When it was first penned by Alec Issigonis in the wake of the Suez Crisis fuel shortage, the original Mini was meant to be cheap, small and fuel efficient but spacious enough to fit four adults and their luggage — a true car of the people. To get the most space out of the cabin, the wheels were moved the corners of the car, eliminating the front and rear overhangs. While this did free up interior space, it had an unintended, and now iconic, side effect: nimble handling.
Famed race car builder John Cooper got his hands on one right after it was unveiled in 1959 and began building performance-oriented “Cooper” versions that would compete in endurance racing, touring car racing and — most famously — rallying. It was a giant-killer and a landmark car for the hot hatch movement, having won several rallies and tour car races in the ’60s and ’70s. Fast-forward to 2016, and you can still get your hands on a fast MINI — the John Cooper Works ($30,600).
In terms of aesthetics, not much has changed. The MINI Cooper’s latest incarnation looks similar to the last generation (itself an homage to the original Mini), but the new front fascia is more sculpted and up to date. It’s a bit beefier and more athletic. That’s also thanks in part to the exterior modifications made for the JCW version. To accommodate larger brakes and wheels, the fenders were extended outward ever so slightly. The front fascia also includes additional venting for the massive radiator, and a spoiler reduces rear lift by 30 percent.
Engine: 2.0-Liter Turbocharged Inline Four
Transmission: Six-Speed Manual, Six-Speed Steptronic
Torque: 236 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 6.1 seconds (Manual), 5.9 seconds (Auto)
Top Speed: 153 mph
If you’ve driven a MINI before, the JCW’s quirky retro interior will also look familiar. What is brand new are the sports seats — they’re two-piece, with integrated headrests. The seats are heavily bolstered, but not so much that they’re uncomfortable — just very supportive. Paired with the soft-touch, thick-rimmed steering wheel, it’s an ideal setup for performance driving. Another appreciated feature in the interior is the toggle switches, flanked by gunmetal-colored guards that fit with the MINI’s retro theme.
MINI says that in the development of the JCW’s performance, they started with the brakes. Codeveloped by Brembo, they have excellent stopping power, but the real gem in the JCW is the engine — a turbocharged four-cylinder churning out 228 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. That’s an increase from the old model by 20 horsepower and 44 lb-ft of torque, and it makes the JCW an absolute riot when you put your foot down. Accompanying that is the MINI’s exhaust note — a raucous growl normally unbefitting of such a small car. When you down-shift or let off the throttle, the exhaust pops and crackles, akin to an old-school sports car.
Unlike most other performance cars on the market, the manual version of the JCW outsells the automatic three to one. But while it’s fun to row your own gears, the MINI’s six-speed Steptronic transmission is the faster of the two: it’ll help the car get to 60 in 5.9 seconds, versus the manual’s 6.1-second stint. It’s a good transmission: it shifts quickly and smoothly, and the paddles mounted on the steering wheel are a delight to click. However, while the auto is technically the better transmission, at the end of the day it was throwing the manual transmission into the next gear that put the biggest smile on my face, and the transmission most appropriate for the JCW.
It’s so eager to slide around tight corners at low speeds. Just throw it into a corner, crank the wheel and let the car do its thing.
While its power and exhaust note impressed, it was the JCW’s handling prowess that thoroughly stunned. In the tight corners of a parking-lot autocross course, the little MINI reminded me why these cars are renowned for their handling — it’s so eager to slide around tight corners at low speeds. Just throw it into a corner, crank the wheel and let the car do its thing. Torque steer — the bane of many high-powered front-wheel-drive cars — never felt like a problem either, and oversteering only occurred once and was a result of my own hubris. When given a chance to take the MINI to even higher limits at Wilzing Racing Manor, a unique and highly technical track, the MINI was just as much fun. When driven through the corners the traction control system allowed for a little bit of sliding — just enough to remind you you’re having a good time, but not so much that it gets you in trouble.
If there were a caveat with the JCW it would be its price: it starts at $30,600, and if you start adding on the options it can easily surpass the $40k mark. Similar-performing cars like the Subaru WRX or Volkwagen Golf GTi start around $5,000 less, and for just a few grand more you can have even more hardcore versions of those cars like the Golf R. But that doesn’t matter. The MINI JCW is for MINI enthusiasts who want the best possible MINI they can get, and the JCW won’t disappoint. It puts a smile on your face — it’s why the manual transmission is the go-to choice for buyers and it’s why it is at its most grin-inducing when you’re revving the shit out of it in the first two gears and sliding it through an autocross course. The JCW is a loud, nimble car that’s a hoot to drive, and that’s value enough.