Hot hatches have traditionally been affordable, practical and economical ways of having fun behind the wheel. Jamming sports car performance into a cheap family hatchback has been a winning recipe for decades, although times have changed just a little.
In recent years, the emergence of 'hyper hatchbacks' like the Mercedes-AMG A45 and Audi RS3 is evidence many motorists are more than happy to spend up to $100,000 on these vehicles, so the 'affordable' part of the deal isn't always a prerequisite.
While not quite at the same level as the aforementioned German models, the Mini JCW has long been one of the more premium offerings in the hot hatchback class, blending the cute and retro-inspired looks of the Mini Hatch with the high-output turbocharged performance expected of a light vehicle asking for north of $50K.
The Mini Hatch on which it's based has been a top seller in the premium light segment in Australia for some time, which likely played a big role in the local arm bringing the 2019 Mini JCW Millbrook Edition, which is limited to just 20 units.
Priced from $57,275 before on-road costs, the Millbrook Edition kicks off around $7000 more than the 'standard' three-door JCW hatchback, bringing rally-inspired looks, extra kit, and a special paint finish exclusive to this model.
Headlining additions include the model-exclusive 'Ice Blue' exterior paint – dubbed a 'Heritage' finish according to the brand – black 17-inch light alloy wheels shod in 205/45 run-flat tyres, black mirror caps, roof and bonnet stripes, front driving lights with covers (like a rally car!), and the Black Line exterior package that brings gloss-black accents to the grille surrounds, headlights and rear trims.
Rounding out the Millbrook goodies are privacy glass, a panoramic sunroof, 'Lounge' black leather upholstery, heated front seats, Piano Black interior trim inserts, along with the normally optional eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters and launch control.
All up, the equipment add-ons are worth $7850 over the 'standard' JCW Hatch with the six-speed manual, and that's not even including the special paint finish.
Carryover features from the JCW include the 8.8-inch navigation system with a three-year subscription to wireless Apple CarPlay and Remote Services (app-based functions), a 12-speaker Harman Kardon premium sound system, adaptive suspension, a colour head-up display, full-LED headlights, Union Jack LED tail-lights, anthracite headliner, front and rear parking sensors with Park Assist, dual-zone climate control, and automatic wipers.
However, while the spec sheet may seem comprehensive, there are several equipment items that disappointingly remain relegated to the options list on any JCW. For example, active safety tech like low-speed autonomous emergency braking, lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control are all part of the $1800 Control Pack, which also adds adaptive high beam and tyre pressure monitoring.
It's worth noting the Mini Hatch wears a 2014-stamped four-star ANCAP safety rating, with the main penalty due to marginal driver chest and abdomen protection in the side impact test. Despite its lack of standard active safety tech, the Mini is equipped with six airbags, a rear-view camera with dynamic guidelines, and your requisite suite of electronic aids like ABS with brake assist, and stability control.
There's also no keyless access or auto-dimming mirrors either, they're included in the $1500 Convenience Pack, which seems pretty ridiculous on a light vehicle costing nearly $60,000.
What the JCW Millbrook Edition does have in spades, though, is character and head-turning looks. Various members of the CarAdvice Melbourne office praised its racy looks and special paint, and similar comments were made by my own friends and family – even strangers!
Personally, I think it looks fantastic. Minis already stand out with their cutesy looks and various colour options, but the Millbrook Edition takes it one step further with its rally-inspired bits.
The contrasting black body elements and gloss-black exterior accents give it a stealthy and mean look, and really let the Ice Blue paint pop. Furthermore, the JCW Aero kit, like the big rear spoiler, more aggressive bumpers, and centrally mounted twin exhaust, makes the three-door hatch look like an angry little gremlin.
I'm also a big fan of the rally-style driving lights tacked on the front grille, which turn on when you activate high beam. If the LED headlights' high beam weren't already enough, the driving lights will make sure you're never worried about visibility at night.
The 17-inch alloys painted in black may look a little on the smaller side on a vehicle pitched as being so athletic, though the JCW front brakes with four-piston red calipers look all the more substantial nestled behind them.
I'm also a huge fan of the Union Jack LED tail-lights, though I know they may look a bit chintzy to some.
Hop inside and the Millbrook's cabin isn't as 'loud' as you might expect after seeing the exterior. The black 'Lounge' leather sports seats look and feel luxurious, though lack visual panache. Same goes for the gloss-black interior trims – it's all very black on black on black.
However, that doesn't mean it doesn't present well; the Millbrook is rather classy, and will suit those who like a bright exterior with an understated interior.
Space up front is pretty good, with plenty of head room for the driver and front passenger, along with a good range of manual adjustment in the seats and steering wheel. It's very easy to get comfortable, and you can choose whether you want to sit really low in the cabin like a race driver or a little higher to make the most out of the large glasshouse.
Something I've really come to appreciate about Minis is just how nice the cabin materials are too. There's soft-touch plastics everywhere except for the lowermost sections of the interior, with lashings of piano black and chrome surfaces to keep everything looking expensive.
The toggle-style switchgear is great, as is the round centre cluster incorporating a light unit around the border and the 8.8-inch infotainment system. Speaking of the infotainment system, it works well thanks to its BMW iDrive origins. Everything is pretty easy to navigate and it's super responsive. Wireless Apple CarPlay works a treat, too, though there were a couple of times my iPhone was slow to connect to the system.
Audiophiles will like the 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, which when turned up delivers thumping, clear sound. Carpool karaoke sessions are a must in traffic.
One element that isn't too flash up the front is the lack of storage. There are two cup holders ahead of the gearshift and a small cubby that can hold a wallet or sunglasses, though there's not much else.
The skinny door pockets won't take a decent-sized bottle, and the adjustable centre armrest only has room for a mobile phone as long as it's not too big – my iPhone XS Max just wouldn't squeeze in properly. It does have a wireless charger installed in there, though, so if you have a normal-sized smartphone, it's a clever little space to have.
Being a three-door light hatch, it's not a surprise the Mini's rear accommodation isn't quite as 'lounge' as the upholstery. Average-sized adults and kids will be fine back there, but taller people like six-foot-one-ish me will find it a bit of a squeeze, not helped by that panoramic sunroof.
While we're on the topic of the sunroof, the flimsy mesh shade does little to keep the cabin cool on very hot days. After leaving the Mini parked for a few hours outside in 30-plus-degree weather, the cabin would feel like the surface of the sun, and the air-conditioning would take what felt like an eternity to get the cabin back to a comfortable temperature.
There are very few amenities for second-row occupants either. A single cup holder resides in the centre, while the side armrests aren't even padded – c'mon Mini, you can do better.
Behind the rear seats is a 211L load area, which is about as Mini as you can get. It expands to a more accommodating 731L with that second row folded, but I don't think it's your ideal IKEA-mobile should you regularly lug larger items around in your hot hatch.
You don't buy a Mini for moving furniture, though; it's all about the fun-to-drive factor and that go-kart feel – so what's it like to drive?
Being based on the updated 'LCI' (that's short for Life Cycle Impulse in BMW-speak), the JCW Millbrook Edition picks up a couple of changes compared to previous iterations of the JCW Hatch.
While the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-pot's outputs remain unchanged at 170kW (@6200rpm) and 320Nm (@1450–4800rpm), last year's midlife upgrade saw the flagship performance model swap out its old six-speed torque converter automatic for a new eight-speeder unit.
The JCW remains as punchy as ever, with strong, linear power delivery from right down low in the rev range, accompanied by a trumpety and characterful soundtrack regardless of drive mode.
Mini claims a 6.1-second sprint from 0–100km/h and a 246km/h top speed. While we weren't able to test out the latter, the JCW certainly feels spritely. Stomping on the throttle from the lights can result in a bit of wheelspin and the traction-control light flickering like a Christmas tree, though in-gear acceleration is very muscular.
Occasionally the auto ’box would take a moment to figure itself out when setting off from the lights, particularly when the idle stop/start system fired up the engine, dulling what is otherwise a refined and snappy transmission.
At cruising speeds, the JCW finds the highest ratio and hums along nicely, with a bit of sporty drone coming from the exhaust and the engine sitting under 2000rpm even above 100km/h.
Flicking the gearshift into sports mode and pulling on one of the steering-mounted paddle shifters allows for a manual mode, too, though it can often feel like the time it takes to shift after clicking the paddle is too long. It's a shame the Millbrook Edition isn't available with a six-speed manual as per the standard JCW.
Another highlight is the handling. The steering has a good weight to it without being too heavy, and there's plenty of feedback at any speed. It really does give a sense of the 'go-kart feel' the company likes to market its cars with, especially in this three-door hatch with its properly mini proportions.
In the bends, the JCW sits very flat, and there's plenty of grip from those Pirelli P-Zero run-flat tyres – though like just about every front-drive performance car, you'll understeer when driving at the limit.
There are a couple of negatives, though. While the very firm sports suspension will keep you flat in corners, it can crash over imperfections typical of urban Australian roads, even when not in Sport mode.
Another complaint is the incessant perceived tyre roar over most surfaces, not helped by the run-flat tyres. On rougher sections of freeway, it can be really intrusive, even with the 12-speaker audio system turned right up.
Fuel consumption was pretty good, though. Over some 600km of mixed driving (39.4km/h average), the Mini showed an indicated readout of 8.7L/100km. We reckon that's pretty good considering it was achieved with a pretty even ratio of freeway driving and peak-hour traffic, though it's nearly three whole litres up on Mini's 6.0L/100km combined claim. That should theoretically work out to around 500km of driving range from the Mini's 44L fuel tank, which requires minimum 95RON unleaded.
As for ownership, Mini offers two five-year service packages for all its models, covering up to 80,000km.
The 'Basic' cover asks for $1425 for that period, and incorporates all the basics like oil, brake fluid, and filters for the life of the plan. Stepping up to the 'Plus' package bumps the price up to $3795 for the JCW, and adds cover for consumables like brake pads and discs, along with wiper blades.
Most will go for the former, which averages out at $285 per year over five years. Not bad for a premium vehicle.
Warranty cover is capped at three years/unlimited kilometres, which is on par for the premium segment, but well behind the five- to seven-year programs offered by most mainstream brands.
All told, the Mini JCW Millbrook Edition builds on what already is more of an enthusiast's choice, rather than a model that stands out from its competitive set as an all-rounder.
The JCW Hatch is already a rather expensive proposition, and with the special edition nudging $60K before on-roads, it's competing on price with the likes of the Audi S3 and Volkswagen Golf R as opposed to its more natural rivals like the Volkswagen Golf GTI. It also lacks numerous active safety and technology items that would normally be expected of a vehicle at this pricepoint.
However, once you get past the price, the Mini is a handsome, unique and engaging hot hatch to live with day to day, which will constantly put a smile on your face with its punchy performance and brassy exhaust note. It's basically a little race car for the road!
Add to that a nicely upmarket interior and plenty of available tech borrowed from its luxury BMW parent, and the JCW Millbrook Edition is the perfect fit for someone who wants to stand out from the crowd and appreciates what is a modern interpretation of an icon.