Let’s rewind to 1966 for a moment to Mount Panorama for the Bathurst 500 endurance race. The field is made up of production cars, virtually straight out of the showroom, unlike today’s purpose-built V8 race cars that are little more than silhouettes of production cars. Instead, the grid is filled with cars from Toyota, Studebaker, Valiant, Fiat, Triumph, Datsun, Isuzu, Ford, Holden and Volvo.
But when the chequered flag falls after 500 gruelling miles of racing, there's only one car that walks tall over its competition, and it's none of the above. It's the Mini Cooper, and it takes up the first nine positions, with the next manufacturer a lengthy six laps behind in tenth place.
That Bathurst success cemented the humble Mini’s reputation as one of the best cornering cars of its time, able to handle those famous Bathurst 'S' bends on those tiny 10-inch wheels. The man responsible for the Mini’s racing success was John Cooper, who saw potential in the tiny car as a competition car and created the Cooper.
Forty-two years after that race, his legacy lives on with the 2018 Mini Cooper JCW. Ironically, today an original 1966 Cooper S is worth around the same money as a new Cooper, with prices starting at $48,100 before-on roads for the 2018 manual model.
That makes the Cooper’s closest three-door hatch rival, on price at least, the Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance Edition with a before-on-roads price of $47,990.
Our test car is loaded with over $9000 worth of options, which includes the upgrade to the six-speed auto with JCW leather sports steering wheel at $2500. The Climate package adds a panoramic electric glass roof, driver and front passenger seat heating, and sun protection glazing for a further $2300.
JCW Dinamica suede and leather make the cabin pop for an additional $2000. Adding some practical features for $1200 is the Convenience package, including alarm system, park assist, rear-view camera, interior and exterior driver mirrors with automatic anti-dazzle function, while metallic paint and those racy-looking bonnet stripes are an extra $1000.
That brings the as-tested price of our Mini Cooper JCW to $57,100.
Disappointingly, at that price it misses out on blind-spot sensors, lane-departure warning with passive steering assist, and forward-collision warning.
Standing back and looking at the Mini presents a very cool sight, especially with the dual centre tailpipes. It looks like a life-size Hot Wheels model. Midnight black with a red roof, mirror caps and bonnet pin-striping accentuate the JCW body kit, and the colours also match the black and red seats.
We aren’t sold on the 18-inch cup spoke JCW wheels. They jut out from the tyres a fair bit, so watch those gutters. Perhaps the cross-spoke alloys with thinner spokes could be a better option, giving it a sharper look.
The Cooper JCW is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine, producing 170kW of power and 320Nm of torque, enough to propel the hatch to 100km/h from standstill in a spritely 6.1 seconds.
The exhaust note is raspy, and even crackles and pops in normal driving mode. The 2.0-litre engine is responsive with barely any turbo lag, and it’s hard not to drive without a giant grin on your face. Thankfully, the Mini has a head-up display to keep your eye on the speed.
Much like the 1960s Cooper, you can feel the engine idling through the steering wheel, which is a neat way of feeling more connected to the car. The steering has some weight to it when manoeuvring it around tight corners, but overall the steering is very direct and precise.
It is comfortable driving around town, with available torque at low revs, but if speed humps come your way, best to take it slow as it can be a tad harsh. With room to gallop on the highway, it makes its way through the six gears quickly with enough acceleration to surprise your passengers. It’s a car that is almost impossible not to drive slowly.
Handling is the Mini’s greatest attribute, and the JCW Cooper is one of the best at it. It is a small car all round, making ducking in and out of traffic a cinch – not to mention a lot of fun. We took it on some twisty roads through the picturesque Mount Dandenong ranges, and the car felt like it was driving on rails, staying fairly flat through corners.
You can throw it around corners confidently, and it smoothly glides into apexes. However, there was one moment of a small amount of oversteer when the throttle was lifted mid-corner, which kept us on our toes.
Bringing the Mini to a stop are 330mm Brembo disc brakes and red callipers that perfectly match the red exterior highlights. At low speeds you can hear the brake pads rubbing against the rotors, which can take some getting used to.
Mini claims a combined fuel economy reading of 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres. We couldn’t match that achieving 8.2L/100km with a mixture of freeway and city driving. To be fair, though, we left the drive mode selector in Sport mode for pretty much the entire time, which held the gears longer and increased the throttle response and fun factor.
Green mode gives better economy and helps you be a more conservative driver with eco tips, although it seems to defeat the purpose of the most powerful Mini you can buy. Sport mode is liveable with day-to-day driving, but Normal mode takes it down a notch mixing the best of both Green and Sport mode.
Even though the six-speed automatic transmission is seamless in its gear changes, there’s more enjoyment to be had by using the paddle-shifters to switch cogs. Better yet, save yourself a bit of cash because we feel the Mini experience would be even more enjoyable with the manual ’box.
The 18-inch wheels and sports suspension give a firm ride, but it feels planted enough to live with everyday driving. However, tyre roar over 70km/h is almost unbearable. You need to crank up the 12-speaker stereo to drown it out.
For anyone that hasn’t seen a Mini cabin before, it can come as quite a surprise. At first it looks cluttered, and the circular centre dial in the middle of the console harks back to its heritage. The chrome switches look like they’re out of a plane and the flashing red start/stop engine button pulses like a heartbeat.
Once in the seat, the seatbelts are hard to reach and make you wish it had one of those mechanical plastic arms that conveniently feed the seatbelt to you. The optional JCW seats look the part and are firm, but we didn’t find them uncomfortable. Perhaps on a longer trip, back support could be a struggle. However, the side bolsters hug you nice and tight if you start pushing the car around corners.
Spending the extra dosh on the panoramic sunroof is worth doing, opening up the small dark cabin and letting in more of the exhaust note. Apart from the rotating air vents needing some WD40 because they rub on the surrounds, the materials in the rest of the Mini are quite good, with padded leather and carbon trim sprinkled throughout.
Storage space is limited, as the door pockets are narrow, so drink bottles would only fit in the two deep cupholders. Under the armrest is a spot for your phone, but today’s larger iPhones with a cover won’t fit. Instead, it will most likely end up in the open compartment where the USB, auxiliary and 12-volt connections are.
The armrest needs to be folded up or lowered considerably to gain access to the infotainment selector, which is located deep in the console and is not easily seen, requiring your eyes to be completely taken off the road. Not ideal.
Making satellite navigation easy to read is a long 8.8-inch screen for Mini Connected's infotainment system. For the driver who likes to mess around with the set-up of the car, configurations for each driving mode are available, and the usual checks for engine oil and tyre pressures. There’s no Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
The Mini is called Mini for a reason, and in the back you’ll find space for only two seats. There is a padded hump in the middle that’s too low for an armrest, although it’s most likely there to prevent your bum from sliding around. The seats are more padded than the front, and the seat position is surprisingly comfortable, with the door armrests at a good height.
Cupholders and coat hooks can be found on each side. However, there are no rear vents or media connections.
Toe room is tight under the front seats, but leg and head room are adequate. Both seats feature ISOFIX points, but trying to install a baby seat in one could be awkward, as there isn’t a lot of room to manoeuvre.
The boot has enough room for a large suitcase at 211L, but it’s not massive. Because the Mini uses run-flat tyres, there is no spare wheel, only an inflation kit. There is a lot of storage – enough for a few grocery bags.
Folding down the 60:40 back seats is done by pull-down latches that are accessed via the boot or by opening the doors and expands the boot capacity to 731L.
When tested in 2017, the Cooper received a four-star ANCAP safety rating scoring 31.78 out of 37. This could be a deal-breaker for some safety-focussed buyers.
Mini offers a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, with a three-year roadside assist. You have the choice of purchasing an all-inclusive scheduled servicing for $1240 for five years or 80,000km, which could be worth thinking about.
The Cooper JCW is a hatch for the more enthusiastic driver that likes to make a statement with its cool retro styling. There are shortcomings in practicality and comfort, but this pocket-rocket lives up to Mini’s racing heritage, gobbling up corners like the cookie monster eats cookies. And for that reason, it's a bucket of fun.