MINI's John Cooper Works is its most powerful model to date, it is fun as ever but for most, a Cooper S will be more than enough.
In the metal 4/5
It's a MINI right, so everything's as expected, only with that usual flagship-denoting John Cooper Works (JCW) twist. There are bigger wheels then, 17-inches as standard, but all the launch cars wear the 18-inch, lightweight JCW alloys that signify a Chili pack upgrade. They look great, and as it bundles in some other desirable kit it's well worth the extra. More power means more cooling, that's obvious from the front, the JCW's lower bumper is a riot of intakes - the additional cooling requirements meaning that the JCW does without additional front fog lights, the space they'd usually take being required for an extra radiator. It's similarly venty around the back, the rear bumper holier than the JCW's less high performance brethren is, a pair of naughty-sounding pipes sitting bang in the middle of all those apertures.
Inside, it's the usual MINI retro-inspired mix of big circular instruments, knobs, buttons and dials, with some JCW sports seats and the sort of (optional) lighting that wouldn't disgrace a mobile disco. Busy then, though it all feels superbly built, which given its not insignificant price point is just as well. Here, today, there's just the auto option, the six-speed manuals, anticipated to make up the bulk of sales in EU markets, are not coming on stream until the JCW actually goes on sale.
Driving it 4/5
With every iteration of the MINI it feels like it's getting ever more sensible and that's undeniably the case here. Yes, it's an excitable, engaging small hatchback, but some of the vim of its predecessor has been lost slightly. Call it polish then, the JCW's development such that it's so able and so fast there's less for you to do behind the wheel than before. MINI's gone as far as tweaking the suspension, adding some trick split-shaft driveshafts and torque steer countering electronic trickery to allow the JCW to put all its 231hp onto the road with the minimum of corruption at the wheel. What it's achieved is impressive too, the JCW's ability to track straight and true even under full, foot-to-the-floor launches on less than perfect surfaces fairly remarkable. There's launch control if you want to repeat its 6.1 second 0-100km/h time endlessly, too, that number raising to 6.3 seconds if you take the standard manual over the six-speed 'Sports Auto'.
Quicker that automatic might be, and more economical too, but it removes such a large element of the JCW's interaction that we'd take the economy penalty. The six-speed auto - a conventional torque convertor rather than twin-clutch set-up - is quick and decisive, and commendably in manual mode is exactly that, but no matter how good the paddle-shifts are it's just not as involving as three pedals and a stick. Still, it's not enough to deny the JCW driver of all the MINI's talents, the chassis remains a highlight, with the sort of quick turn-in agility and eagerness to please that's something of a MINI signature. It's grippy too, but it's also pleasingly adjustable at the same time, the mobile rear easily brought into lay to tighten the JCW's line should you desire. There's the choice to fiddle with the setup with the optional variable dampers over the standard passive ones and it's worth doing so. Not for greater agility, but for more compliance, the optional dampers most focussed setting still some way shy of the standard car's damper rates regarding firmness. If you want to use your MINI JCW anywhere other than the smooth tarmac of a track then tick the option box for those variable dampers. It's firm then, bouncily so on poor roads in Sport, but not compromised as to ruin things, though you'll find the JCW a more comfortable - and no less rapid and able - car with those dampers wound back a bit.
The steering, an electric set-up, offers good weighting and minimal corruption from all that power, yet there's a lack of anything you could describe as convincing feel. Accuracy and speed isn't in question, but it'd be great if it were accompanied with more information. The engine's growth in capacity to a 2.0-litre unit adds to the mix, with revised pistons, boost pressure up on the turbo and additional cooling the power is up to 231hp, which feels ample in the relatively compact JCW. It's an enthusiastic engine too, eager for revs, but delivering mighty low-range urge thanks to its sizeable torque output from small engine revolutions, it's any speed quick - MINI claiming it's got mid-range muscle to match a current 911 Carrera S between 50- to 75mph in fifth gear. Larger brakes, courtesy of Brembo, help reign all that in when you get a bit carried away, while the exhaust - with a larger diameter, but thinner walled (to keep the weight down) centre pipe and re-pumbed back box, delivers an entertaining soundtrack of crackles, blaring and the odd pop to amuse. It's a fun car, though it'd be even more so as a manual.
What you get for your money 3/5
Performance, and plenty of it. That and the sort of specification you'd expect in a range-topping MINI. There's still the chance to personalise, of course, and doing so doesn't just up the count of kit, but apparently adds to the eventual residual value. So tick that Chili pack option in the knowledge that you'll get the majority of it back when you sell it, while financing it all on a typical lease will only see it adding a few euros to your annual payment.
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Choose that auto and not only does the 0-100km/h time drop from 6.3 seconds to 6.1 seconds, but you'll see your annual payment lower too. Consumption is higher in the manual at 42.2mpg (6.7 litres/100km), as is CO2 emissions, enough to jump up from band B2 to C, or more importantly from €280 a year to €390... We'd still suggest taking the penalty, though.
No surprises really with this JCW, which takes all the ability of the Cooper S and adds some more. There's still some box-ticking to perfect it, those dampers are a must, as is the Chili pack, all of which pushes the price up. Fun then, but feeling a bit more grown up than its predecessor thanks to its enormous polish, some might find it hard to justify the extra over the already enjoyable Cooper S, which will save you a fair bit of outlay and not be short on grins, either.