THE latest Mini Cooper S gains the works from John Cooper Works.
WHAT IS IT?
The fastest production Mini ever thanks to a bigger 170kW/320Nm 2.0-litre turbo four jammed under the bonnet.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
Slapping a JCW badge onto a Mini usually promises oodles of hot-hatch fun. Throw in that Mini launched it at Phillip Island and we couldn’t get there fast enough.
Audi S1, Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance, Renaultsport Megane
THE WHEELS VERDICT
A rewarding hot hatch that's not quite up to the standard of premium competitors.
Plus: Strong engine; that sound; front-end grip; chassis balance; enormous brakes; slick auto; fun factor
Minus: Firm, unsettled ride; no adaptive damper button; interior lacks premium feel
THE WHEELS REVIEW
IF SUBTLETY is your thing, this isn’t the car for you. No Mini is known for flying under the radar, but in a family of loudmouths, this new Mini JCW is the shoutiest of the lot.
You’ve only got to look at that pumped-up, grille-infested nose, behind which hides the most powerful engine ever fitted to a Mini, to know it means business.
The new 170kW/320Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged four is stolen from BMW’s new family of modular engines, but fitted with unique pistons and a new turbo to make the JCW the quickest Mini on sale, at least in a straight line.
A 0-100km/h dash of 6.1sec with the six-speed auto means the JCW is the most accelerative mass-produced Mini ever and is quicker even than the track-honed, limited-run Mini GP.
And don’t panic that this extra grunt, which is delivered solely through the front wheels, means the JCW is a bucking, torque-steering beast. An electronic brain, not a traditional mechanical locking diff, does a commendable job of channelling all that torque.
There’s only a whisper of torque steer under hard acceleration and the strong 2.0-litre donk spreads its grunt evenly to ensure there’s none of the manic turbo rush you get from other hot hatches.
As you’d expect from a Mini, the handling is sharp, direct and stable through high-speed corners, which was reassuring given we tested the JCW at a wet Phillip Island.
Bigger brakes (330mm four-pot calipers up front) and a firm middle pedal are a highlight, and even on a slick track pull the JCW up on its nose.
However, confidence is eroded by the slippery track and Pirelli Cinturato P7 tyres that feel glassy; we’ll have to wait to see how much grip the Mini has on bone-dry tarmac.
On the public road, the Mini’s positive front axle and sharp electric steering ensure it’s a hoot on switchback mountain passes.
Adaptive dampers are now offered as standard (regular suspension is a no-cost option) and offers two settings: Mid (hard) and Sport (spine-destroying).
There’s no escaping that the ride is too firm in Sport and on pockmarked surfaces feels like it could bounce you off the road. Mid-corner bumps jolt and shoot unwanted feedback through the steering wheel, which is constantly bucking and twisting in your hands.
If the JCW’s front end wasn’t so connected and the drivetrain so engaging, this would quickly become tiresome, yet somehow the unsettled suspension and bucking wheel suit the Mini’s character. You feel like you’re working hard and that, the more you wrestle the wheel, the faster you’ll go.
A skatey rear axle only adds to the fun. You tip the JCW into corners, revel in the accuracy of the steering and wait for the rear end to tip-toe out of line and join the party.
All of this is underscored by a rorty soundtrack that goads you to chase the redline when you’re on it, yet is quiet when you’re not.
A frustrating oversight is the lack of a dynamic damper button, or an ‘Individual’ setting, that would allow you to keep the engine in maximum-attack mode while softening the dampers. You can do it, but only by diving into the Mini’s on-board computer and filtering through four sub-menus.
We’d also like more steering feel. While switching from Green to Normal and finally Sport brings a reassuring increase in weight, there’s still no real connection with the front rubber.
Two gearboxes are offered, a six-speed manual and six-speed torque-converter automatic fitted with JCW-specific software. High demand for the auto in international markets means only the self-shifter will be available at launch, with the manual arriving in September.
Happily, the auto is sharp, intuitive and completes upshifts so swiftly it feels like a dual-clutch, even bashing onto the limiter if you’re not quick enough on the paddles. However, it can be annoyingly slow and hesitant on downshifts.
There’s plenty of standard kit inside, including a head-up display with JCW-specific readouts, an 8.8-inch touchscreen, sat-nav, reversing camera, park assist with front and rear sensors, and Bluetooth.
Comfortable sports seats that offer plenty of lateral support are a welcome addition, but the JCW’s interior lacks the premium feel of similarly priced competitors such as the Audi S1 and Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance.
Still, the JCW is a rewarding hot hatch that’s sharp, fast and different enough to stand out from the rest of the Mini family.
Model: Mini Cooper S JCW
Engine: 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power: 170kW @ 5200rpm
Max torque: 320Nm @ 1250-4800rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Kerb weight: 1205kg
0-100km/h: 6.1sec (claimed)
On sale: Now