- Available for £6,000 or less
- 1.6 litre turbo petrol four
- No supercharger, but more than 200hp
- Mid-cycle facelift in 2010/11 added coupe and roadster models
- No shortage of mechanical glitches to look out for
- Can use a fair bit of oil
Who doesn't like a hot Mini? Nobody, surely. These little buzzbombs have been thrilling drivers since 1961, when Alec Issigonis's pal and F1 car builder John Cooper first saw the original Mini's giant-killing potential. The brilliant chassis was already there. All it needed was more power. Cooper happily obliged with a hike of over 50 percent. Okay, so that still only made 55hp, but in a car as little as the Mini, that was a lot. The Cooper and Cooper S Minis turned out to be a perfect recipe not only for road-based fun but also for embarrassing much hornier tackle on the world's racetracks and rally stages.
Looking at their prices now - £50k and above for properly restored cars - you'd never believe that so many Coopers and Cooper Ss (over 80,000) came off the line. For these lofty values we can thank that sporting heritage, the never-gets-old appeal of relatively big power in a small car, and BMC's prescient decision to build every Mini out of painted rust.
Anyway, that's all water under the distributor cap now. The point is that the allure of the hot Mini will never dull. BMW knew that when it was creating the first of the new generation MINIs, which is why they retained the Mini name when they flogged the rest of the MG Rover group off to some questionable types in 2000, and why they bought the rights to the John Cooper name in 2007.
History has proved BMW right, too, because the success story has rolled on, starting with the 2000-on R50 (One and Cooper), the R52 convertible (which didn't arrive until 2004), and the R53 (Cooper S, with or without the John Cooper Works package). 2000. Wow. Is the 'new' MINI really that venerable?
If you were asked to drop a marker on the point where the MINI really reached maturity as a genuine performance vehicle, you probably wouldn't be looking at that 2000-2006 gen-one lifecycle. Yes, the R53 Cooper S powered by the 160hp supercharged Tritec motor was a nippy machine, scrabbling from 0-60 in around 7.5sec, and yes, in 2002 you could get a JCW Tuning Kit for the R52 Cooper S which hoisted up the supercharger's spin rate to take power to nearly 200hp, with a 2005 upgrade with bigger injectors taking that to 210hp. Then there was the snappily-titled 2006 Mini Cooper S with John Cooper Works GP Kit was properly quick with 215hp, 50kg less weight, and a one second quicker 0-60 time than the S.
Thing is though, despite its wide name, the R53 MCS With JCWGPK was a narrow-focus car with no back seats and too much interior din. To really pinpoint where the new MINI came of age as a performance car range, we need to look at the 2007-2013 gen-two R56, and specifically those versions which set the power bar at 200hp and beyond.
Let's quickly deal with the naming culture. Clubman cars were R55s. Like the gen-one R52, the gen-two R57 convertible was a couple of years late to the party, but the main wodge oftwo cars - MINI Ones, Es, and all the various Cooper derivatives - answered to the R56 name. All the petrol-powered 2007-on MINIs switched to the new Prince N14 engine, the product of a joint venture with PSA Peugeot Citroen. MINI followers won't be surprised to hear that there'll be a bit more on that later.
The Cooper badge that had already lost some of its kudos by being attached to the old normally aspirated 1.6 R50 lost a bit more in the new R56 when a Mini Cooper SD diesel was announced, but the 2008 JCW John Cooper Works rebalanced things so
For the gen-two performance MINIs, or R56s as we'll be collectively calling them from now on, supercharging was replaced by twin-scroll turbocharging. The blown 1.6 motor in the new Cooper S produced around 175hp, but in the JCW a new head, new pistons, a complete new exhaust system and extra turbo pressure lifted that to 208hp at 6,000rpm, with a peak torque figure of up to 207lb ft on overboost across a very wide field that began below 2,000rpm. That made it good for a 0-62 time of 6.5sec and a max whack of 148mph.
Although you could opt for a brick-hard JCW handling kit, the new, lighter weight Cooper S suspension (with the JCW-standard electronic diff lock that was an option on the Cooper S) was more than capable of reining in most of the motor's almost lag-free lairyness. Still, despite featuring BMW's Dynamic Traction Control system for the first time in a MINI, and having its own bodykit, that first R56 JCW struggled to justify its near-£5k premium over the S, especially as its interior was almost identical to the cheaper car's and the upgraded electric steering with helm and throttle sharpening Sport button was also present in the new Coopers.
A midlife MINI refresh in 2010/11 saw Coupe and Roadster models joining the JCW stable, with a big step forward in 2012 when the new John Cooper Works GP of 2012 arrived. Limited to 2,000 units worldwide (it was also sold in the US), the new GP was aimed more at hardcore trackdayers. Although a new turbo raised peak power to 215hp at 6,000rpm, with peak toremaining unchanged, the GP story was more about the chassis. It had big Brembo-developed front brakes with 6-pot calipers, MINI/Bilstein coilover suspension, lightweight 17x7.5 wheels with model-unique Kumho tyres (semi-slick or all-weather), a rear diffuser and carbon spoiler, and a carbon kevlar undertray.
To save weight, the rear seats were ripped out, as they had been in the first JCW GP, but this time so were the Cooper S front seats. Thankfully someone at the factory remembered to replace them with new ones, Recaro buckets to be precise. A 'GP Mode' traction control system was fitted, allowing a bit more wheel-slip, as were a bunch of stickers, badges, and red stitches wherever there was space to put them, giving the car a somewhat Halfordsy look that once again conspired to make its hefty premium over the standard JCW (around £6,000) hard to swallow. Still, it went around the Nürburging in 8m 23sec, compared to 8m 42sec for the old GP.
Some say the gen-two cars have more of a BMW feel about them than the gen-one R53s, which they perceive as having a little more character. That's all very subjective of course. Let's take what we hope will be an objective view on the pros and cons of the
SPECIFICATION - MINI R56 JOHN COOPER WORKS / WORKS GP
Engine: 1,598cc, inline four, 16v
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 208 / 215@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 193 (207 on overboost) / 207@2,000rpm-5,100rpm
0-62mph: 6.5 secs / 6.2 secs
Top speed: 148mph / 150mph
Weight: 1,130kg / 1,235kg
MPG (official combined): 40.9/39.8
Wheels: 7x18 / 7.5x18
Tyres: 205/45 / 215/40
On sale: 2008 - 2013
Price new: £23,780
Price now: £6,000-up
Note for reference: car weight and power data is hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it's wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
As briefly touched upon earlier, the first new MINIs had Tritec engines. Tritec was a late-1990s joint venture between Chrysler and Rover (which by then was owned by BMW). Under the terms of the JV, Chrysler designed small four-cylinder engines for construction in BMW's plant in Curitiba, Brazil. BMW kept its stake in Tritec after it sold off the Rover group in 2000, but Chrysler's merger with Daimler-Benz meant that BMW needed a new development partner to take over the MINI engine reins once BMW's contract with Tritec expired in 2007, when the new gen-two car was going on sale.
That partner ended up being PSA Peugeot Citroen, and the first 'Prince' engine that resulted from the collaboration came along in 2006. Its basic block dimensions were the same as the PSA TU unit. For the MINI, engine parts were made in France and assembled in Birmingham. The Prince went into every gen-two MINI other than the Cooper D which used Ford of Europe's DV6 turbodiesel.
There were four MINI Prince variants: the non-turbo N12 (2007-2010) and its 2011-2013 N16 replacement; and the two we're concerned with in this guide, the direct injection N14 turbo (2007-2010) without BMW's Valvetronic variable valve timing but with the single VANOS variable cam timing system on the intake side, and its late-2010/early 2011 replacement, the N18, which like the N12 and N16 had double VANOS, ie variable cam timing on both the intake and exhaust sides, plus Valvetronic variable valve timing.
This turbo engine went into the performance variants from the Cooper S up, and your trivia bonus fact is that the N18 would have gone into 2012-on Saab 9-3s if the company hadn't gone bust. For easy recognition of the N18 over the N14, the breather tube on the right of the N18 engine as you look at it from the front should form a kind of 'S' shape. On the N14 it's more like a question mark without the dot at the bottom.
Although all seemed to be well with the N14 for the first few years, and the amount of power it could put out from just 1.6 litres was certainly impressive, there did turn out to be a price to pay on reliability. The list of problems the N14 had could be written on the back of a postage stamp, but only if you had the world's smallest handwriting. The main ones are carbon coking, timing chain rattle/tensioner failure, VANOS solenoid and oil seal faults, oiling issues (high consumption, oil pump or front oil seal failure), fuel pumps and coil packs.
Carbon coking to the N14's intake system is caused by the direct injection's inefficient port-washing. It is signalled by engine hesitation and/or poor running. Blasting with walnut shell dust will remove the carbon. This £200 technique will not damage the engine if some bits of shell are left behind. Some say that coking can also be improved by an additive sprayed into the air inlet filter.
Despite the fact that they weren't supposed to need maintenance until 112,000 miles, timing chains and tensioners rattle (especially from cold) on 2007-09 Cooper and JCW cars, when the spring loading for the tensioner loses its gumption. Leave this 'death rattle' for too long and you'll soon be hearing much more expensive noises from your engine.
There was a theory that low pressure from the troublesome high-pressure fuel pump led to low oil pump pressure which led to oil starvation to the chain. Preventative replacement of the chain, sprocket and tensioner with a more robust kit (as fitted to cars from 2011 on) can cost up to £700 including five hours labour. Coil packs and spark plugs do fail, but misfiring can also be down to stretched timing chains. Oil leaking from VANOS solenoids could find its way into the wiring and eventually to the ECU, which needless to say does not take kindly to the sort of invasion. New ones from a dealer can be as much as £2,000.
These engines do use oil, as much as a litre every thousand miles, which apart from the expense of good quality 5W/30 synthetic is not necessarily a bad thing as it means you're always giving the VANOS, valvetrain and turbocharger fresh lubrication, which is not a bad idea. BMW thought that a 10-15,000 mile oil change routine would be perfectly adequate but those in the know say change the oil every 5,000 miles at least and don't rely on the computer to warn you of low levels. MINI dipsticks have never been the easiest to read but at least the R56 one doesn't have a big kink in it like the R53's (which has been known to break). Coolant, transmission and power steering fluids are supposed to be 'lifetime', but we know better don't we?
An oil pump with more than 100,000 miles on them is more likely to conk out. The small chain that drives it off the crankshaft can snap at that sort of mileage. Knocking on from that, dirty oil-operated VANOS solenoids can be cleaned, but given that older ones will also be subject to leakage from the O-ring seal, many will choose to replace the entire part. Coolant loss caused by poor routing of a pipe next to the gearchange linkage could lead to head gasket failure.
Faulty coolant fans or low fluid levels can cause power steering pumps to blow. Later thermostat housings give better cooling flow and are less inclined to crack. Vacuum pump failure is rare but can happen as a result of poor oil flow and can lead to bent valves. More than one R56 gearbox has failed. Worn linkage cups can add slop to the shifting. If your gear lever is sitting in a non-central position, suspect that.
Now, none of this is to say that every Prince-engine MINI will have had all the problems we've talked about here. Indeed, many owners have happily run their R56s with nothing needing doing other than the usual consumables. But many didn't. There's an N14 Survivor Support group on Facebook with over three thousand members.
The JCWs soldiered on with the N14 until late 2012, but this engine was replaced by the N18 in other Coopers in from late 2010. The N18 resolved many of the Prince's mechanical problems. It had a map-controlled variable oil pump, composite camshafts, a new piston crown and ring design, an updated PCV system to reduce waste pooling in the intake manifold, a new boost line between the valve cover and the new, rigid turbo intake pipe, and a heatshield over the turbo oil pipe to reduce line coking.
Having said all that, high pressure fuel pumps still fail on N18-engined cars, and that could cost £600-£700 or even more to fix if the dealer fancies his chances and you don't get any goodwill help from MINI. The early signs are extra turns required to start and sporadic appearances of the 'half-power' dash graphic. Water pumps and turbochargers go too. Access to the water pump is tough, via the offside wheel arch. Let the car idle before shutting off the engine. Before you ask, no you can't straight-swap an N18 into an N14 car.
Other upgrades in early 2013 included a bigger turbo feed pipe and air intake, a new drivebelt configuration, a modded dual-mass flywheel and better head gasketry. New ECU mapping for the GP and Countryman versions meant a small power increase for these models, but in the regular JCW the changes were claimed to improve throttle response and emissions numbers rather than horsepower.
From behind the wheel it wasn't easy to spot any difference, other than a bit more popping and banging on the overrun, but the sharp throttle response that had always been a key part of the JCW proposition remained present and correct. If you're going to go down the tuning route, think hard about getting a much bigger intercooler as cooling will be critical.
These are great driver's cars. The eagerness and integrity of the original Mini is still right there in the new MINI's DNA, the only real difference being the speeds at which everything is happening in the modern car. You always feel like you're going quickly in a MINI, and sometimes you really are, but it gives you that high-speed buzz even at medium speeds, which is nice. This is down not only to advances in power generation but also to the huge step-up in chassis technology.
Braking on the straight JCW was by Brembo four-pots up front and single-pots at the rear, where the discs can wear out surprisingly quickly. On the GP (which also had revised suspension geometry), six-pot Brembos from the M135i were used at the front. Lohen is a good brand for replacement brake components and also for beefed-up suspension bits, like solid front wishbone bush replacements. Bilstein will do you a complete new lowered suspension kit (including springs and dampers) for well under £1000. Eibach are in this market too. Their 'pro kit' drops the car just enough to improve the stance without slamming it right to the ground.
Cooper S cars had 16in 'S Winder' alloys with 195/55 runflats. The JCW got 18in double-spokers with 205/40 runflats. Runflat tyres are pretty horrid on MINIs, as we know. For those using one of these MINIs as a daily, conventional all-weather tyres will deliver very secure handling even in bad conditions, plus they'll get rid of that 'driving in two ruts' runflat steering feel.
On R53s, the combination of the rough ride of runflats with stiff suspension and softish metal could result in 'mushrooming' of the front strut towers (where the top mount bolts go out of parallel, drastically affecting front end alignment). Some instances of this have been reported with R56s. You can sort this by fitting reinforcement plates between the mount and the tower.
With a new batch of weight-reducing aluminium components, the gen-two R56s were a fine drive, but even the later N18 cars weren't squeaky-clean in terms of their body parts. The hood scoop (directly above the hot turbo) suffered from warpage and the clearcoat lacquer could peel and blister. Some heater elements in the back window weren't too clever, requiring the fitment of new glass.
In the US in 2012 one of the biggest recalls ever was carried out with every turbocharged Cooper S and JCW sold between 2007 and 2011 being brought back for attention to the circuit board of the turbo-cooling auxiliary water pump which could malfunction in high temperatures, raising the potential for a fire. The same recall was carried out in the UK.
Trim will rattle. Some say that's because MINIs are not built to BMW quality. That's debatable, but there's no doubt that some of the switchgear does feel cheap and/or sticky, especially the gear for the iDrive down by the gearstick. The D-pad on the steering wheel seems a bit low-rent too.
Some owners have reported having to thump the dashboard to open the glovebox lid, and the sun visors are flimsy and quite poorly designed in terms of their shape. The air vents get loose and drop down. Some window regulators were replaced under warranty. If white powder seems to be coming out of your air vents, that doesn't mean your car used to belong to a drug dealer. It's more likely to mean that your aircon evaporator has blown. That's a fiddly and labour-intensive fix.
The rear seats fold down nicely, boosting your luggage space from 'silly' to 'not too silly'. Pano roofs have been seen wobbling and/or heard thudding when you shut a door or hatch or go over a big bump. Sunroofs were given to sticking shut on hot days, which wasn't really what you wanted
The enbigulisation of the MINI name in 2000 turned out to be appropriate because it hasn't been mini-sized for a long time now, and it's getting bigger all the time. We'll forgive the MINI that though because the upside of its development over the last two decades has been an unleashing of the kind of performance that would have literally torn apart a car as titchy as the original Issigonis creation. The new F56 JCW GP has 302hp and does 164mph, for heaven's sake. Imagine that lot in a 1959 Morris Mini-Minor.
Anyway, stop imagining that now, if you think 300hp in an F56 is all lovely and everything but maybe straying just a bit too far from the original concept, then the R56 JCW and GPs we've been nattering on about here should provide you with a more than ample serving of meat on the hot MINI bone, or hot meat on the MINI bone. It's a meaty bone, anyway, whatever temperature you serve it at.
New, JCWs have traditionally come with the perception of being quite pricey. The passage of time has eroded that perception, aligning values more closely with reality. Looking for JCW and GP Minis in PH Classifieds we found a 2011 64,000-mile Cat D JCW in white with a red roof with a stack of Forge Motorsport and other bits and a suggested 250hp for offers on £5,000.
If you're not feeling brave enough for that one, how about this 2010 74,000-miler in cream and black with slightly kerbed wheels, at £5,995? With summer nearly here you might want to take the fresh air option with this 43,000-mile JCW Convertible in black at £10,789. Moving up a bit, £13,000 gets you this snazzy 30,000 mile 2013 specimen. At the higher end of the market here's a 2013 GP that used to belong to Simon Cowell. He gave it away on X-Factor in 2014 and it's only done 14,000 miles now. Yours for £22,595.
If it's a special edition you're hankering after, in 2010 there was a World Championship 50 version of the regular JCW hardtop in green with a white roof and black wheels and a decent sprinkling of carbon fibre pieces inside and out. It started off as a 250-car project. Wiki thinks that number eventually became 500 but we're not sure about that. With 35,000-45,000 miles up these go for between £11,000 and £12,000.