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Driven: MINI John Cooper Works. Image by MINI.

Driven: MINI John Cooper Works
Currently the most powerful road-going MINI is also the best.

 



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Driven: MINI John Cooper Works

4 4 4 4 4

Good points: Great looks, magnificent engine, grown-up feel, performance and handling

Not so good: Costs a lot of money with desirable options, MINI Hatch remains badly packaged

Key Facts

Model tested: MINI John Cooper Works (JCW)
Price: MINI Hatch from 14,075; JCW from 23,155, car as tested 30,865
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: front-wheel drive, six-speed automatic
Body style: three-door hatchback
CO2 emissions: 133g/km (Road tax 200 first year, 140 thereafter)
Combined economy: 49.6mpg
Top speed: 153mph
0-62mph: 6.1 seconds
Power: 231hp at 5,200- to 6,000rpm
Torque: 320Nm at 1,250- to 4,800rpm

Our view:

Personal feelings shouldn't come into car reviews. But sometimes it's hard to keep emotion out of the job, and I've previously made no real secret that I am not a big fan of the MINI. For a start, as a journalist, I don't like having to write the brand name in all capital letters... but I digress. Trying to be a little more professional, I thoroughly respect what BMW has done with this car in terms of the marketing: the whole explosion of 'infinite personalisation' of chic city cars (and even bigger models these days) started with the original MINI of 2001.

That's why it has sold like hot cakes ever since, why a load of competitor companies have since copied the 'revisioning' of a classic model for the 21st Century (see Fiat 500 and Ford Mustang, although Volkswagen can claim to have started the trend with the New Beetle in 1997). And that's why it has now spawned from a one-off model in the BMW fold into a sub-marque all of its own.

It still doesn't mean I like MINIs, though. I understand why other people do, and lord knows I've had some epic drives in the hotter Cooper S and John Cooper Works (JCW) models over the years, but I've never craved any particular variant and some of them have almost put me off my lunch - please check out the defunct Coupe and current five-door. It's a difficult thing to pin down, but in essence the MINI family is just a bit too try-hard, too eager to please for my tastes, in a manner not dissimilar to a hyperactive, slightly annoying puppy. And my outlook on the marque wasn't improved with my last significant drive in a three-door example, the Mk3 Cooper S in Mallorca, which felt lacking in vim and vigour.

With all that in mind, I'm delighted to report that here is a MINI three-door that I finally 'get', one where I would be happy to own it. This is the John Cooper Works version 3.0, and it's the most powerful road-going MINI yet made, surpassing either of the highly focused GP variants of the Mk1 and Mk2 MINIs. Its 2.0-litre engine delivers a whopping 231hp and 320Nm, and with its six-speed automatic transmission it's more accelerative than the manual, lopping two-tenths off the 0-62mph time to stand at an impressive 6.1 seconds. Aside from the Mercedes-AMG A 45, Audi RS 3 and Ford Focus RS and a handful of the most powerful larger hot hatch competitiors, that makes the JCW quicker than practically anything else in the class.

It's not cheap, though, with a starting price of 23,155 added to straight away by that 1,380 Sport auto 'box. Throw in some more desirable options, like the Chili Pack (2,400), the MINI Tech Pack (2,450) and a nice colour (475 for most metallic shades, or 750 on the attractive Lapisluxury Blue), and then one or two other sundry goodies (like rear Park Distance Control for 260), and before you know it you've dropped 6,920 on toys and brought the price of the car to a staggering 30,865 on-the-road. So you could buy this, or a Ford Focus RS and a bit of change?

The hefty price does dominate considerations of the JCW - and I'm not even counting the 100-off, track-biased JCW Challenge that's been released for 32,000 here. But when you're looking at the car or sitting behind its wheel, you soon forget about the big pile o' cash needed to secure it. For a start, this MINI looks a lot better than a regular Cooper S, because the additional performance of the JCW necessitates different lower bumper treatment front and rear. With larger air vents in its chin, no front foglights and a pair of outlets at the rear, it has a less fussy nose than the S, and those gigantic lamp clusters at the back don't seem as overpowering - they're balanced out by the mesh grilles below and the larger roof spoiler above. Sitting on the gorgeous 18-inch JCW Cup Spoke two-tone alloys that are part of the Chili Pack, the MINI looks superb from all angles.

Inside is a cabin that is ahead of any of those found in its rivals, Volkswagen Polo GTI included. There's a wealth of quality and tactility that drenches all the surfaces you can touch and the switches you can operate within to make it feel suitably classy. Sure, it has its quirks: for a car that looks physically big on the outside, the MINI three-door remains a criminally bad piece of packaging, with a feeble boot and minimal rear seat space. And yes, when you turn the drive settings rotary switch at the base of the gearlever, the central screen still shows up twee images of a MINI thinking about rockets and go-karts and other such schoolroom stuff.

But the bucket seats are magnificent and mounted at just the right height, the steering wheel is chunky and pleasant to hold, the shift paddles for the Sport auto feel machined rather than flimsy, and there's an inherent rightness about all of the ergonomics that makes the cockpit a great place to be. Think of the car as a coupe - not the MINI variant, I only mean a sporty three-door with minimal practicality - and you'll get on splendidly with the JCW.

And that's before you even drive it. Some will lament the lack of interactivity the two-pedal set-up of the auto bestows on the Works, yet you'll barely miss shifting gear yourself. That's because the JCW is absolutely epic fun on the right roads. It snarls and snorts between corners at a ferocious pace, as that uprated 2.0-litre engine is a gem. It's so strong and yet so linear, never once feeling like a forced induction unit and working brilliantly in tandem with the six-speed gearbox to provide plenty of shove across a wide rev spectrum.

It's main appeal, though, is the noise. There's a bassiness to the induction that's prevalent on all turbocharged petrol fours, but the MINI overcomes that with an absolutely tremendous exhaust. It's not too loud, it's not too forced, it's not too synthesised - there's just a wealth of appealing burbles, pops and bangs during upshifts, downchanges and during the overrun phase. There's no doubting the JCW is a quick car across ground as it is, yet the alluring soundtrack makes it feel even faster than the reality.

There's so much to love about the JCW's dynamic set-up: it has monster brakes with great pedal progression; the steering is fabulously well-weighted, direct and possessed of some genuine feel; and the body control is mustard. Despite all this, the MINI's forte is that it feels a genuinely grown-up machine in normal driving conditions. The ride is firm on those springs and dampers, which is the fixed-rate sports suspension set-up, but it's not intrusively uncomfortable.

The slushbox does a fine job of slurring softly between ratios in 'Green' or 'Mid' modes, while there must be enough sound-deadening in the MINI to constitute the weight of a passenger, given the lack of noise that filters into the cabin when you're just pottering. Indeed, despite the fact I often enjoyed the JCW's performance charms, it still managed to give back 39.3mpg across 414 miles at an average 44mph, which for a 231hp hot hatch is combined economy of an outstanding order.

I therefore love the JCW, and if a confirmed MINI agnostic like me can be converted to a religious zealot by the appeal of the Works, imagine how fans of the brand will react to it once they've tried it. This is far and away the most rounded, likeable and impressive three-door (or any-door, for that matter) MINI yet. It's a shame it's so damned expensive and that it remains utterly hopeless if you've got to carry more than one adult passenger. But in terms of its raison d'etre - being a compellingly entertaining car for its driver - the JCW is a roaring, exhaust-popping success. Try one and you'll undoubtedly adore it. And if you do need some extra practicality? Then try the JCW Clubman.

Alternatives:

Abarth 595 Competizione: We could have gone for the fearsomely expensive 695 Biposto, but the 180hp 595 Competizione is more like the MINI, with four (sort of) seats and a tiny boot.

Ford Fiesta ST200: Ford's go-faster version of its already-go-faster Fiesta is as utterly brilliant as ever, but no longer the bargain it once was now it's 22,745. Still cheaper than the MINI.

Renault Clio RS 220 Trophy: Improved EDC gearbox and gruntier engine helps the Trophy feel more like a true RS product, but it remains behind the hot hatch curve.


Matt Robinson - 9 Aug 2016









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2016 MINI JCW drive. Image by MINI.2016 MINI JCW drive. Image by MINI.2016 MINI JCW drive. Image by MINI.2016 MINI JCW drive. Image by MINI.2016 MINI JCW drive. Image by MINI.

2016 MINI JCW drive. Image by MINI.2016 MINI JCW drive. Image by MINI.2016 MINI JCW drive. Image by MINI.2016 MINI JCW drive. Image by MINI.2016 MINI JCW drive. Image by MINI.








 

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