Not many cars do fun like the Mini Cooper. But fun doesn't just mean cute styling and snappy handling; many drivers need a dash of pure performance, and it's for those people that Mini developed the John Cooper Works (JCW) edition. The BMW-owned company has revived this version after more than a year's hiatus and improvements make this not only the most powerful Mini ever made, but perhaps the most fun.
To be fair, the Cooper S, a step below the JCW, is a brilliant car to toss around corners and has a good dose of power. But the JCW steps this up to the realms of silliness – at least, that's what you'll feel behind the wheel. With 228 horsepower, it has 39 more than the S, and in a car this small you feel it. The twin-turbocharged 2.0-litre also has a noticeably fiercer burble and roar to it, with crackles and pops on downshifts to delight the aural senses.
A new six-speed manual transmission not only snicks perfectly into every gear but also blips the throttle on downshifts automatically. There is also an automatic box, and it works well with paddle shifters, but for pure driving delights, the manual can't be beat. Whichever transmission you choose, you'll find that the bugaboo of past JCW cars – torque steer – is gone, thanks to redesigned driveshafts and the Torque Steer Compensation electronic aid.
Another serious upgrade for the JCW are the brakes, designed especially for the car by Brembo. They are seriously large calipers, so much so that the wheels had to be redesigned and stick out just a tad further than those of a regular Mini for an even more aggressive stance.
But what does this all mean in the real world? Let out to hoon on the Alan Wilzig Racing Manor in West Taghkanic, N.Y., the JCW is, in one word, fun. No, wait, two words: silly fun. The cutesy, feel-good niceness is thrown out the window and it becomes a snarling beast built for cornering. Flat-out speed isn't overpowering, but with quicker steering and tighter suspension in Sport mode, you can flick into a turn quicker than most cars; those big brakes resist fade and scrub off speed in an instant, ready for the next corner. You could mistake this for a rear-wheel-drive car instead of front-drive, and it's all a grin-inducing thrill ride.
Sure, the regular Mini is fun. But for the performance purist, the John Cooper Works edition multiplies the fun exponentially.
You'll like this car if ... You live on a twisty country road.
- Base price: $33,240
- Engine: 2.0-litre twin-turbocharged four-cylinder
- Transmission: Six-speed manual
- Fuel economy (litres/100km): Not available
- Alternatives: Volkswagen GTI, Fiat 500 Abarth
- Looks: It’s that fun Mini shape, with the wheels pushed out to the far corners of the car and that friendly front grille and large headlights. But the JWC version adds subtle differences, such as a rear spoiler, lips on the wheel arches to accommodate a wider wheel stance, a different front fascia with more cooling ducts, special badges and reworked lower sills for better aerodynamics.
- Interior: Minis of old had cheap plastic interiors; not so any more. This new JCW sports quality textures and materials inside, including piano-black plastic, textured dash inlays and soft-touch dashboard and door coverings. The big, circular monitor with the infotainment screen still dominates the dash, but the tach and speedo are right in front of the driver.
- Performance: The Sport mode is ideal for a track or a long, winding road. Only, for day-to-day driving, it can be a tad rough, with the car buckboarding over even the slightest bumps on the road.
- Technology: Besides the torque steer compensation, there’s not much groundbreaking here, though it comes with a slew of standard and optional features you’d expect in a premium car.
- Cargo: There is just a small centre armrest console to hold a phone or some keys, but for performance driving it’s best left folded up out of the way for shifting gears. In the back, the trunk is fairly well sized with the added option of lowering the rear seats for bigger cargo.
If you can live with the rougher ride and twitchy steering, that smile you had looking at the car with broaden just about every time you get behind the wheel.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.
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