There's no denying the fun to be had in a Mini Cooper. The car's retro looks may put it in danger of being dubbed a "chick car," but anyone who gets behind the wheel realizes Minis have plenty to offer the dedicated driver. And the 2011 Mini Cooper Clubman John Cooper Works model doubles down on performance, making it a car you can drive to work every day and straighten the curves in on weekends.
The John Cooper Works package adds performance to the Mini Cooper Clubman, increasing horsepower by 27 hp over the Cooper S Clubman and tightening the suspension. But it doesn't put the Clubman in the same league as a BMW M3, or even an Audi S4. It's like putting a motor on your bicycle. You may beat Lance Armstrong in a hill climb, but it won't make you a MotoGP competitor.
A rear half door on the Clubman's passenger side increases rear seat access.
Although the Clubman version is slightly bigger than the standard Cooper, its extra weight and length take little away from the handling. The cargo area of the Clubman is not much larger than in the standard Cooper, but the passenger-side double door makes for easier rear seat access, which some will appreciate.
It's all in the app
One of the coolest things in the 2011 Clubman John Cooper Works tested by CNET was the new Mini Connected feature. Mini Connected is an application for the iPhone that integrates with the Clubman John Cooper Works when plugged into the iPod port. This app adds Web radio and a dynamic music feature as audio sources, adds Google search to the navigation system, gives access to Twitter and Facebook, and acts as a driving efficiency coach.
Through some limitation of the software, you can only have one of the app's audio sources at a time. To switch between Web radio and dynamic music, you have to change a setting within the iPhone app. The Web radio feature lets you tune in to just about any radio station in the world with an Internet stream. It lets you search for local stations, which is kind of silly since you can get them with the car's AM/FM tuner. More useful is the ability to find stations from other cities. This service uses your phone's data connection, so it can drop out when you drive through a cell dead zone.
The Web radio feature includes a few channels from Mini, plus hundreds of other streamed radio stations.
Unlike Web radio, the dynamic music feature doesn't stream music. This unique feature first requires you to download one of 10 custom tracks to the Mini Connected app. With the phone connected to the car, the dynamic track will play, changing appropriately depending on the driving speed. At a stop, the track may start up a light percussion beat. As you pick up speed, it will mix in an uptempo guitar. The music gets repetitive, but that's club music for you. If you just make a quick stop, it mixes in the down-tempo layers a little late, not quite keeping time with the car's pace.
The Mini Connected option also adds Pandora integration as an audio source, but there's a twist. Pandora is not part of the Mini Connected iPhone app. As the Pandora app has to be running on the phone to work, and the iPhone only runs one app at a time, you are forced to decide whether you want to listen to Pandora or use the Mini Connected app's many features. That said, the Pandora interface is quite good, with access to your personalized stations and the ability to send a thumbs-up or down for each song.
The Twitter function also offers plenty of fun. Log in to Twitter through the app, and it will update tweets from the people you follow on the car's LCD every minute, and even include photos next to each tweet. Mini provides a few tweet templates you can select and post while driving. These are a little inane, such as "It's 82 degrees out and I'm driving my Mini." The most useful shows how long until you get to whatever destination is programmed into the navigation system. The Facebook integration works similarly.
Mini Connected's Twitter interface shows 4 tweets at a time.
Probably the most useful feature of Mini Connected is Google Search. For this one to work, you need the navigation option. You can enter any search term, and a list of matching local businesses will appear on the car's LCD. Click one, and it gets fed to the navigation system, letting you select it as a destination. The results take a moment to show up, as the data has to flow through the iPhone's 3G data connection.
One serious limitation of Mini Connected is that it only works with iPhones, although we came up with a workaround. You can use an iPod Touch connected to the Wi-Fi hot spot of any smartphone. The $1,000 Mini Connected option adds an LCD to the car, positioning it in the face of the big, central speedometer. You can add a navigation system for an additional $750.
Mini's new navigation system uses flash-memory stored maps, so the response time is good. However, Mini chose a truly hideous color scheme for the maps, with freeways appearing in pink and secondary roads in fluorescent green. Although Mini might have thought those colors were fun, they actually make the maps difficult to read. Traffic data overlaid on the maps adds to the mess.
As the Mini's LCD is not a touch screen, you control the infotainment system mostly through a knob on the console. You can turn it to move up and down through menu items, or push it sideways to drill down or back up in the menu structure. Not immediately intuitive, it becomes easier to figure out over time.
The color scheme on the map doesn't seem designed for easy comprehension.
Leaving out the Mini Connected option, you can still get Bluetooth audio streaming and an iPod connection, but with the LCD, you get to see album art. HD Radio is also standard. The car's basic, six-speaker audio system produces decent sound, but Mini lets you upgrade to a 480-watt 10-speaker system, which includes 5.1 surround-sound processing.
Mini Connected is available across Mini's model lineup, so what does John Cooper Works add to the Cooper Clubman? Where the Cooper S Clubman model gets 181 horsepower, the John Cooper Works model uses a bigger turbo, different engine programming, and a bigger exhaust to produce 208 horsepower and 192 pound-feet of torque.
These numbers may give you something to brag about, but they will make little difference in anything but track driving. Both the Cooper S Clubman and John Cooper Works versions get the same six-speed manual transmission, which shifts with European smoothness and lets you chirp the front tires off the line. From any start, the John Cooper Works Clubman requires a little pre-blip of the gas, as its low idle makes it easy to stall.
The John Cooper Works package adds significant handling because of its bigger brakes and BMW's Dynamic Traction Control programming.
The real advantage of the John Cooper Works trim comes in the form of superior handling. The base-level Mini takes corners well, but the John Cooper Works Clubman handles turns at speeds you wouldn't think possible in this type of car. Not only does it have a better limited slip differential than the Cooper S Clubman, but it also gets a form of BMW's Dynamic Traction Control, which allows a little more play before reining in the car.
However, the John Cooper Works Clubman hits its limits pretty quickly, the stock tires losing grip and skittering on the asphalt. And when braking at speed, the car gets unsettled, requiring some corrective wheel work. The front brakes are robust, but the rear brakes may be a little skimpy when trying to keep the car grounded.
In the John Cooper Works trim, the Clubman's suspension remains comfortable for around-town driving. It gets jolted over hard bumps, but delivers a reasonably smooth ride over most pavement. The responsive steering is not too touchy for a comfortable cruise down the freeway, and proved easy to turn in parking lots.
The extra power of the John Cooper Works Clubman means a loss of a few miles per gallon compared with the Cooper S Clubman, but the EPA rating of 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway is still good. Even with a good bit of hard driving thrown in, CNET's car turned in an average of 28.1 mpg.
With direct injection, a turbocharger, and BMW's excellent engine control system, the 2011 Clubman John Cooper Works' 1.6-liter engine is a star performer. Although it shows a little initial turbo lag, it winds up quickly, delivering a healthy amount of power and good fuel economy. Its suspension is engineered well to make the car very enjoyable to drive.
The Mini Connected app vaults the car's cabin tech forward, giving it Internet-based music sources and Google search. The premium audio system works in its favor as well. The real low points of the Mini are its electronics interface, which isn't particularly intuitive, and the horrible-looking maps.
|Model||2011 Mini Cooper Clubman|
|Trim||John Cooper Works|
|Power train||Turbocharged direct-injection 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||25 mpg city/33 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||28.1 mpg|
|Navigation||Flash-memory-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Pandora, Bluetooth streaming, USB port, Internet radio, satellite radio|
|Audio system||6-speaker base, optional Harman Kardon 10-speaker, 480-watt system|
|Driver aids||Rear park sensors|
|Price as tested||$35,750|