When John Cooper began fiddling around with the Austin Mini in the 1960s, he’d already revolutionized motorsport, from Formula One to the Indy 500. Not bad for a legacy that began in a small garage in the southwest of London.
But the modern machines that wear the John Cooper Works badge weren’t built in a shed. Far from it: They are the product of BMW’s considerable engineering expertise, carefully tuned machines that are the quickest models available from Mini. This one, the three-door Mini Cooper JCW, is the quickest of them all, and the most enthusiast-oriented Mini you can buy.
Well, sort of. Across the pond, Mini enthusiasts are now able to choose from either a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission or an eight-speed automatic. North Americans have to stick with the carryover six-speed options – but at least we still get a stick shift.
Let’s have a go in the three-pedal version.
Refreshed four years ago, this generation of Mini still looks unlike anything else on the road. It’s arguably less cute than before – the gawp-mouthed grille puts me in mind of feeding time at a koi pond – but at least there’s personality in spades.
The grown-up interior does a good job of feeling quirky without compromise. An optional heads-up display that includes a circular rev-warning light means you can keep your eyes on the road, and the large circular infotainment display is relatively intuitive (and will certainly be familiar to any BMW owners in the audience).
The rest of the JCW’s cabin is a mix of weird and pleasing. The aircraft-style switchgear is a neat touch, and the way the upright windscreen sits far forward of the driver is unusual without impeding visibility. If you’re looking for something a bit different, then the Mini certainly fits the bill.
The JCW designation boosts horsepower to an impressive 228 hp at peak, which makes for feisty acceleration. However, the power occasionally overwhelms the front wheels, and larger, similarly powered hatchbacks such as the VW GTI are actually a bit quicker.
Further, the JCW is harsh and fidgety on the road. The suspension is very stiff, and the wheel responds quickly. On short, curvy roads, this darty behaviour is good fun. On long, straight drives, it can get a bit wearing.
The manual transmission is also something of a letdown. It’s a little vague, and takes some getting used to. It pains me to say it, but Mini bringing over their dual-clutch automatic instead might be the more pleasing option, even to purists.
Having said that, a blast around an autocross circuit showed how the Cooper JCW can still shine. With traction control set to a more forgiving dynamic mode (you don’t have to switch it off completely), the Mini happily rotated under braking and dashed through corners with eager appetite. If it also occasionally gobbled down a few cones, that was down to the driver, not the car.
Admittedly, there are more sensible choices in this segment, and certainly more frugal ones, but the Mini JCW still delivers on its mission statement. John Cooper might be bemused by touchscreens and puddle lights, but he'd appreciate that the fastest Mini still bears his name.
- Base price: $34,890
- Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo
- Transmission/Drive: Six-speed manual and automatic/front-wheel
- Fuel economy (litres/100kms): 10.3 city/7.4 hwy
- Alternatives: VW GTI, Fiat 500 Abarth
Besides Porsche, no other company offers the level of customization you can get from a Mini. If you're not in a hurry, it's well worth your time to sort through the options carefully, as you can pick everything from the colour of the mirror caps, to choosing to have your badges blacked out. The Union Jack taillights are a neat touch carried over from concepts.
Sure, the interior is funky, but it’s also quite spacious and airy. The cloth seats that come with the base JCW model are the preferred choice for extra grip, and while the back seats are pretty tight on legroom, the Mini’s squarish proportions mean there’s at least good headroom for taller passengers.
A JCW badge means the most Mini power available under your right foot, with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and 228 hp from 5200-6000 rpm. The low-end torque gives this Mini good low-end shove, but wringing it out to redline is not quite as satisfying as the old supercharged models.
Updated Apple CarPlay and Android Auto make the Mini an even more useful all-rounder. Wireless charging is also now available.
Equipped with a modest 211-litre trunk, the three-door Mini is a little tight for everyday use. However, hatchback practicality and fold-down seats up the utility factor quickly.
The verdict: 7.5
Lots of personality, quick and darty around corners, and a wide array of customization options. Even though it’s larger and more complex than the original, the three-door JCW is still bound to satisfy Mini fans.
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