First thing’s first: I Love The MCSa. Of course I’m a sucker for all things MINI, but this car seems to have super powers. It can turn regular driving into a near video game with its paddle shifters, and it has also sparked more debate amongst the MINI faithful than any topic I’ve seen on any message board. While some love to bash it for not having a manual shift (which still boggles my mind to this day) others have grown to love it for the truly unique experience it provides. I am one of the latter folk, and just may be the biggest proponent of the model around. I love it so much in fact that I have gone on a bit of a crusade to turn it into the best possible MCSa that I think it can be. This review is the culmination of that year long quest to perfect a car which (in my opinion) is pretty damn close to perfect to begin with. But first, a little history…
After walking away from a near-deadly head on collision in 1991 (I was driving a 1989 Saab Convertible – pre airbags – with the roof down and my seat belt on) I took a hiatus from driving for over a year. When i finally did get back behind the wheel, it was in a big ‘ol Ford Explorer. It turns out I was to keep on driving Explorers (exploding tires and all) until 2004, when my love of the MINI got the best of me, and my financial situation would allow me to walk in to my dealer and plunk down for what turned out to be the car of my dreams. With 13 years of automatic tranny driving under my belt, the last thing I wanted to do was to throw down for an S and start crunching gears – so the MCSa was a perfect fit. Truth be told, I always liked the paddle shift concept to begin with, so it didn’t feel like a concession to me. But enough about me, let’s talk about the car.
As many of you are, I am a full blown MINIac. I feel like I am preaching to the choir as I sit here writing this, so it goes without saying that I did a ton of research when I got my car in the beginning of 2005. It became clear to me that more MINI is better than less MINI, so I set my sites on the John Cooper Works package. Now just in case you aren’t aware of this, the JCW package was promised in the spring of 2005 by MINI for the MCSa. In fact, it was released in the UK at the end of last summer (pretty on-time by manufacturer’s standards) so the release for the USA looked like a sure thing. Sadly, it was not. While I am told by reliable sources that the kit is indeed in the pipeline somewhere – and MINI is anxious to release it here – the reality is that it just hasn’t appeared – yet. This sinking feeling actually hit me last summer as hopeful release windows continued to open and close without as much as a JCW floor mat, let alone a Works kit for the MCSa. My calls to the JCW Garages in the UK were met with enthusiastic tales of how their JCW MCSa’s were a total blast and had been tearing up the english countryside for months.
Suffice to say I was getting frustrated. It was at this point that I decided to take matters into my own hands and start the mod process with whatever I could get my hands on. The good folks at Prestige MINI in Mahwah, NJ really took to my desires on this one and proceeded to hook me up with every available part which was available for the MCSa. In a matter of a month or two I had installed the JCW Intake, JCW Exhaust, JCW Brake kit and my personal fave, the JCW Suspension Kit as well.
The folks at Prestige were so willing to work with me, that they told me not to worry about the parts which I had installed which were already part of the Works kit, and that we’d figure out an arrangement when the Works kit eventually showed up – if at all. (A big shout out to Vasili, Chris and the entire gang over there…you guys are a class act. Muchos Gracias!) I won’t go over or review any of these previously mentioned JCW bits as any avid MotoringFile reader knows exactly what they do. However to sum up briefly: the JCW intake behaves exactly as it does in the manual car, with its flap opening up at 4500 rpm and letting all that god air in and glorious supercharger whine out. The exhaust is fantastic as well, and provides that classic british sports car burble and throatiness while still sounding refined and … well… like a MINI of days gone by. The brakes are top notch and working with the suspension actually provides a more comfy ride than stock. It’s weird: you’d think it would be harsher, but somehow the car feels tighter, lower and just more “present”… go figure. I can also tell you that with the addition of the JCW Intake and Exhaust my performance definitely increased. I cannot say by how much, but there was a period where we were diagnosing another issue (later resolved, no big deal at all) and swapped out the JCW Intake for a stock box. I had to test drive the car (we were listening for a swooshing air sound – turned out to be normal throttle body stuff) but I can tell you that going back to a stock air box was quite the revelation. The car didn’t feel nearly as peppy, so I do believe that the combo of intake and exhaust does indeed get you something. If I were to guess I would say that it’s probably around 10 hp combined. (MINI says the intake gets you 7hp, and i will conservatively estimate the exhaust at another 3hp).
After a lot of work my car was becoming a full on Works car – and I was very happy – but I wasn’t done. Months continued to roll on by with not so much as a peep about the JCW kit for the MCSa. Rumors were flying that perhaps there was an issue with US Emissions testing, or even with the kit itself. But the bottom line is that it just hasn’t appeared yet, despite being readily available in Europe for months. And because it is available across the pond, it became possible to study it and see exactly what was happening with the kit in relation to its big brother, the previously released and now factory available JCW kit for the manual Cooper S. So what was happening? What was the difference? Well if you look at the specs and the parts, nothing! Same parts, same pulley upgrade, same supercharger swap, same injectors, same exhaust, same head…you get the idea. Of course the software download is anybody’s guess, but from where I was sitting, the interesting thing to note was that (at least from a layman’s point of view) the parts were/are exactly the same. To me this spelled out that the MCSa’s tranny was more than capable of handling the JCW Kit’s power….and that got me thinking. Already frustrated by the Works Kit’s vanishing act, I began to read up on all of the MCS owners who’d installed 15% reduction pulleys in their cars. Again, I will assume that the majority of you know all about this extremely popular and cost effective mod, so I won’t go into a long dissertation on it here. But all of the positive feedback, the seemingly bullet-proof nature of the upgrade, the lack of reported problems and lengthy conversations with Randy Webb at Webb Motorsports and Eric at Helix in Philly lead me to one inescapable conclusion: whether the JCW kit showed up tomorrow or not, I was getting pulled in….by the pulley.
Living in New York City, you’d think it might be tricky to find an installer for such a serious job. Fortunately I just happened to live an hour and 45 minutes from Philadelphia and Eric Savage, the owner, engineer and mad scientist behind Helix Minisports. I had spoken to Eric briefly prior to making my appointment just to pick his brain on all of this and by the end of our conversation I was ready to roll. Eric assured me that his work was (and is) fully warranted and that in his experience this mod seemed all but bullet-proof. I was sold. A few days later I made my way down the Jersey Turnpike and landed at the converted stable that is Helix.
Watching Eric perform the upgrade felt a lot like watching brain surgery, but was as casual as a back yard bar-b-que. There was my engine, cranked nearly all the way off of it’s mount and ready to have it’s pulley swapped, and there is Eric, asking me about what bands I’m into lately! In all seriousness though, his expertise really put my mind at ease as the process went on. I cannot emphasize how completely confident I am in his work and would whole-heartedly recommend him to anyone considering this upgrade. Now that I’ve sat through all two hours of it, I can assure you that you really want someone who KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE DOING to do this. (Eric, just in case you’re reading, you da man!) So accolades aside, how does the 15% pulley perform in an MCSa? Well let me quote Eric first: After returning from a brief test drive following the install, Eric commented to me that all of the same power he would expect from a 15% pulley upgrade on any MINI was readily available. He also mentioned (after I encouraged him to the test drive with the paddles only) that the tranny on this car easily bested the tiptronic on one of his fave Porsche 911’s. At this point all I really wanted to do was jump in the car and find out for myself. And did I ever find out…
WOW! Everything good you’ve read, heard or seen about a MINI Cooper S with a 15% pulley mod is true. The car really sprung to life. It pulls like mad. The power band is much more rounded and even – offering more power at lower revs – and gobs of power where there was solid power before. 2nd, 3rd and 4th are a total revelation – just a completely different car. 5th also has more powered throughout its power band and pulls where it didn’t use to pull before. 6th is still a highway cruiser and shows no real benefit from the upgrade. I saved 1st for last because that gear gets wrung out really fast now – but it sounds a lot cooler! I would agree with Eric when he says it’s as if the power band has been shifted over: Where the MCSa used to really come alive at, say, 3800 rpm, the car now wants to fly at 2500 rpm. It’s eager. It’s urgent. And it’s definitely, beyond the shadow of a doubt, a lot faster.
Here is what it’s not: it’s not a Porsche killer. It’s not a first-off-the-line drag car. It’s not night and day different. What it does give you is a complete range of power that will surprise you when you least expect it. Even after a three hour drive back (I took the long way!) the car would simply take-off when I hit the go pedal where it didn’t used to before. I would go as far as to say that adding this much power to the car will require some modification of your driving style – at least is has for me. All in all I am 100 percent happy with the pulley mod and would say to anyone on the fence to go for it. WIth guys like Eric at Helix and Randy at Webb Motorsports having done the amount of research on it they have – not to mention literally hundreds of cars with thousands of pulley’d miles on them, this one seems like a real safe bet.
So there you have it. After a year of tinkering (if you can call it that) I have brought my trusty MCSa up to my own personal spec. I know i’m not the first person to do this, and to that end I’d like to thank everyone who’s ever posted on the subject and helped to educate me on the world of tuning. I’d also like to thank Gabe for letting me post this story as I think that perhaps the MCSa has gotten a bit of a bad rap and deserves some time in the spot light. Motor on!