BMW and MINI have worked hard on the new JCW MINIs in setting them apart from the other models. They ‘ve given them their own names (you won ‘t find “Cooper S ” anywhere on them) and they ‘ve given the powerplant an entirely updated character let along performance boost. But is it enough?

From an enthusiasts point of view the problem with the existing MINI Clubman is it ‘s extra weight and subsequently a slightly lazier turn-in as compared to the MINI coupe. While the new factory JCW Clubman doesn ‘t solve the weight issue, it does solve everything else related to straight-line performance.

Walking up to the back JCW Clubman you can help but notice the fat twin pipes on the corners. It ‘s clear that MINI meant for this car to look the part. The large red calipers peaking out of the front wheels and the discrete JCW badges are the only other signs that this isn ‘t your ordinary Clubman. Could MINI have done more to make this car look the part though? I ‘m inclined to believe so. However with the JCW aerokit unavailable until March of 2009 for the Clubman (internally called the R55), I ‘ll give MINI USA the benefit of the doubt for now. Of course the same can ‘t be said for the JCW coupe which does have a JCW aerokit potentially available yet doesn ‘t get it as standard.

It ‘s worth noting that other markets have decided to include the aero-kit as part of the package but in doing so they ‘ve had to hold-back the JCW Clubman until March of ’09. Will MINI USA eventually include the kit as part of the package? Were guessing not since the design increases high-speed down-force but shaves off 1-2 mph from the top-end. And that higher top-end is one of the selling points of the car (for better or worse).

The cabin could have also been a bit more exclusive. Instead of a unique trim option the JCW cars essentially have less options than the stock MCS. And the unique pieces are few and far between; a slightly modified shift knob and a speedo with a higher top-end. Oh and the little (and potentially tacky – we haven ‘t quite decided) stick-on badge on the passenger side trim. But let ‘s once again give MINI the benefit of the doubt. The BMW Group division doesn ‘t have the money to make a ton of bespoke parts at this point for specific models so they only had so much to work with. What they have done is force the JCW owner into a subtly sportier cockpit (albeit with less choice). Not a bad thing for the image of JCW at the end of the day.

So enough talk about trim and badges, lets talk performance. The JCW Clubman starts up with slightly different sound thanks to the free flowing exhaust and immediately gets better once you get on the accelerator. Yes the burble is back. On lift-off the JCW models do feature the snarling pops of the previous R53 MCS if you have the sport button on. However where the stock R53 could sound a little hollow the R55 JCW sounds a little more serious and throaty. It ‘s as addicting as it sounds and it gives the car menacing a character.

Power is up from 175bhp (172hp)to 212bhp (208hp). However more importantly torque is up to 206 ft lbs from 177. This is what you feel off the line and this is what helps give the JCW cars such flexible power output. As compared to the stock car the power is linear and is delivered smoothly throughout the rev range. And as the owner of a 2007 MCS with the JCW engine kit you can feel the difference specifically in the higher rev-ranges. However I will say that this Clubman didn ‘t feel any faster (seat of the pants mind you) than the R56 with a JCW engine kit. In fact in some instances if felt a little less rapid due to the torque similarities.

It ‘s worth noting that while the factory JCW is up 19hp over the dealer installed JCW engine kit, the torque is only up 6ft lbs (the engine kit has 200ft lbs of torque). The result is that the JCW engine kit (which costs around $2000 installed if you look hard enough) remains a viable option for those looking to up the OEM performance ante. It also gives you enough money left over to opt for the highly recommended JCW suspension and JCW aero-kit (again the latter will be available in March of ’09 on the Clubman).

A lot has been made of the stock suspension choice MINI opted to go with on the JCW cars. While the JCW Clubman I drove had the optional sports suspension there was a noticeable difference in performance as compared to the JCW suspension I drive daily on my personal ’07 MCS. The JCW Clubman had more body roll and was less composed when pushed in and (more importantly) out of corners. It didn ‘t have the composure that the JCW suspension allows in getting extra power down to the tarmac. While the JCW suspension isn ‘t currently available for the R55 (we expect MINI to rectify this eventually) it obviously is for the coupe and we can ‘t recommend it enough.

Speaking of getting that extra power to the road, the DTC and the E-Diff did manage to impress in aggressive situations. However it was hard to really get a feel of how well either work without actually getting the car on the track. While I did clearly feel the E-Diff working, there was a quantifiable difference in feel as compared to the mechanical limited slip-differential optional in MINIs up until now. The E-Diff felt like it was managing the situation like traditional DSC would where LSD gives you more of a traditional feel that something is working to distribute the power and thus a little bit more satisfaction with the process. Technically the E-Diff should allow for more variation on power from wheel to wheel but I wonder just how well micro-processors will be able to cope with the rigors of a front wheel drive car with loads of torque on a demanding track. Time will tell and we hope to give you a full test of the JCW coupe later in the year with more insight into this.

The JCW Clubman feels a bit like a MINI let out of it ‘s cage. It snarls, it pops, and it goes better than almost any MINI before it. And whether or not you think it looks the part, the subtle cues to what this R55 is capable of are nice touches to a car already full of character. Is it worth the extra $6k on top of the stock R55? For me the answer would probably be no. Our test car topped out at $34k with not many options and cloth seats. That ‘s getting into the territory of some serious machinery, notably the BMW 135i.

However if you do need something more functional that a two-door and welcome the additional power, cache and don ‘t mind spending the cash, there ‘s little question that the R55 JCW is an exceptional addition to the MINI range. In fact, with it ‘s utility and funky character combined with no excuses type of performance, I find it strangely more appealing than the R56 JCW.