The cheeky little MINI turns 50 this year, and its thousands of competition wins over that incredible span came thanks to the handiwork of John Cooper. So what better way to celebrate five decades of sheer driving enjoyment than with the ultimate performance version of the upscale hatch: the MINI Cooper JCW.
|1. The top-level MINI JCW is priced from $28,550 ($38,390 CDN), but can stretch all the way to an outrageous $49,883.
2. Powered by a turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder, the MINI JCW makes 208hp and 192 ft-lbs of torque and is available only with a six-speed manual.
3. Incredibly, for all the speed and fun, the MINI JCW still gets 26/34 mpg.
5. John Cooper Works options include things like 18-inch wheels and carbon fiber interior trim.
If you haven’t figured out by now, JCW stands for John Cooper Works, and it essentially outlines a number of performance-oriented upgrades over and above the already nippy Cooper S. Think of it as MINI’s in-house tuner a la BMW and M-Works or Mercedes-Benz and AMG.
POTENT TURBOCHARGED FOUR-BANGER
As with previous versions, the latest JCW package ups the MINI’s power rating: The 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder now produces 208 horsepower and 192 ft-lbs of torque, but it can also deliver another 15 ft-lbs of torque on demand, bringing the total to over 200. The sprint from 0-60 mph only takes 6.2 seconds vs the Cooper S’s 6.7.
Fuel mileage doesn’t suffer considering the performance. You can squeeze 26/34 mpg city/hwy out of the JCW without trying too hard.
The MINI resolutely remains a front-wheel-drive icon, and the six-speed manual transmission is a dream, with excellent throws and gear engagements. Three-pedal fanatics only thanks: The Cooper S’s optional six-speed automatic isn’t available here.
Helping the MINI JCW through the turns are standard 17-inch wheels and an electronic differential lock, which also helps cut down on torque steer.
The greatest improvements lie underneath the skin. John Cooper’s shops do fantastic work on the lowered suspension, which somehow enhances the MINI’s handling even more while improving its ride. No longer are you subjected to spine-crushing bumps and thumps as a price for wanting to have a few grins in the corners.
The brakes use Brembo calipers up front, and provide lots of feel, making for a confident companion on those back-road jaunts.
Also, the dual center-mounted ‘sport’ exhaust is quite vocal, with lots of popping and burbling on the overrun. It gives the JCW a real sense of character compared to regular MINIs.
What all of these ultimately deliver is a car that’s always eager for a drive, and won’t penalize you on less than perfect pavement in the process. The steering is perhaps the JCW’s greatest asset: you point, it goes. No fuss.
The steering feel isn’t great though, which is a direct result of MINI trying to eke out a few more precious miles per gallon by switching from a power-robbing mechanical to an electric steering pump. Such a small change immediately means the ‘new, new’ MINI won’t win over hearts like the ‘old, new’ MINI.
UNIQUE INTERIOR, BUT LIMITED SPACE FOR MORE THAN TWO
The rest of the interior is a riot of over-the-top styling. MINI cues are everywhere from the shape of the HVAC buttons to the toggle switches for secondary controls. The seats are comfortable, although they could provide more support for enthusiastic driving.
Forget about bringing ‘real’ passengers with you; small children or luggage only in the rear seats, and the cargo area is tiny. Fold the thrones, though, and you could fit a good-sized hockey bag and have room left over for the game-winning case of beer.
As with every car from BMW’s smallest division, the JCW comes in a mind-blowing number of paint and color combinations for the body, roof, mirrors and interior. The $1,250 Premium package features a dual-pane panoramic sunroof, climate control, and a multifunction leather-covered steering wheel. The $500 Cold Weather package adds heaters to front seats, folding mirrors and washer jets. Finally, $1,250 Convenience package offers auto-dimming mirrors, automatic wipers and headlights, keyless ignition, Bluetooth and a USB/iPod adapter. Most of these features can be ordered a la carte as well.
Everything you could imagine on a luxury car can be stuffed into a MINI Cooper JCW, from parking sensors ($500, but really? For a car that small?), to high-end audio with 10 speakers ($500). Also, the voice-controlled navigation system is a $2,000 option, and takes up room in the oversized speedometer.
Get happy with all the check boxes, and your $28,550 ($38,390 CDN) British hatchback becomes a $42,150 luxury car with no real rear seats. Then if you go nuts with all the John Cooper Works options, including carbon-fiber trim pieces, 18-inch wheels, illuminated sill pieces, and everything else, it totals a quite silly $49,883. For a MINI.
Obviously, there’s probably only one or two schmoes with access to Dad’s AMEX who would order one this way, but it’s incredible to think that for another $400, you could get into Porsche’s 265-hp Cayman, which is another league ahead of the MINI, JCW tweaks or not.
Most of the MINI’s competition comes from the other upscale players here: the Audi A3, BMW 128i and the Volvo C30. Dynamically, the Volvo loses out in this group, but its rear seats are accessible and usable. The A3’s five-door body means it’s the most practical of the group, and also the only one with available all-wheel drive. It’s the MINI’s corporate cousin, the BMW 128i that comes closest to offering the same level of sophistication and performance, only using the rear wheels for motivation. And, of course, the 1 Series can get ridiculously priced when optioned without care.
Overall, the MINI JCW offers just about the most fun you can have without stepping into a Porsche, all with reasonable fuel economy, and a half-decent price if you have a hint of self control.