They do make ‘em like they used to: the Mini John Cooper Works pairs an old-school sense of fun with modern liveability.
The hot hatch concept was created purely on the principles of easily accessible fun. How else do you justify the notion of endowing a small city or family car with extra power it doesn’t strictly need?
But while the progenitors of the genre had zingy engines and lively dynamics that could plaster a mile-wide grin on your face without you having to push the limits (both of the law, as well as physics), most of the current hot hatch players seem to have lost touch with their roots – too serious for their own good.
Take the Volkswagen Golf GTI for example – to many it may be the definitive hot hatch icon, but the latest ones have become too polished, too sensible; like the class clown who grew into a sedate family man. There are other transgressors too: the Honda Civic Type R is sharp as a scalpel, but only comes alive at 10/10ths in the hands of hardcore trackay junkies; meanwhile, uber-hatches like the Mercedes-AMG A 45 are like accountants, existing only to play the numbers game.
Uniquely bucking the trend (in a Singaporean context at least), is the Mini John Cooper Works, the quickest Mini available. With a dearth of lower-powered warm hatches on sale (a la Suzuki Swift Sport), the JCW gets closest embodiment of that old-school, fun-loving hot hatch spirit.
Along with the Mini One we just tested, the JCW has just received its 2018 update, although once again the changes are infinitesimal. There are new Matrix LED headlamps with ring-shaped daytime running lights, Union Jack-styled taillamps, additional colour and trim options, and the auto gearbox now has eight cogs instead of six.
Everything else about it remains unchanged, including its engine. With 230hp and 320Nm of torque, the 2.0-litre’s outputs might sit at the lower end of the scale, but it’s adequately quick without being frightening.
It sounds good too, with a throaty growl that’s atypical of modern four-pot turbos, although how much of that is down to engine/exhaust tuning versus a sound generator, is unclear.
An even bigger joy is the JCW’s dynamics – a Mini hallmark. At first glance the relatively narrow (205-section), comfort-oriented (Pirelli Cinturato) tyres might not gel with the nature of a performance car, but the JCW’s chassis is so well-sorted that you hardly notice on the road; only at a suicidal lick (or on a track) would you overcome the available traction.
Through sharp bends it feels hunkered down and wider than it really is, and possesses a delightfully adjustable handling balance – lift the throttle or dab the brakes mid-corner and the front end tightens its line in short order.
Be even more abrupt with your pedal inputs – especially in the wet – and you might even get the tail to step out, with the lax stability control allowing a surprising amount of yaw before gently reigning things in.
There’s a Sport mode too, which firms up the two-stage dampers, makes the steering a bit weightier, sharpens the throttle response, puts a rev-counter and gearshift indicator in the head-up display, and makes the exhaust more crackly.
The dampers in their tougher setting are too uncomfortable for road use though, so thankfully you can separate the drivetrain and chassis settings, if only to hear all the pops and crackles from the twin central tailpipes.
If anything, crappy (well, non-performance) tyres are actually more fun on the road, as they lower the speed threshold at which you can properly experience a car’s handling, rather than a tyre’s mechanical grip.
That’s because it’s only when you’re at or near the limits of grip does a car’s dynamics truly make itself known, and it’s because of this that the JCW is so enjoyable to drive. It offers more thrills than, say, the Volkswagen Golf GTI, and you don’t have to be pushing as dangerously hard to enjoy them, like you might in the Honda Civic Type R.
For all of that, the JCW is eminently easy to live with. The standard JCW sports seats are fantastic, with grippy suede inserts holding you tight through the twisties, yet are easy to get in and out of.
With the dampers in the softer setting the ride is firm but never uncomfortable (my cousins falling asleep after a big lunch a testament to that), and the rear seats are properly usable, even with two six-footers sitting in tandem. The boot space isn’t great though, but then you don’t buy a Mini for its cargo-carrying capabilities, do you?
For those without such a dire need for speed, the JCW is amusing in other ways; the interior style for one, with its toggle switches and circular theme, might initially seem an ergonomic nightmare, but is reasonably intuitive.
There’s selectable ambient lighting too (12 colours), which also illuminates a Union Jack motif on the dashboard. But the most grin-inducing thing (for a petrolhead at least), are the exhaust crackles and ‘80s-tastic turbo flutter that occur when you rev the engine in neutral. It’s immature, yes, but come on, everyone has to indulge their inner child every once in a while, right?
Broadly, it’s the same for all Minis, and those enthusiastic about the brand won’t mind paying a little more for it. Apply that thinking to the fastest Mini of them all and it makes sense in that context. But all hot hatches are slightly irrational – nobody would buy them if it was all about dollars and sense. And there’s no point in having a performance car if you can’t use its performance, and this is where the JCW has its rivals licked.
Mini John Cooper Works 3dr
|Engine||1,998cc, inline 4 turbocharged|
|Power||231hp at 5200rpm|
|Torque||320Nm at 1450rpm|
|Price||$180,088 with COE|