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It’s easy to wonder what the late John Cooper, British motorsport legend and fast Mini originator, might make of the latest 2015 Mini John Cooper Works model to bear his namesake. For one thing, at 170kW, the third-generation JCW of ‘BMW’s Mini’ has as much horsepower as Cooper’s finest race machinery back in the day.
What would John Cooper, whose Mini machines were giant-killers using lightness and simplicity, make of today’s JCW generation’s Head-Up display, gearshift lights, the paddleshifted automatics, Dynamic Damper Control, switchable Eco/Mid/Sport drive modes, Performance Control inside wheel braking, launch and traction control systems and electronic differential lock – all standard fitment to ‘enhance’ the driving experience? Or extract 6.1-second 0-100km/h times (auto only).
The purist in him might’ve found it appalling - against the grain of traditions. Or, perhaps, Cooper the race engineer might’ve wished for such go-faster technologies for his own heyday Mini pursuits. Or, for that matter, his Formula One exploits.
Most likely Cooper would’ve scoffed at the three-door hatch’s long list of off-the-rack indulgences: DAB+ digital radio, a reversing camera, parking assist with front and rear sensors, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, an 8.8-inch split-view touchscreen, high-end Professional navigation and a Mini Excitement package in a car patently not dull to begin.
But, sadly, he’s no longer around to debate merits with today’s hot hatch buyer spoilt for choice for premium hot hatchbacks, both ‘compact’ and one-size-larger ‘small’, that circle the new Mini range-topper and its (six-speed auto-equipped) $49,950 pricepoint plus on-roads.
The Mini JCW offers a lot (see pricing and features here). But it needs all the fireworks and fanfare it can muster. Thankfully, come September, the auto will be supplemented with a $47,400 the manual version – more affordable, though otherwise undiluted in spec.
Is it any good?
Climb in and the JCW is, well, fussy. Design-wise, there’s a lot going on, most of it in a circular motif that encompasses everything from the central infotainment LED ring – which lights up as a tachometer, a mood light, or other fancy configurations - to the door handles. There are some cheap-looking plastic surfaces but most hard and soft materials and textures are fairly standard BMW fare, though the lack of leather and suede – natural or synthetic – makes it appear slightly less premium than other circa-$50K premium small cars.
The base cloth and Dinamica-trimmed race buckets look purposeful, though they’re neither completely comfortable nor comprehensively supportive and are finicky to adjust. Full leather/Dinamica pews are available (a $2600 cost option), as are more relaxed ‘comfort’ seats (adds $2210). It’s a strict four-seater, though any concession to first-row space and comfort eliminates any useable rear legroom. In third-gen Mini form, the sole JCW model is also a three-door only and it’s a little tricky trying to access the second row, limiting its versatility as a weekday toddler-hauler-cum-weekend fun machine.
Of course, of Mini machines available, fun factor in the JCW is tantamount. On the road, the most powerful engine ever fitted to a production Mini delivers handsomely, a full 320Nm peak – a 23 per cent increase over the old gen-two JCW – delivered across a broad 1250-4800rpm band. It’s the direct-injected 2.0-litre’s thick wedge of torque that makes the JCW feel so punchy, so tractable off the mark, virtually lag-free and amply fit to move the auto version’s 1295kg kerb weight (the manual is 15 kilos lighter) effortlessly. Very good signs indeed.
And it pulls without restraint as peak power arrives at 5200rpm and hangs on to the 6000rpm redline. Eliminating the peaks and troughs of its 1.6-litre forebear, a full two litres of engine capacity befits the JCW format and the handsome money it wants for it.
It’s also quite frugal, with a 6.7L/100km claim for the manual version, an exceptional 5.8L/100km for the auto.
It’s a quite faithful marriage with the auto, too. In the default Mid drive mode, the powertrain is eager and flexible without alarming urgency, which arrives once Sport is engaged. Contrary to this, Eco mode dulls the throttle take up and the transmission’s keenness to upshift, though without the laggy driveability foibles suffered in so many low-capacity powertrains stuck in fuel-sipping mode.
Less impressive is the choice of damper modes, ranging from firm (in Eco and Mid) to bone-jarring (in Sport). And Sport is borderline punishing on even the smoothest public road surfaces. Also, there’s no damper switch in the cabin – activating the optimal soft-damper, sporty-powertrain combination ideal for back road driving requires a grind of digging into submenus.
The steering is also a mixed bag. On one hand, it's faithful and quite mechanically set in its connection between the steering wheel and road – a big plus. On the other, the weighting – which increases Eco through Sport drive modes – is utterly synthetic and lacks crucial communication.
During wet driving – and there was plenty on our road loop - where communication is central to driving control and safety, there was little discernible difference between the front end tracking a line faithfully and it understeering unpredictably.
Wet grip, too, is quite modest, unsurprising given its narrow 205mm rubber. The jury is out on how well the JCW hangs on in the dry when pushed, but those 18-inch rims appear, at least, to provide ample width for a larger rubber footprint under the arches. In fact, with its grey over-fenders, even 18s look a little undercooked for a Mini grown measurably over the old gen-two range.
Around a damp Phillip Island, the JCW is quick, nicely balanced and enjoyable to drive. And it’s quick on the straights, producing an impressive head of steam – though not near its 246km/h claimed top speed – down the main straight in drying conditions.
However, the modest grip it generates requires clean and concentrated lines – it’s not a hoot to punt. Which is exactly why you’d pay the considerable premium over a rather handy ($36,950) Cooper S.
The JCW is even more at home during a wet motorkhana event set up for the car’s local launch – a course comprised of tight first and second gear turns around safety cones. Again, the flagship Mini is a lot of fun, though it’s not nearly as focused, potent and capable as the best of the last generation Minis: the GP.
While less powerful (160kW), more expensive ($56,900) and fractionally slower on a march (0-100km/h in 6.3sec), the old GP is still the benchmark the so-called ‘fastest Mini yet’ JCW must be measured against. And the new king of the heap feels less potent, is perhaps less capable and – if you like a bet – slower point-to-point on road or track.
Indeed, the new JCW ticks a lot of boxes on paper. It just lacks the substance to be a truly great hot hatch. And there are a lot of great hot hatches out there on the market for similar money, with or without the JCW’s added bells and whistles.