Here is what Brandon Turkus has to say..
If you are buying a car for go-fast reasons, there currently seem to be two avenues. On the one hand are the manufacturer-backed tuning divisions, known by a seemingly random assortment of letters. M, AMG, F, IPL, JCW, SVT, and others deliver some serious performance over the standard models while still offering a manufacturer-backed warranty should anything go wrong.
On the other hand, nearly every car from the Toyota Yaris to the Ferrari 458 Italia has a dedicated aftermarket that can deliver equally blistering performance for quite a bit less coin, but without the protection provided by a warranty. Component companies like Borla, Magnaflow, Brembo, Injen, and HKS offer individual parts, while full-scale customizers like AC Schnitzer, MTM, Roush, and Saleen can deliver fully modified vehicles to any customer that has the cash.
With the arrival of a 2011 John Cooper Works Mini Cooper S in our test fleet, and representing the manufacturer-backed side of the speed equation, this is the perfect time to see if the price premium for our JCW can be bested by the aftermarket.
Factory Born Performance
What happens at the factory to make the JCW the fire-breather that it is? For a start, lighter seventeen-inch wheels shield four-piston Brembo brakes and larger 12.4-inch rotors to help with stopping and handling. The suspension is the same $500 Sport Suspension option that can be had on the standard Cooper S.
In terms of engine mods, the JCW features reinforced pistons, a lower compression ratio (10.0:1 versus 10.5:1 in the Cooper S) and more boost (1.3 bar in the JCW, 0.9 bar in the Cooper S) from a larger turbocharger and exhaust manifold. A larger cold-air intake and mass airflow sensor are also fitted to improve throttle response. Finally, a reworked exhaust system produces a genuinely mean sounding note, that barks and burbles on overrun. All that mechanical nonsense means there’s 208 horsepower and 192 pound-feet of torque (207 pound-feet during overboost) at the disposal of your right foot.
All that added performance is going to tack $6100 on to the $23,700 base price of a Mini Cooper S, for a total of $29,800. Optioned out as our tester was, you’d be looking at cutting Mini a check for $34,550. The question is, can you do a better job in the aftermarket, for less money? That’s what I’m hoping to find out here.
To start, I need to figure out just what parts I’d plan on modding in my hypothetical JCW-beating Cooper S. Obviously I’d need to match the JCW on power. That means adding 27 horsepower and 30 pound-feet of torque to the stock motor. I also need to upgrade the wheels, tires, and brakes. Unlike Mini, I won’t be ignoring the suspension tuning, in an effort to tighten the Works car’s already sporting ride. The key is going to be keeping the price under $6100, which means we’ll be aiming for bolt-on upgrades that can be handled in a decently equipped garage.
Power upgrades will actually be the easiest to perform on our hypothetical MCS. Based on my experiences in the Mini aftermarket, I’d opt for a downpipe-back Milltek exhaust. This stainless-steel piece weighs in at 95 pounds, and is good for about 27 horsepower at the crank. It is also one of the most popular aftermarket items in the Mini community. The next step would be to improve breathing. That means a cold-air intake and a smoother and larger boost tube. Again, these simple upgrades can be handled in the span of three to four hours. At the same time, they are good for roughly 17 horsepower. That means we’ve already bumped our 181-horsepower output to 225 horsepower, easily eclipsing the JCW’s 208 horsepower.
The great thing is that these mods aren’t terribly expensive. Online you can be out the virtual door for under $1300. If you aren’t a wrench-turner, figure in about $200 to $300 for installation.
Moving on to brakes. You can actually pick up the same Brembo brake kit found on our JCW for about $2000. On the other hand, a full brake kit is available from for under $1400, and also features four-piston front calipers and 12.8-inch rotors up front. The kit also includes braided stainless-steel brake lines up front, for improved brake feel. Again, with the exception of the lines, swapping in this brake system can be done fairly easily.
Wheels and tires are a more personal choice, with decisions heavily influenced by style and price point. For example, if your heart is set on looks and brand cache, and you can pony up the $780 per wheel for a set of BBS REs, than more power to you. The same goes for tires; if you can afford $312 per tire for Yokohama’s Advan A048s (the same, near-slick tires found on the Lotus Elise), go for it. Personally, I’d opt for the lightweight Enkei RPF1 wheels with Yokohama Parada Spec-2 tires. At 14.6-pounds per wheel, the Enkei’s are extremely light, and at $225 per wheel, aren’t unreasonably expensive. When it’s all said and done, the sticky Yokos and lightweight Enkeis will cost you $1288, not counting mounting and balancing.
Finally, we get to the part of the modding process that Mini seemed to neglect: the suspension. As with the wheels and tires, suspension upgrades are a deeply personal process based heavily on what the driver wants. If looks are more important than outright handling prowess, a set of lowering springs could be the ticket. If ultimate handling at the cost of road comfort and price is tolerable, then a full suspension overhaul could be the right path.
For our Mini though, I’d opt for a do-it-yourself suspension, featuring new springs and a stiffer rear sway bar. In terms of springs, NM Engineering’s coils give an attractive 1.2-inch drop at all four corners (something the JCW sorely needs, in my view). Besides improving looks, these springs also deliver a stiffer, more responsive ride without compromising overall comfort. The most cost-effective handling mod for our Mini though, would be a new rear sway bar. A new rear bar can radically alter the handling of a car. In the case of our car, it would eliminate the sensation of understeer that is programmed into a stock Cooper S. The car feels more neutral and sure-footed, due to the lack of lateral weight transfer. That being said, a rear sway bar upgrade also makes an already quick-rotating car rotate even faster, and can quickly catch an inexperienced driver out. The cost of our suspension work would total about $550 for DIY-ers.
The Final Product
The final tally for our Mini mods comes out to $4538 for shade-tree mechanics, while the cost to have the work done will run you around $700. Compare that to the $6100 price premium of the factory car, and the aftermarket seems quite appealing. But there is an elephant in the room, and it takes the form of the manufacturer-backed, four-year, 50,000-mile warranty that comes with a JCW Mini.
You see, modifying your car is a great way to void the factory warranty, should something go wrong because of your modification. Therein lies the appeal of the JCW, in that you can get a great deal of performance, with the security blanket of a warranty for less than $2000 over the price of the aftermarket car we just built here.
That leaves potential buyers with a decision: are you a car tinkerer that doesn’t mind voiding your warranty, or the type of person that just wants a quick Mini with protection straight from the factory? If you find your self in the former, start modding. If not, then the John Cooper Works Mini Cooper S is probably the perfect car for you.
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