Who wouldn’t want a Mini to themselves for a week? Small, fun, entertaining: these are the things that make Minis great. However, sharing a car with family, friends or co-workers is a different story. Sometimes you want more time with “your” car and sometimes others do. For sure, there was plenty of in-fighting within the CarAdvice Melbourne office when we recently “shared” a week with the new 2015 Mini John Cooper Works.
Priced from $47,400 (before on-road costs) for the six-speed manual version, our Chilli Red six-speed “Steptronic” automatic Mini John Cooper Works sits atop the three-door hatch range at $49,950 (before on-road costs).
Coming in $50 dearer than the five-door, manual-only Audi S1 quattro, the front-wheel-drive Mini JCW matches the four-ringed German by having a 170kW turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine tucked into its stubby nose. With 320Nm of torque though, the BMW-owned Brit is down 50Nm compared with the Volkswagen-owned Audi, which reflects in a marginal 0.2-second slower 0-100km/h time (6.1 seconds plays 5.9sec).
But the Mini has something that the slightly larger Audi doesn’t have: a JCW badge. Or, more accurately, four JCW badges. There’s one on the front grille, one on the tailgate and two incorporated into the side indicator “scuttles” (as Mini call them). Oh, and there’s also another six brand reminders splashed about, including on the door sills, steering wheel, speedometer, JCW sports seats, red Brembo brake calipers and two-tone 18-inch JCW Cup light-alloy wheels.
At near enough to $50k, the flagship Mini hatch is neat inside, but once nestled into the comfortable, manually adjustable, white-stitched Dinamica and cloth seats, it simply doesn’t feel as premium as it should.
The chrome accented door handles are solid in their mounting but feel relatively cheap to the touch. The Mini’s new soft-touch dash-top is a welcome addition, but there’s still plenty of hard plastics scattered throughout the cabin, including around the 8.8-inch central infotainment screen (formerly the home of the classic Mini central speedo). A multicoloured LED light strip also encircles the whole unit, adding unnecessary cheese factor.
Storage isn’t bad with two cup holders, a compact but reasonable glovebox, a cleverly hidden spot behind a passenger-side carbon-look dash trim and a small netted pocket next to the front passenger’s right ankle. There are door pockets too, though they’re only really adequate for holding paper or perhaps a packet of mints or gum.
Helped by the third-generation F56 Mini’s larger dimensions – it’s 116mm longer, 44mm wider, and 7mm taller than its R56 predecessor – backseat room in the new JCW is more than palatable. Strictly able to accommodate two passengers, the second-row offers acceptable headroom for six-footers, however toe room is tight. Two kids in the back would be no issue, provided they’re happy scooching past the front seats that is.
The 60:40 rear seats also fold down, expanding the boot beyond its 211-litre seat-up capacity. Dropping the seats does create an unhelpful load step, however this inconvenience is not something unique to the Mini.
Vision is a big positive for the little car. The mirrors are good and, being a two-door, you don’t have chunky B-pillars restricting over-shoulder vision. The C-pillars aren’t too intrusive either and, along with front and rear parking sensors and a reversing camera, parking is quite easy.
That said, blind-spot assist is not offered at all and adaptive cruise control, autonomous collision and pedestrian warning and braking technology is only available as part of an optional $1500 “Control pack” – one which additionally includes adaptive LED headlights, high beam assist and tyre pressure monitoring.
Comprising “Professional” satellite navigation, DAB+ digital radio and a rocking 12-speaker Harman Kardon stereo, the JCW’s infotainment system is clearly from the BMW family, though in the Mini it all feels old hat compared with the latest roundel-stamped Bavarian models.
Adding to the feeling of driving “last year’s BMW”, are steering wheel-mounted cruise control, audio, and phone buttons that are equally outdated compared with new Beemer product. The three-spoke sports steering wheel itself, featuring red stitching and perforated leather, is an ideal size and feels good in the hands.
Finally too – particularly for the sportier JCW – Mini has replaced its long-persisted up/down push/pull shift system for more conventional paddles shifters, where a pull of the left paddle requests a down change and a pull of the right for an up shift.
Hit the blacktop and the 2015 Mini John Cooper Works is spritely but not fast. The punchy 2.0-litre picks up well enough and, with myriad engine, turbo and exhaust noises resulting from engaging the Mini’s “Sport” driving mode, sounds pretty damn good doing it.
But while the spool, pops and wastegate chatter may make some smile, there’s an overall feeling of gimmickry to the car that’s hard to shake. It just lacks a sense of sincerity and authenticity.
Despite weighing only 35kg more than the previous turbocharged 1.6-litre three-door JCW, through twisty stuff the new 1220kg John Cooper Works doesn’t feel as fun and agile and light as a Mini should. Impressively though, it’s still 195kg leaner than the 1415kg Audi S1.
The steering lacks communication and feedback and is detached and delayed in its response to driver input. Weighting in “Comfort” mode isn’t bad, with “Sport” simply making things heavier, rather than better. At 10.8 metres – the all-paw S1 is 10.6m – the front-drive JCW also doesn’t have a brilliant turning circle, which again, makes it feel less nimble, less “city focused”, and less Mini.
The automatic transmission is not a particular highlight when left to its own devices, often holding onto gears for too long, and we can’t help but think a manual gearbox would make the whole package significantly more fun.
The ride on the Mini JCW’s standard Dynamic Damper Control (DDC) setup is firm but livable in “Comfort”, becoming noticeably stiffer in “Sport”. Being able to switch between the two calibrations is good, though it doesn’t make the car any more enticing to drive.
More than feeling largely at odds with its heritage, the new 2015 Mini John Cooper Works feels a little generic and underwhelming – and I wasn’t the only one in the Melbourne office to have mixed feelings about the car.
Others thought it had ample pace and still retained Mini’s trademark “go-kart” sensation, but questioned its value proposition, with some suggesting a standard Cooper S or entry-level three-cylinder Mini One would be more fun while carrying less expectation.
Personally, I loved the R56 Mini – particularly the last Mini JCW GP. I used to own a 1976 Leyland Mini S. I love Minis. But the new 2015 JCW feels relatively big, heavy and kitsch.
As a fan of Mini cars and the Mini brand, I can’t help but attach some level of disappointment to the new JCW. It’s not a bad car by any stretch of the imagination but after a week with the car, getting a taste of what life would be like to live with it long-term, it doesn’t feel ‘Mini’ enough – falling short of the genuine character and flair of past models.
There’s still a lot to like about the 2015 Mini John Cooper Works. Some buyers will find it fun and entertaining and get plenty of enjoyment out of it. That said, a more enthusiast or traditionalist fan of the marque, may perhaps be less satisfied. Either way, we’d love to get behind the wheel of a ‘proper’ manual one, and maybe even take it out for one of our Weekend Warrior track tests…
Click on the Photos tab for more 2015 Mini John Cooper Works images by Tom Fraser.