As part of the Paramount Italian Job Coaster press event in Cincinnati last Thursday, MINIUSA gave a few select journalists (including Mark Ferguson from North American Motoring, and myself) an opportunity to test drive the entire range of US spec MINIs. Four MCS’s (one Cabrio, two autos, one loaded JCW), two MC’s were on hand to give us a full cross section of the brand.

The idea for the program was simple. While the press was on hand to report on the introduction of the Italian Job Coaster debut, MINIUSA would provide a full range of MINIs currently available in the US. In order to fully test each cars limits they created a full parking-lot road course as a venue for a full evaluation. They then offered professional instructors to help the press hone their skills behind the wheel of each variant. The resulting experience was one I won’t soon forget.

We were set lose around 10:30am just outside the new Italian Job ride inside Kings Island a just few miles south of Cincinnati. At that point most of us figured we might as well get in line for the coaster and head over to the autocross track as soon as possible afterward. After all, the autocross portion of the event was what a few of us had been looking forward to on this trip more than anything. Once done with the ride (full review coming shortly), we high-talied it to the track with the idea of getting a least a few dry laps in before the quickly darkening skies opened up. However, as if on cue, the weather got bad quickly and it became obvious that this was going to be more than a simple autocross session in a large, dry parking lot. Of course with Mark and I being the professionals that we are (sarcasm intended) we soldiered on, got behind the wheel and headed out to the now soaked track.

First on my list was a manual equipped Cooper Convertible. In a short, tight track such as the one we were on, the Cooper is really quite a good choice. The car felt light and nimble. This particliar car was shod with the standard 15″ inch wheels and tires, not an ideal choice in the rain and standing water that was now throughout the course. In fact as I moved from car to car, I found (despite the weight advantage) that there was simply less feel with the taller side walls and smaller contact patch of the 15″ wheel/tire combo.

After doing a good dozen hot laps in the MCc I switched over to a fully loaded Pepper White JCW MCS. Equipped with the JCW suspension, brake kit, and the 18″ wheels and tires, this car had a very different personality than the Cooper I had just stepped out of. However, due to the track being solely a first and second gear course, the extra power wasn’t necessarily what made this car feel superior. The car’s personality was derived more from the combination of the suspension, brakes, and 18″ wheels/tires which allowed the car tackle the track in a much more effectively than a typical MC or MCS. Not surprisingly I found myself in this JCW MCS more than any other car that day.

Generally speaking, I don’t think most realize just how much these non-engine related JCW components (as a whole) alter the personality of the car. I found the MINI entered corners, bit into corners and exited with more grip, more speed, and much more feel than you would get out of a stock MCS. In general, it felt simply like it could handle anything I threw at it and any given time. Yet the best part was that none of these modifications made the car feel rough or ragged like some aftermarket set-ups can.

Unfortunately after an hour or so the weather was making a turning for the worse. At one point during my stint in the JCW MCS, the storm got so bad that we were told to stay in the car out of fear of lightening strikes. So naturally I figured it was an excellent opportunity to hit the track even harder. Throughout these conditions the JCW MCS handled the track and the standing water better than I would have expected. The 18″ Dunlops held their ground like champs through almost everything I threw at them.

After a few laps during this heavy downpour I was able to adjust my style a bit and rely on the car drifting into corners more. In fact my instructor even offered up some welcome e-brake a couple of times just to give me a helping hand (something I replicated later in a solo run). It was during this time that I came to realize there are few moments more satisfying behind the wheel than power sliding a car through a sweeper at 9/10s in a driving rain while gently feathering the throttle. I simply didn’t want to get out.

After driving the JCW MCS I stepped into a fully loaded automatic MCS for something completely different. While acceleration was more leisurely than the manual car JCW MCS, the most immediately recognizable difference was a lower level of feedback due to not having direct control over the gearing of the car. Even with the quicker launches of the MCSa in standing water (something the JCW just doesn’t do well) I found my times to be decidedly slower with the auto. While it may make for a comfortable commute, the MCSa just wasn’t as satisfying a drive around the track for me.

The next car on my list was a manually equipped MCS convertible. While the convertible may feel close in overall handling to the hardtop on public roads, the difference is much more apparent on the track. Without that metal top to further reinforce the chassis or the Sports Suspension Plus, the MCSc was simply not as composed or satisfying while pushing the limits. Chassis flex that was almost non-existant during my week-long test this past November proved rather obvious while pushing the car on the track.

The rain finally let up enough to take a few pics (seen throughout the article) and allow Mark Ferguson and I to make our way over to the amusement park for some lunch. Unfortunately the light skies didn’t last long and by the time we got back for another couple hours of driving, the folks at MINI decided to shut it down due to the amount of severe storms and lightening in the area. Based on how the sky was looking, it was probably a smart move!

When we left the track the scoring board showed Mark Ferguson and myself leading the pack respectively in the wet weather times. Mark’s times (and his line through the corners for that matter) was probably the best out there as his autocross experience put him in a class above most of us. While I was generally happy with my times considering the conditions and my lack of experience, I was excited to get back in the car to make some improvements. Unfortunately that will now have to wait until I can take my own car to the track (or MINIUSA schedules a make-up date!). We should know the official results of the autocross in the coming days.

For those that have never taken your MINI racing, I can only say that it is an absolutely addictive experience. You will never look at your car the same way again. You’ll also find yourself empowered with a knowledge that can only be achieved by safely pushing the limits of your car on the track. A knowledge that allows you to understand how your car will react, and in turn, how to control that reaction. It’s also a great time.