‘Maxed’ Mini a great track toy

The John Cooper Works is as extreme as a Mini hatch gets and the latest is the most powerful BMW has ever produced. That sounds interesting, yes?


For: Impressive engine, tons of character, quality ingredients.

Against: Expensive, four-star safety, suspension tune bettered suit to track than road.

Score: 4/5

Going large with a Mini hatchback has nothing to do with upsizing in a physical sense; today’s BMW-developed models are giants of the road compared with the BMC originals, but by class standards they are still small cars.

However, some aspects of the buy-in are definitely larger than life-sized.

For instance, you’re buying into a big name with huge heritage: Mini John Cooper Works is mouthful for a small car.

It helps explain why buying in is also an exercise in excess. Under Munich’s control, Minis – at least the sporty ones - are all about money. In cost per kilogram, it’s tempting to suggest the JCW on test represents especially precious metal. The base price of $54,800 for this derivative is sizeable enough, but ours was delivered with an accessory fitout that took the sticker to $64,650. How apt that it was called the Chilli package: At this price, you can’t help but feel the burn, right?

Fortunately this car can counter with some fire of its own, in the form of a super-sized performance statement: This is the most powerful production Mini ever.

So are welcoming a new hero or finding a car that’s just a bit too big for its boots?

Styling, image:

John Cooper was a legend in the heyday of the original (meaning Austin, Morris then British Motor Corporation) Mini, but that was all so long ago it’s possible younger buyers mightn’t know anything about that side of things.

 So, a potted history: Cooper was a motorsport engineer who worked out how to make slow Mini road cars into quite rapid race cars. This was back in the early 1960s and, by the end of that decade, the fun was over. Ask your grandparents if you want to know more.

Fast forward to the start of this century. By then the Mini brand has been in Munich’s hands for six years. John’s son Michael reckoned these ‘new’ (meaning BMW-designed and built) Minis could do with a fizz up, so he coined the JCW moniker: A racer rebirth for a reborn car. Anyway, it took off and since 2008 it’s been the authorised performance arm of Mini, serving in the same fashion as “M’ does for BMW.

JCW is primarily about going fast and smashing around corners ‘Italian Job’ style, but it’s also about being especially loud in look (and sound).

Shouty loud in the case of the test car. Basically the ethos is to provide impression that this is a road car dead set for competition; all it supposedly needs is a competition number and you’re good to go. Actually, it’d need a lot more kit – starting with a roll cage – before being allowed into an actual race or rally, but the spirit is certainly evident with its hunkered stance, full-out bodykit including all the requisite aero ‘aids’, big (as in 18-inch) wheels, low profile 205/40-section rubber and twin central exhaust pipes with a suitably fruity/farty note.

The latest hatch’s JCW treatment is typically formulaic, but Mini fans will be able to tell you that the front and rear bumper/apron units are entirely new, that the sills have got fatter and that the tailgate wing is larger than ever before. The front bumper has big intakes, big enough to leave no room for fog lamps any more – in compensation you get daylight running lamps. The rear bumper has a diffuser though whether it has any actual effectiveness is debatable. Contrasting colour schemes are part of the JCW look, so with this dark green car the roof, part of the grille and the wing mirrors were in fire engine red to create a talking point of difference.

The JCW interior is just as brash as the exterior: Faux carbon-fibre dashboard inserts, bright red stitching and chequered-flag motifs everywhere, including the border of the enormous central display screen, are standard. So too even more JCW badgery. Adopting the $5000 Chilli package delivers a leather upholstery with heating for the front chairs and a Harman Kardon sound system. The JCW also has a head-up display; the Perspex pop-up type rather than the usual BMW system of reflecting information directly onto the windscreen.

Powertrain, performance:

JCW cars have always been big-hearted, but with optimal outputs of 170kW and 320Nm, this engine is something else again.

And, yet, in a way, it’s not. The 2.0-litre mill is essentially a carry-over from the old model’s, only it’s had a major bout of surgery. Changes to internal components including the pistons, and different induction/exhaust systems have delivered a 10 percent gain in power and 23 percent more torque compared with its application in the previous JCW.

To get a handle of what it is offering, consider that the less overt sports model in the Mini range, the Cooper S, makes do with 141kW/280Nm and still feels quite nippy.

But the JCW doesn’t nip. It takes big, jaw-stretching bites. The rush starts pretty much right at the get-go, though it feeds in a dollop at a time, which might sound a bit wussy but in fact is a good thing, for it restrains wheelspin (okay, you can still get that by turning off the traction aids) and torque steer. The pulls keeps on strong until around 5600rpm, which is just 900rpm below the disappointingly low 6500rpm redline, but in exchange for limited rev-ability you do get a load of mid-range muscle, which is quite a handy thing given the type of transmission it gets.

Which is? A six-speed auto, actually. Not an automated manual but a full-blown slushbox, though you’d be forgiven for thinking it has the genes of the former as this unit has ability to change as convincingly as a dual-clutch transmission.

But an auto? Yes, JCW also produces this car with a three-pedal, shift yourself stick setup, but it won’t come here because buyers cannot be bothered with all that. No, really, I heard it for myself when we hooked into a Mini driving day at Manfeild during this test. Out of two dozen attending owners (not just of JCWs), just a couple professed to desiring a manual over an auto, and some simply sidestepped the stick shifts available on the day, because they’d either never tried one or couldn’t be bothered.

I’m a manual guy, always, and would side with the view that a stick shift is more in keeping with the JCW’s character. And yet I’d also have to concede the auto is pretty good at tapping into the car’s soul as well. The box features Sport shift mapping and allows manual takeover with the steering-wheel paddles. As with most BMW Group automatics, it delivers slightly quicker acceleration than its manual counterpart, shaving two tenths from the 0-100kmh acceleration time (6.1 seconds versus 6.3). It also delivers delightful, rev-matched downshifts when the brake pedal is tapped. It actually sounds great all the time, no more so than in Sport mode, where the exhaust growl and pop is enhanced.

Driving appeal:

It’s delivered in spades … in the right situation.

We spent a day nipping around Manfeild circuit, culminating – after the guests went home – with a dozen go-for-broke laps, going hard into corners and hitting the brakes hard enough to get the tail wagging. All good fun and an impressive demonstration of the JCW’s track-readiness.

One point: Did you know that when it engineering this model, Mini started out with the brakes; settling on Brembo stoppers. The fronts’ callipers are so large the wheel offsets needed to be increased (hence, in turn, why it has fairing on the wheel arches). Anyway, the stoppers are sensational and couldn’t be beaten on our stint: From go to whoa the braking remained confident and fade-resistant. Pretty good for a car with a 240kmh top speed, yeah?

Our circuit outing was on condition there’d be no stopwatches, yet with the speedo showing in excess of 200kmh down the back straight, you’d have to imagine it’s not the slowest thing around. And yet it’s the strangest thing … the model with the most power yet doesn’t feel as utterly feral as some previous JCW wares I’ve sampled. In part it’s because the power plays out in a more linear fashion; some previous cars were incredibly throttle sensitive. Horribly so, actually.

Handling and ride are subjects for discussion. The first action when heading onto track was to put everything into Sports mode. No question, the car felt great; it turned in well, took corners flat and held good speed through the apexes and delivered good grip. Big ups, too, for the DSC system that lets it slither about quite a bit before intervening.

At the same token, you’d potentially hesitate to keep the car wholly in its extreme settings for any other occasion than this. It’s nice (and a bit naughty) to set the exhaust and engine at maximum barpiness, but in typical JCW tradition the ride quality on anything but a smooth surface is rather firm. This is an ongoing issue with these models and, agreed, there has been some progress in that this edition isn’t as crash, bang, darty as some previous offers.

Yet they’re still taking that ‘maximum go-kart feel’ concept a little too literally. There’s certainly considerably less yield here than the standard Cooper S and it’s a car that consistently demands a firm hand.

A degree of harshness is hardly unexpected with new springs, dampers and anti-roll bars, but the run-flat rubber, modest suspension travel and the car’s overall stiffness also provide pathways for vibration and noise, no more so than when on coarse chip. Smaller rims might ease the issue but they’d hardly be in keeping with the car’s larger than life persona. Those straight, upright A-pillars and jutting door mirrors also seem to generate plenty of wind rustle.

The other ‘could do better’ concerns the steering feedback, which feels too artificial almost all of the time, even though the reactivity is very direct.

Minis have enlarged, but they’re still snug cars; expect a driving position that, for a tall driver, is low, slightly straight-legged and a bit hunched. Don’t take the back seats too seriously; it’s not a car-pool choice. Mini has devised a system that allows the rear seat backs to locate at 90 degrees to free up more cargo space but it’s better to fold down them down completely and make it a more practical two-seater, because the boot is small, too.

Comedic interior touches abound in the Mini; newcomers will continue to smile – and sigh – at how ridiculous the entire dashboard layout really is, but that’s just part of the Mini-ness.

How it compares:

In character and, mainly, in size the Mini is the runt of the performance hatch category. It’s hugely energetic and has an outrageous personality; if you’re a Mini person already, then this is a model you’ll love and laugh along with.

Those immune to the Mini virus will quickly clock that the car sits in a space that contains other hard-core alternates that, while perhaps less overt in overall character, are nonetheless easily as ferocious, very often faster, more competent and – in some eyes - just as characterful.

Not that the likes of the Ford Focus RS, Holden Astra VXR and Renault RS Megane stand much chance of being noticed by the Mini-fatuated.