I’m a big fan of the original JCW Mini, having owned one for a couple of years. It ticked so many boxes – small yet reasonably spacious, quick yet surprisingly economical, fantastic sounding, in-your-face looks. It was huge fun, if a little tiring to drive quickly given its inclination to dart around with the slightest twitch of the gorgeous alcantara-trimmed steering wheel.
So the opportunity to try the latest model recently was not to be missed.
Now in it’s third incarnation under BMW, the Mini has grown and matured considerably. Has the JCW also adopted a more grown-up nature? Well, it still looks cheeky and aggressive, with the trademark bonnet stripes, prominent side skirts and distinctive front & rear bumpers, particularly in the signature colours of red matched to a black roof. To my eye, the prominent air intakes either side of the front spoiler look a little too in-your-face, however beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. So, visually, much as before, albeit with just a touch of middle-aged spread! In fact it does feel much bigger than the outgoing Mini, both inside and outside, indeed it has actually grown by 98mm in length and 44 mm in width. The extra size has however been put to good use, not least by enlarging the boot to a handy 211 litres, up from 160 litres. Usefully, it is split level, featuring a decent-sized hidden compartment under the boot floor, the whole boot being nicely carpeted in materials more usually found on premium brands.
Once installed in the driving seat, the interior is instantly familiar to drivers of the outgoing model, with the traditional huge dinner-plate centre dial. Closer examination reveals a number of thoughtful improvements, however, which deal with some of the most important criticisms of the old model. At last, the Mini gets a proper speedometer positioned in front of the driver, rather than being bizarrely wrapped round the outside of the multimedia display on the dinner-plate. This gives a secondary benefit in that the size of the map displayed on the dinner-plate itself is considerably increased and much easier to read.
An equally important improvement is that the old feeble joystick control for the multimedia system has been replaced by a much chunkier and more intuitive iDrive style controller. If only Mini had seen fit at the same time to improve the ergonomics of the centre armrest, which in both old & new models seems carefully positioned to obstruct, restricting handbrake access when down, and when raised being perfectly placed to clobber the drivers elbow! Come to think of it, it’s a bit surprising that Mini have retained a manual handbrake rather than following the growing trend towards electric power. Perhaps they felt that a manual handbrake adds to the retro image, although in truth fitting an electric brake would have gone a long way towards addressing that obtrusive centre armrest.
Making a change from the ubiquitous piano black high-gloss fascia trim, the test car was kitted with an intriguing herringbone-pattern fascia trim, which may not be to everyone’s taste but seemed entirely in keeping with the car.
The speakers for the optional Harman Kardon sound system look slightly out of place, with the speakers at the base of the A posts protruding noticeably as if they are a bit of an afterthought, whilst the main door speakers also look a bit of a Halfords after-market boy-racer retrofit, with their inner cones very visible through their apparently fairly flimsy covers.
The alcantara-trimmed figure-hugging seats are firm and excellently shaped, with the seat base featuring really useful adjustable thigh supports. Oddly though, the alcantara trimmed steering wheel of the outgoing model has disappeared from the standard specification – shame! No doubt it will reappear at facelift time.
Enough of the discussion, how does the JCW drive on the road? Hitting the start button produces a pleasant burble from the engine, although initially with little of the popping & banging on blipping the throttle which made the outgoing model such a hoot to drive. The crackles & bangs do however appear during gear-shifts when pushing hard, so not all aural delight has been lost by any means. Actually, digressing for a moment, not every example of the outgoing model was blessed with such an acoustic accompaniment, suggesting that the state of individual engine tune could affect these aural delights. Indeed, there was always a suspicion that even straight from the factory many of the outgoing cars were developing considerably more than their claimed 208hp. Surprising in these days of tightly-controlled emissions, but there you go.
The new model produces 231bhp against the outgoing models 208, with maximum torque also raised to an impressive 320Nm from the 2-litre four-pot engine, significantly higher capacity than the outgoing models 1.6 litres. Unsurprisingly, with such a huge amount of torque, available from a very low engine speed of 1,250 rpm, the JCW feels eager to go, and acceleration is exhilarating.
The JCW is available for the first time with an automatic transmission. Others have praised this unit, I’m not convinced that it fits the JCW’s character so well, lacking the crispness of shifts found in most dual-clutch transmissions such as the Porsche PDK, or the VW DSG unit. Performance with the auto seemed a little less lively than the outgoing model, although this may have been a factor of the quieter exhaust. Mini do in fact claim a 0-62 time of 6.1 seconds, some ½ second quicker than the outgoing model.
The alternative manual box, however, is a delight. Snappy, rifle-bolt shifts are the order of the day, and despite the biting point of the clutch on the test car being almost on the floor, it is hard to see why anyone would want to dilute the enthusiastic nature of the JCW by specifying the auto box. Interestingly, though, the manual box is claimed to be a little slower than the auto, at 6.3 seconds for the 0-62mph dash, whilst emissions and fuel consumption are also considerably worse, at 42.2mpg vs 49.6mpg and 155gm/km vs. 133g/km.
With such a high torque level – not far short of that of a Porsche 997 Carrera – acceleration is impressive. This car could be seriously quick on any cross-country blast, although your licence could well be at risk! Just to put the icing on the cake, lifting the throttle was usually accompanied by a collection of pops & bangs from the exhaust to delight even the most hardened petrol head.
First impressions of the handling were mixed. The steering on the outgoing model was go-kart sharp, the car starting to turn as soon as the steering wheel was moved. With the new model however, steering application felt less instant, indeed the JCW seemed to understeer slightly. Lifting the throttle however quickly changed this to a slight but definite oversteer, reminiscent of the original and much-loved Peugeot 205 GTI which could be steered on the throttle. However, this trait, unusual in this nanny-state day and age was soon accepted, and indeed used deliberately to tighten the line on entering a corner. Great fun, and a delightful change from the inert steering of most other motors today.
One area where the new car definitely scores is in ride quality. Not even its best friend could describe the outgoing model as smooth-riding: rough surfaces were definitely something to avoid. The new model rides in a far more composed way. Even in Sport mode, selected by rotating the handy control at the base of the gear lever, the ride dealt with the worst of Britain’s B road surfaces with aplomb.
Mention must also be made of the neat impressive head-up display, a reasonably priced option at £450, clearly visible in front of the driver and providing road and engine speed information as well as sat-nav instructions, all without being intrusive. I suspect the visibility of the HUD screen could be sensitive to seat position, although Mini may well have provided a way to adjust this which was not evident in my time with the car …………who wants to read a handbook when you can be blasting round the twisties, after all!
And the downsides? Not a lot, but, as with the outgoing model, the JCW is not the cheapest of the hot hatches by any means. With an OTR starting price of £23,050, this can soon escalate to towards £30,000 by dipping into the extensive, and tempting range of options.
Interested? Find out more here: https://www.mini.co.uk/en_GB/home/range/john-cooper-works.html