I approached this car with some trepidation - would it be yet another rip-off of a once great brand? To a certain class of car buff, the John Cooper name is sacred, conjuring up a golden age of small performance cars that began in the 1960s. I didn't have the money for a John Cooper Mini back then, but I worshipped the car.
So as I prepared to drive the Cooper's brand new descendant, the 2011 Mini John Cooper Works Mini (a.k.a. the JCW), I prayed that it wouldn't shatter the Cooper mystique. But I knew that was a tall order.
Making a new version of a legendary car is like trying to genetically engineer a current iteration of Jim Morrison or Napoleon. The central problem: how close should you stick to the original? Would the new Jim be better if he lost the leather pants and switched to techno club music? What if Napoleon 2.0 were a little taller?
To see how badly an automotive resurrection can go, consider the New Beetle, a swollen styling exercise that no serious Beetle buff can take seriously - a curved roof and a flower vase do not add up to a People's Car.
This gives you a sense of what BMW was up against back in the 1990s when it decided to remake the Mini, a car nearly as iconic as the original Beetle. But in the Mini's case, it worked. The new Mini retained many of the signature elements that defined the original: transverse-mounted front engine, wheels stuck in the corners of the chassis, and that lovable, boxy shape.
But the JCW high performance version represented a further challenge. The JCW Mini dates back to the 1960s, when British tuner John Cooper put bored-out engines and competition suspensions in the standard Mini to create an improbable giant-killer. In 1969, I stood with my father and watched a John Cooper-modified Mini duke it out with a V8-powered IROC Camaro around a racetrack on the West Coast. When the Mini won, it was like watching the motorsports version of David and Goliath.
I'm not the only guy who remembers those fast, crazy little cars. So I was wondering if the new JCW could tap into that awesome history. Although I've driven almost every version of the modern Mini, the JCW and I were ships in the night. But this week, I finally got to try a 2011 JCW, thanks to a dealer who had one in stock. Off we went. The JCW's leather interior was a cozy little foxhole of a place, with details straight from the Stirling Moss era - pleated leather seats, a purposeful manual shifter, and rows of metal toggle switches.
Out on the road, the JCW was fast and darty, with tight power steering and a smooth four-cylinder turbo engine that pumped out 211 horsepower (about three times what the best Cooper Mini race cars had back in the sixties.) The handling of high performance Minis is invariably described as "like a go-kart," a description I have heard repeated hundreds of times. Unfortunately, the JCW Mini handled like a go-kart. Which is to say: flat, rapid and responsive. When I got the JCW sideways in a fast on-ramp with cold pavement, the quick steering came in handy - a few flicks of counter steering kept us aimed where we wanted. The saleswoman's eyes did get wide for a second, but it was all good fun.
Back at the dealership, I studied the JCW again. I realized that it was at least 25 per cent larger than the original that I loved so much back in the sixties. No wonder. Current cars have to meet crash test standards, and appeal to consumers who expect GPS systems, heated seats and Bluetooth phone hookups.
Few cars grow well. In my view, for example, the new Camaro loses the minimalist, pony car charm of its 1967 original. Although the new Camaro's shape is beautiful, its sheer size overwhelms you when you encounter it live - it's a battleship instead of a speedboat.
But the 2011 JCW Mini still looked and felt right. It may be bigger than the car that inspired it, but it's still small. And it was still cool. The JCW has been raised from the dead, its mojo intact.