lot of sense for the “buy-up” Mini guy that’s fallen in love with the brand and wants the next best thing, or as a really hot second (or third, or fourth) car for the very well-heeled.

With that said, the JCW treatment probably doesn’t make much sense for the rest of the limited budget, convertible-buying public, from a value perspective, since the Cooper S (or hell, even the Cooper) is so much good fun to begin with.

2009 Mini John Cooper Works Convertible
Engine: I-4, 1.6 liters, 16v
Output: 208 hp / 192 lb-ft
Top Speed: 146 mph
Weight: 2877 lb
0-60 MPH: 6.6 sec
Base Price: $34,300
Price as Tested: $38,800