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.
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.
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.
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.