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2009 Mini John Cooper Works at the track

The standard Mini Cooper S is a quirky and fun little coupe, but what happens when you add more power and upgrade nearly every performance part, from the brakes to the clutch?

2009 Mini John Cooper Works
The JCW Mini was a big hit at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Corinne Schulze/CNET

The standard Mini Cooper S is a quirky and fun little coupe, but what happens when you add more power and upgrade nearly every performance part, from the brakes to the clutch? What you get is the high-performing 2009 MINI John Cooper Works hardtop.

Starting under the hood, the Cooper S's 1.6-liter turbocharged engine is massaged for an additional 32-horsepower with a combination of tuning and the addition of a John Cooper Works sport exhaust. This brings the John Cooper Works' (JCW) final tally to 208 ponies and 192 pound-feet of twist. Not bad for a tiny coupe, but before that power reaches the tires it has to go through a six-speed manual transmission with a reinforced clutch. An electronically controlled front differential keeps power flowing to the right wheel at the right time and works with the driver's choice of either Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) for the street, Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) for performance driving, or neither system for those times when you want to test your driving chops.

Brembo brakes
Upgraded Brembo brakes bring the JCW Mini to a stop again and again without fade. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

A short wheelbase, a well-balanced chassis, and sporty suspension-tuning combine to create spectacular handling. And that's before you add to the equation the JCW's fade-proof 12.4-inch Brembo brakes and larger 17-inch wheels shod in stickier rubber. The Mini JCW is a vehicle that's both eager to rotate and easy to control. The little coupe takes turns like it's on rails, with great initial turn in and responsive steering.

At Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the John Cooper Works Mini was one of our favorite rides. For a front-wheel driver, the JCW exhibited very little understeer and actually could be coaxed very easily into slight lift-off oversteer for midturn corrections. Lap after lap, the Cooper continued to please, showing very little sign of fatigue or brake fade.

JCW Mini interior
The Mini's interior is almost too overtly quirky to be easily usable. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

When we weren't ripping around corners in the Mini JCW, we took a look at the cabin and its amenities. The Cooper's cabin is a user interface nightmare, with a huge center-mounted speedometer sitting just outside of the driver's peripheral vision. The big speedo also integrates all of the audio controls, with the single exception being the volume control, which is located further down the center stack among the climate controls. We guess no one told the Mini designers that volume is one of the most accessed controls of the audio system and should probably be front and center. Fortunately, the Mini can be equipped with steering-wheel-mounted controls. Unfortunately, such controls are a $250 option.

The audio system is an almost exact replica of that of the BMW 1-series, but with a Mini aesthetic and an absolute lack of bass response. Decked out with the optional Bluetooth and USB/iPod adapter, we were able to rather quickly browse artists, genre, and album data, although hard-drive-based iPods are slightly slower to respond to inputs than their flash based brethren.

Also available is an optional navigation system, which replaces the large center speedometer. The system features traffic data and voice command for hands-free calling.

There's a lot to like about the Mini John Cooper Works' performance on twisty back roads or at a track day, but the cabin tech experience leaves something to be desired. The Cooper is a quirky car that's fun to drive on its own merit, without the oddball interior design and confusing user interface. We're sure that there are drivers who emphasize form over function, but we're not sure if the performance driver is going to be that person.