There it was: a honk, a pair of grins and waves from two middle aged women in a MINI Cooper. It was time to find out whether these MINI fans approve of my epic (patent pending) Mehta parking lot swagger, or if the allure of the John Cooper Works MINI had reduced them to smiles. After all, the JCW is more than just a serious piece of hot-hatch kit, it’s wake-up call for the non-believer: spend some time in this car and you’ll have no choice but to learn just how crazy people are about their MINIs. And in this cult of the cutesy and subcompact, the John Cooper Works is king. But does any of this actually justify parting with $33,000 for a tiny, front-drive car?
I suspect my onlookers weren’t concerned with the homage to the 50th anniversary of Mr. Cooper’s original win in the world of F1 racing. To most, the John Cooper Works (JCW) is another showroom-spec MINI; a tirelessly cute, two box, three-door with exquisite detailing and distinctly non-Asian chassis “hard points” and proportioning. And since MINIs are trimmed to an owner’s personality, this one’s got the sinister black paint, red top/stripes/mirror skullcaps and black 18” wheels of a would-be Dracula in need of cheeky transportation. The more aggressive chin spoiler and JCW badging proves the point, in a somewhat low-key manner.
The JCW’s (almost) serious looking black/red interior, piano black plastic accents and unique, deconstructed checkered flag dash plaque are perfect MINI fanboi fodder. Every bit and bauble is reasonably expensive to sight and touch, with logical ergonomics from the center stack’s overtly adorable design. I’ve yet to find a soul dark enough to frown at the MINI’s retro toggle switchgear and oversize central speedometer cum ICE screen. The Harmon/Kardon stereo is impressive enough and the high-tech features are dandy, but the inaccurate, micro i-Drive joystick takes patience, control and planning to reach one’s visual destination.
Seat comfort is generally excellent, up front: like every MINI hatchback, the hindquarters work for frathouse tests of loyalty. With feet positioned in the opposite foot well and torso rested against the quarter panel, I leaned-back like a financially-sheltered, Preppy Gangsta. So I enjoyed my time back there, more than my last physical.
But, for a party of two, the JCW-fettled MINI is an enthusiast’s treat: the requisite short ratio 6-speed stick, excellent sightlines, twin scroll turbo-four and an electronic differential keeping 208 horses and 192 lb-ft of torque (at a disturbingly low 1850 revs) in check. Yes, it drives the wrong set of wheels, but here’s the kicker: there’s no torque steer.
Right. Except that’s misleading: the JCW did a fine job eliminating the problems associated with running way too much power to the front wheels. But replacing a well-recognized dynamic with the powertrain equivalent of hydrocodone is unsettling: mash the gas mid-corner and the steering/throttle inputs go numb, especially in first gear. Much like trying to walk after your legs fall asleep, I had no clue what this MINI was doing before redline (quickly) approached in first, and grabbed second in hopes that whatever was going down lingered for the next blast through the powerband. It did, it worked: even with the active handling turned off.
But it wasn’t enjoyable. While the limited-slip-this and electronically-modulated-that kept the JCW straight, it’s a buzzkill. Then again, there’s no MINI worthy of picking off Porkers. Enjoy this fashion statement as-is, at less than full throttle in the twisties. Because, like its brethren, the JCW hatchback is far more fun than can be measured with a stopwatch.
The steering, off the electronic sizzurp, is the perfect blend of light and tight. Ditto the linear throttle/brakes and the MINI’s collective ability for delightfully effortless turn-in. Microseconds later, the grippy rubber held the JCW in place, letting the suspension corner flat in damn near any situation. If not for the traffic-infested streets of Houston, I suspect the JCW’s tendency to understeer at the limit is muted via lift-off oversteer. It felt like it could go there: a lovely notion with a chassis this sorted.
And what about the rest? The JCW MINI is a treat around town, provided you avoid bumps larger than pimples on a tween. Standstill acceleration in the straights is less drug-hazed as in the corners, and highway passing is far too effortless for a motor so tiny: wind the turbo to redline in the upper gears and MINI’s “overboost” feature seemingly adds the torque of a Cummins diesel to the mix. It’s a giggle-inducing experience that, like most MINI attributes, can’t be put in words without sounding like an autojourno’s cop out.
Back to reality: a $33,000 price deep in 370Z Sport and Brembo-5.0 Mustang territory. Perhaps a used 996/Boxster or a pristine C5 Z06 Vette corner killer instead? This is not where hot-hatches should live.
The John Cooper Works MINI is absolutely dying for a game changer (all-wheel drive, anyone?) to differentiate it from the lower echelon models. As it sits, this is a statement for fashionistas looking for a modicum of sports car prowess in their adorably-marketed hatchback. If a MINI completes your look, stick with cheaper models.
TTAC’s Facebook peeps make this review super interactive, if you aren’t a fan of us, hurry up and join the bandwagon already! Here are your personalized answers. Mike Fox: For a small hatchback, it is livable, road noise is pretty tame compared to a Miata. Christian Seabaugh: having not driven the newer WRX,GTI, the JCW appears to be a lousy value, but better at turning heads. James Mackintosh: nope, I’d rather have a Cooper S and your aforementioned $7,600 in the bank. David Hoyt: Go-Karts are nuts, this is still closer to a GTI. Darren Williams: it is “as effing awesome to drive as it is to look at”, but so is a Cooper S. Tony Josephson: back seat is no fun, I suspect the Mazdaspeed3 is a better performance value for most pistonheads and is a more capable urban commuter vehicle too.