Some pundits might say that using the John Cooper name will give MINI an unfair advantage over its rivals. However, as the guys from Oxford quickly learned, especially in the last few years, the perks do come with some important tradeoffs. To be more precise, when using a legendary name and its legacy, you really have to be cautious not to offend the vast mass of people that respect it in the first place. Then, you also need to make sure that you don’t stick a JCW badge on just about anything.
Marketing will help you go a long way but today the buyers are more and more informed and the choices out there, especially when it comes to cars, are more varied than ever. The John Cooper Works treatment is, therefore, a risky business all around, possibly leaving you in more trouble than you’d expect, if you don’t show it the respect it deserves.
Almost exactly a year after the new MINI Hardtop was launched, the Brits unveiled the most fun version you can possibly get in the shape of the much awaited MINI John Cooper Works model. If you’re a fan of the brand you probably already know that the JCW acronym represents the pinnacle of what Oxford has to offer, no matter the model it is stuck on.
But the hardtop is MINI’s bread and butter. The smallest and lightest car in production today, the MINI JCW Hardtop is also the fastest MINI ever made.
The previous generation model was powered by a four-cylinder 1.6-liter turbocharged engine which was now replaced by a larger, 2-liter unit. The engines are now exclusively made by BMW, without the help of anyone else, leaving PSA out of the circle of trust this time. To be fair, the old 1.6-liter mills were brilliant and their development in collaboration with the French was a good idea back in the day, but they fade by comparison when pitted against their younger counterparts.
The displacement increase allowed the Germans to give the new JCW a bit more power to play around with allowing the hot hatch to develop 231 HP and 320 Nm (236 lb-ft) of torque . That’s an increase of 13 HP and while it may not seem like much, it’s plenty to the difference. Chip in the extra 40 Nm (29.5 lb-ft) of torque coming in a lot sooner (1,250 RPM instead of 1,900 RPM on the old engine) and you have a rather feisty car on your hands.
All of that power goes to the front wheels, as you’d expect on a MINI JCW Hardtop model. You’d also expect a lot of torque steer, but I was surprised to learn it’s not really the case here. That’s because the engineers listened to what the owners of the R56 model had to say and changed a few things here and there.
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It’s enough to look at it from the outside and you’ll notice that this is no ordinary car
Even though the engine is mounted transversely inside the bay, the brilliant engineering minds behind the new JCW went through a lot of trouble to make sure the driveshafts are equal in size. To achieve that, they installed an intermediate prop shaft placed exactly between the two that reach the front wheels. Is that enough to make sure you don’t understeer like hell when approaching a bend at high speeds? Of course not, hence why more work was performed underneath.
On the front axle you’ll also find a brake-actuated torque vectoring system that makes sure you get as little understeer as possible.
On the road or on the track, the MINI JCW does its job as good as you’d expect but the car’s behavior did leave me wondering if a mechanical differential wouldn’t have been better. But with MINI catering to a broader audience past the loyalists, it only makes sense why they would soften the car a bit.
It’s enough to look at it from the outside and you’ll notice that this is no ordinary car. It will appeal to those wanting to make an impression, wanting to get noticed and it will serve them well.
Our tester was dressed in a good old fashioned British Racing Green paint that give the JCW MINI a more subtle vibe. It doesn’t scream at you as Volcano Orange would, and it shows the wide variety of customizations available at your disposal.
Therefore, our black bonnet stripes with red accents on the sides, the red rearview mirror caps and the roof colored in the same paint made a silent statement that impressed pedestrians and drivers alike. The drivers were probably even more impressed by the twin tailpipes at the back that, when in Sport mode, come pretty damn close to spitting fire.
The sound they make is also incredibly good, on par with the best 2-liter mills in the world right now. If you will, just imagine that you have a popcorn machine in the boot and you’re there. The only difference is that unlike the traditional apparatus you’d find in a cinema lobby, this one reacts to the inputs you make using your right foot. And isn’t that why we love cars in the first place?
Accelerating hard is quite an experience but it varies a lot on what driving mode you’re using. The new MINI models are now available with adaptive dampers and driving modes that allow you to switch both your mentality and behavior on the road at the flick of a button located at the base of the gearshift lever.
Choosing Green mode turns this lion into a kitty, reducing power output, the pedal’s sharp response and the hard suspension to a mum. You’ll feel like everything went numb but there’s a point to this – fuel consumption. We managed to get around 7.5 liter/100 km (31.3 mpg) around town driving this way and that’s not bad at all for a 2-liter turbocharged petrol engine making 231 HP.
Mid-mode is supposed to get you the usual driving fun you’re used to in a MINI but I’m here to tell you that while it is an improvement from Green mode, Sport mode is the one you’ll want to use most of the time. Choosing to drive in the hooligan mode – as I ended up calling it during my time with the car – will open up valves in the exhaust, change the car’s tone, stiffen the suspension and make the steering heavier than you’d expect.
All of these factors will make you smile, no matter what. The car’s small size allows you to squeeze in the tightest spaces and the brakes will make sure you don’t crash. The stopping power and the suspension deserve a special mention because they truly are impressive. According to some unofficial info we got our hands on, the car was actually developed around the front brakes and the suspension surrounding them. Looking at the size of the things, we reckon that might be true. And it’s not just that.
No matter how hard we pushed the car we couldn’t get the tiniest sense of the brakes fading. That says a lot but, in full disclosure, we probably could’ve pushed the car a bit more. All in all, we weren’t disappointed in the slightest.
As for the suspension, the front axle has uprated springs and dampers, lighter supports that have also been strengthened with the anti-roll bars are tube-shaped. The strut mounts are triple-path while the rear axle has a multi-link layout that is considerably harder than on the Cooper S.
Therefore, if you thought that the JCW model is just a slightly more powerful Cooper S, you’d be wrong. The engine was also reworked quite a bit and, even though it does share a lot with the one on the S model, it was modified to make sure reliability isn’t an issue.
Inside the engine bay you’ll find a bigger intercooler, a wider intake as well as a new exhaust. Inside the engine itself, the pistons have been replaced with ones that will withstand the strain a lot easier.
And you can feel all those changes on the road. The mad sound the exhaust makes is combined with some turbo spool whoosh that will simply drive you insane especially inside a tunnel or when navigating city streets between tall buildings.
Put your foot down and you’ll see that driving this car without a smile on your face is pretty darn impossible. It asks for speed and handbrake turns and you just have to oblige it.
Reaching 100 km/h (62 mph) from a standstill takes 6.3 seconds when using the standard 6-speed manual gearbox or 6.1 seconds with the optional Steptronic 6-speed auto as we had, unfortunately. I’m saying that not because the auto isn’t any good but because on a car like this, you must go for the manual, to enjoy every bit of its potential on and off the road.
As for the self-shifting cog swapper, it is up to the task whenever you want it to be. It responds to the driver’s inputs in a swiftly manner and it will help reduce fuel consumption. However, we did notice that at times, it felt a bit cloggy, but only in Green mode and that may be due to the way it was configured to work to keep MPG figures as high as possible. To top everything off, it’s also a lot more comfortable to use on a daily basis, especially if you live in a town with heavy traffic. After all, this car was built to be daily driven.
That also implies that you’ll be spending most of your time inside it where a pair of bespoke seats await, with the perfect amount of comfort and side bolstering working on their behalf.
Yes, the JCW seats are comfortable, no matter how they may look at first. They are also made of the finest Alcantara you can get and have red stripes on their sides.
Right in front of you will be a JCW steering wheel that, unlike the seats that are only available on the hardcore hardtop, can be purchased as an optional extra on almost any other model in the range. As a matter of fact, excepting the seats, there are a couple of things thrown around the cabin that you can only get on the real deal.
For example, the speedometer has a checkered flag instead of the usual bars above the 200 km/h (124 mph) speed, kind-of letting you know that you probably should be handling that velocity on the track only.
Another such example is the center infotainment screen that is surrounded by the new LED lights you can find on all MINIs with a twist. Its outer shell is now featuring the same design as the speedometer, with strips and a checkered flag motif on the right side. On top of it sits the JCW badge.
Those come aplenty and you’ll find them on the seats, the boot, the front fascia’s grille and the door sills, basically constantly reminding you of the legacy that is joining you on every step of the way.
One special mention has to go to the Harman/Kardon sound system that, if you’re an audiophile, is a must have. I tested a lot of cars fitted with HK’s optional offering but somehow, the one inside this MINI left a more permanent mark on my mind.
Everything about this car is designed to make it and you feel alive. For example, the LEDs around the center infotainment screen play an important role in this regard. They change colors and even have a heartbeat-like effect when the car is stationary. Furthermore, adjust everything inside, from the music volume to the climate control temperature and you’ll see it displayed with a beautiful array of colors on this LED strip. Even the Start/Stop button beats to a tune that resembles that of a heart.
Yes, the MINI John Cooper Works Hardtop is that sort of car that makes you fall in love with driving and that’s exactly the kind of car we need, as petrolheads, especially with the rise of electrics, hybrids and autonomous vehicles that are starting to sprout all around us. Is it a breath of fresh air? You bet! Will it be a success? I can guarantee it. So what’s wrong with it then?
Well, compared to its main rivals, it’s a bit more expensive. Starting at $30,600 in the U.S. and €29,900 in the EU, it outpaces the Fiesta ST, one of its rivals. However, it also outpaces the American model in performance, build quality and straight up power.
Comparing it to the Audi S1, which is its true competitor, the MINI is a bit cheaper in Europe and that’s the only relevant market as the U.S. doesn’t get the S1 for now. And while the German car might be a bit faster on straight line, the character of the MINI truly sets it apart.
Is it enough though? Well, that’s up to the customer to decide but we’d drive a car with character such as the JCW every day of the week if possible.