Drive Thru: MINI John Cooper Works

MINI John Cooper Works

When something meets your expectations so well, have you ever been left feeling almost let down? Equally, when something does meet your expectations so well, can you be anything other than impressed? These were questions I was asking myself a quick squirt in the new MINI John Cooper Works (JCW) today.

Firstly, a big thanks to Rolfe MINI Garage in Canberra for giving me early access to their demo JCW. To be thrown the keys and told ‘go and enjoy it’ was an opportunity I was not going to waste. Off to my preferred mountain test route I headed.

The JCW has published figures of 155kW and up to 280Nm of torque—with 20Nm overboost—making it the most powerful production MINI ever sold in Australia. MINI claim the JCW Coupé will do the 0-100 sprint in 6.5 seconds. On paper, then, the performance looks quite good, but what about fuel consumption, a sub 7 second hatch has to use a lot of fuel right? No, not really, the John Cooper Works has a published fuel consumption figure of just 6.9l/100km. Sure, blasting off at the lights every time will yield poor consumption, but what car doesn’t. Considered daily driving though, should leave you pleasantly surprised when you visit your local servo.

Compared to other second-gen MINIs I’ve driven the JCW felt faster, but perhaps not as much as you may first expect. Keep in mind the test car was just over 350km old and today’s drive was more about judging the car’s handling capabilities, rather than how it drives around town. On the way out the MINI JCW felt civilised and pleasant to drive. Based on my time in the Clubman Cooper S there was nothing to suggest the JCW Coupé would be any less enjoyable in regular daily use.

Taking that turn on to the mountain pass was one made with great anticipation. I know the road very well and have driven a variety of cars out there. The route has a great mix of tight and flowing corners, along with a mixture of road surfaces. So how does the MINI John Cooper Works stack up? Well, this is the problem, it performed almost exactly as I expected. Okay, that’s not really a problem, as my expectations were set very high. But the car was no quicker than I thought it would be, it was no sharper than I thought it would be and it was no more fun than I thought it would be. That said, I had to look hard to find faults worth reporting here.

MINI John Cooper Works

If you don’t get your entry speed into tighter corners bang on the car will push wide. No surprise here being front wheel drive, of course, but there is room for improvement, either in future releases or via aftermarket suspension tuning. For example, the aftermarket rear sway bar added to my 2004 Cooper S has proven very effective at dialing out similar understeer. The John Cooper Works remains mostly composed, no matter what you throw at it, but mid corner bumps can give a flighty and skittish feel. It felt like the front tyres were over inflated, a theory I was unable to test. These faults are minor, though, and, really, you’d have to make a monumental balls up to get yourself into serious trouble. Apart from the understeer noted previously, the car is very neutral.

Impressively, on longer radius corners the JCW feels so settled and so planted you can feel nothing but inspired and confident. The steering still has that exacting MINI feel, with turn in and feedback pretty much just as you want it to be. While I say the JCW didn’t feel any quicker than I expected, there were few moments where I felt the car was lacking in power. Although, on today’s evidence, the chassis could comfortably handle a few extra kilowatts.

MINI John Cooper Works

Engine and transmission are very well matched and, for a car with so few kilometres on it, its willingness to work high in the rev range—a previous MINI strength—was a delight. And the torque! Usually with a 1.6 litre engine you would think the only way to make sure desired progress was not impeded would be through precise gear changes. However, the torque in the John Cooper Works makes the car virtually foolproof. Corners I would take in my supercharged Cooper S in second gear, for example, could be taken in third in the JCW, or even fourth at a pinch.

I’ve deliberately steered clear of reading overseas reviews of the John Cooper Works so as not to have my own expectations altered. I have seen a few headlines though, and therefore I had reason to expect some pretty bad torque steer. Pleasantly, in my drive I could not really fault the car in this regard. Maybe, with more time, the reported torque steer would be more noticeable. Torque steer on the R53 Cooper S was never really an issue. The regular R56 Cooper S, however, does exhibit some torque steer, so with more power one would not be surprised if the JCW showed even more. So far though, nothing overly negative to report from my experiences to date.

MINI John Cooper Works

The Dynamic Traction Control on the John Cooper Works appears to be very well tuned. There was no noticeable retardation of traction on my drive, barring one sprint from stand still. In real world use, this is another big improvement over the original MINI range. So too are the JCW’s model specific brakes. While not having the opportunity to test fade through repeated heavy use, today’s test route did work the brakes reasonably well, especially on the downhill return. The brakes continued to show precise initial bite that didn’t let up.

In closing, today’s drive has proved to me, again, that BMW are no fools and they have taken another positive step forward in their stewardship of the MINI brand. This, their first factory built effort to wear the John Cooper Works nameplate, has nailed its brief superbly. The JCW may not have left me speechless, but I am left in no doubt that the MINI John Cooper Works is a fantastic point to point weapon that keeps MINI at the forefront of the hot hatch category. There may be cheaper alternatives out there, but few can match the MINI’s cachet, and fewer still can match the John Cooper Works for driving thrills.

Just as I expected.

MINI John Cooper Works

MINI John Cooper Works

MINI John Cooper Works Coupé – $48,800, plus on roads
MINI John Cooper Works Clubman – $51,300, plus on roads
For more details, check the MINI website.

Related AUSmotive reading: MINI John Cooper Works pricing and delivery confirmed