MINI John Cooper Works review
by David Finlay (14 July 2008)
Having bought the rights to the John Cooper Works name in late 2006, MINI is now using it as a signal to indicate that any car which wears the badge is something really special. JCW (if you'll excuse the abbreviation) is to be thought of in the same way relative to MINI as M is to BMW, AMG is to Mercedes-Benz, RS is to Ford, Cloverleaf is to Alfa Romeo, STi is to Subaru and Evo is to Mitsubishi. You get the idea.
The new MINI John Cooper Works, which goes on sale in the UK on July 22, certainly lives up to the billing. Among other delights, which we'll get to shortly, it's the fastest production MINI ever, with a top speed of 148mph and a 0-62mph time of 6.5 seconds. (Trivia note: the Cooper S sold with the JCW GP Kit in 2006 had the same 0-62mph time, but strictly speaking those weren't production cars since the Kit was a dealer-fit add-on, and only examples were sold in the UK.)
The John Cooper Works derives its performance, handling ability, stopping power and to some extent its visual drama from the MINI Challenge race car. The familiar 1.6-litre engine has been uprated to 211bhp, largely thanks to the use of a larger turbocharger, and its straightline prowess puts it in league with the best of the many other 200bhp-plus hot hatches on the market.
As an overall package, it's probably the best of the lot. I say this because MINI has been able to achieve an extraordinary ride/handling balance which has so far proved to be beyond the wit of any rival manufacturer. Within the class, other cars are either very sharp but with a kidney-jangling ride to match, or reasonably comfortable but with a feeling that you're driving on cotton wool rather than tarmac.
The MINI JCW offers the best of both worlds. You wouldn't mistake it for a luxury saloon, of course, but it rides the bumps very well, particularly in Clubman form, when the longer wheelbase adds an extra level of comfort (the Clubman won't be sold here until early 2009 because the extra body styling parts aren't ready for it, and MINI's customer research made it very clear that UK customers won't be interested until they are), yet it also has phenomenal cornering ability, as long as you drive it properly.
By driving properly I mean that the MINI JCW requires a very light touch. The steering is almost racecar-sharp, and it will turn in firmly in response to fingertip pressure on the wheel. The huge level of grip means that it will also accept pretty much all the power you give it and rocket through the rest of the corner with as near to perfect balance as you could expect of any road-legal car. You don't have to fight it to make it do this, and in fact if you find you are fighting it you're probably gripping the wheel too tightly.
Similar delicacy is required for the brake pedal, since it's all to easy to find the windscreen heading towards your nose as you perform an accidental emergency stop. But the "treat it gently" scenario doesn't work in all situations: in particular, you may find you have to bring your biceps into play on those occasions when the front end appears to be making its own decisions on which way to go next.
This alarming habit has been described in the media as "torque steer", but it isn't torque steer - or, if it is, it's because the driver has applied the wrong amount of throttle at the wrong time. There is no reason why the JCW would do this on a reasonably smooth corner if it's being conducted sensibly (and by that I don't mean slowly, I mean quickly but accurately).
No, the problem arises when the camber of the road keeps changing. I discovered this when I accelerated flat-out from walking pace to a speed I'm not prepared to discuss in public along a straight but dubiously-surfaced road. The JCW gripped so well that it faithfully followed every single undulation in the tarmac, and I had to keep hauling the steering wheel back into position to reduce the zigzags to a minimum.
Other powerful hot hatches would have reacted by leaping off every bump on that stretch, but the MINI didn't. In fact, it maintained traction all the way through that wild ride. The problem was not that it wasn't good enough for the road; the problem was that it was too good, and actually needed to be a little less precise - more of a rally car than a racer - to be able to tackle it effectively.
As you might expect, the JCW is festooned with safety devices, including ABS, EBD, Cornering Brake Control, Dynamic Stability Control, Hill Assist and a sort of virtual limited slip differential (virtual in the sense that the system is electronic and doesn't have a mechanical link). In a first for MINI, the car also has Dynamic Traction Control with three modes which could be described as super-safe, still safe but fun and, in the words of a MINI representative with a nice turn of phrase, "you're having a laugh".
Personally I would leave it in super-safe mode all the time for road use, partly because it's a good thing to have in an emergency situation and partly because the car's mechanical ability is so high that the traction control will rarely be needed (and if you need it a lot you're probably driving so stupidly that you deserve to crash anyway). But on a trackday - and oh, boy, would this thing ever be a bundle of fun on a trackday - there would definitely be a case for going completely the other way so that you could make your own decisions about traction and not leave it all to the car.
On a completely different topic, MINI is making a lot of the fact that the JCW hatchback and Clubman both have official combined economy figures on the high side of 40mpg (40.9 and 40.4 respectively), but there's no point in using that as a reason to buy one, because you simply are not going to be able to match them. It just isn't going to happen.
The JCW is unusual among powerful hot hatches in that it has a relatively small 1600cc engine whose turbocharger will barely have started spinning during the entire fuel consumption test - see our feature on the subject for more details - so of course it won't have used much fuel. In real life, 40mpg will be unattainable unless you drive so slowly that you might as well have bought a Cooper diesel instead.
The real importance of the economy statistics is that they equate to CO2 emissions of 165g/km, and even though you won't come close to that figure either you'll be taxed as if you did. This means that the JCW falls into VED Band H in the new tax structure due to come in next April, and you'll therefore pay over £100 less each year than you would if you bought, say, a Ford Focus ST instead.
Not that budget is likely to be such an issue that £100 here or there is going to make or break the deal. MINI realised very early on that its customers were happy to pay premium prices for its cars and then spend hundreds or even thousands of pounds more on optional extras. With a list price of £20,995 for the hatchback, the JCW is not a cheap car, but even in these troubled financial times I don't see many potential buyers being put off by that. And nor should they be, because for that money they will be purchasing what might just be the performance hatchback of its day.