There’s that addictive pop-pop-pop as you lift your foot off the loud pedal and the engine goes into over-run. There’s no waste gate to speak of, and that excess pressure created by the now very refined supercharger has only one place to go — through one of the four, 399,5cc capacity cylinders.
Hit the middle pedal hard, and wait for the familiar shudder as the anti-lock braking (ABS) and electronic brakeforce distribution kicks in, and start feathering the throttle through the corner in a magnificent understeer-induced slide. Get the front wheels straight, bury your right foot in the loud pedal, and watch in amazement as expensive clouds of tyre smoke emerge in your rear-view mirror.
That’s the story of the John Cooper Works (JCW) Mini Cooper S, which parent company BMW allowed me to sample on the very smooth asphalt of Wesbank Raceway earlier this month. Were they wise to let a bunch of hacks loose in a car that has more than enough ‘go to match the show”? Probably, and even with most writers peering through a thick haze of ‘race mist”, all cars managed to return to the pits unscathed.
With only discreet JCW badges to hint at the potential performance, other motorists are unlikely to realise that under that familiar body, there’s a whole new beast. The kit produces 245Nm at 4 500rpm, has in-gear acceleration from 80kph to 120kph in 5,4 seconds (in fourth gear), and sprints to 100kph in 6,6 seconds from standstill, with a top speed of 230kph.
But it’s in the kilowatt department that the newcomer is so impressive. The standard Mini Cooper S produces a very healthy 125kW, whereas the 154kW made by the JCW version at 6 950rpm transforms the vehicle into a sports car that leaves many of its rivals standing as its chrome-plated dual exhaust tailpipe disappears into the distance.
The JCW version has undergone significant changes to create all this power. Firstly, the air filter has been extensively modified, and is fitted with an additional air-intake flap that opens at 4 500rpm so the power unit with a higher compressor output is adequately aspirated.
Next, the cylinder head — as well as the inlet and outlet ports — have been adapted to suit the changed conditions, a result of two years of development. New high-power spark plugs, injectors with higher throughput and adapted engine management ensure efficient combustion.
Thirdly, and more importantly, an all-new supercharger replaces the standard one, which operates at higher speeds, thereby producing increased supercharging pressure. The vanes inside have been optimised to ensure distance between themselves and the outer casing has been reduced to a minimum, eliminating air losses and adding to the extra boost.
Getting the JCW off the line is an art all itself, and the wiser driver will switch off the traction control to do this and release the clutch rather slowly to avoid wheel spin. While the traction control is super effective — and best left on in wet weather or over rough roads — it’s very inhibitive, and will bog down your take-off dramatically. On the positive side, and while new owners get used to the 154kW that the 1 598cc mill develops, it’s best left on.
The JCW handles extremely well, but again, with so much power on tap, getting entry and exit speeds at their optimum can be difficult, while the under-steering characteristics are more pronounced
The JCW rates second in the power stakes to Renault’s Megane Sport 2,0 litre — which develops an astounding 165kW — while the fifth-generation Golf GTI, launched just a week earlier and featured elsewhere in this edition makes a few kilowatts less at 147kW.
The new Opel Astra Gsi makes the same, while using a two-litre motor and turbocharger to make its power, versus superchargers on the Mini.
The Golf GTI retails for R240 000, while the Astra Gsi goes for R252 730 in standard form. All this fun comes at a premium, and Cooper S owners will have to fork out a hefty R41 715 for the JCW kit alone, while you have to add R3 191 for the suspension kit and just under R7 000 for the brake kit.
You’re getting a lot of power for your R50 000 investment, and lots of exclusivity too, but it’s still a lot of moola at the end of the day.