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Car reviews - Mini - Clubman - JCW

Our Opinion

We like
Performance, handling, individuality, styling, grip, sheer fun factor
Room for improvement
Hard ride, divisive dash design, expensive, costly options

22 Dec 2008

HAS BMW gone too far with the Mini Cooper S John Cooper Works?

Although it is expensive and hard-riding, the JCW somehow goes, feels and sounds closer to the R53 Cooper S from 2001 to 2006 than any of the current model Minis. So how is that a bad thing?

Well, two years ago, you only had to pay $38,900 for the raw and ready experience that was the brilliantly sharp supercharged Cooper S, instead of $48,800 (or $51,400 as tested here in Clubman guise) for the latest JCW version.

Throw in satellite navigation and a sunroof - which is not recommended since there is not enough sunblock with the Clubman's useless ‘shade’ drawn, and we’re talking about the Melbourne sun here! - and you are staring down the barrel of a $60,000 machine.

Yet, putting aside ride issues (it won’t just be your thoughts that shudder as you imagine the JCW crashing over railway or tram lines), this is one hell of a driving experience.

Which makes us wonder why all the JCW stuff is not standard. Why can’t a regular Cooper S have the optimised steering weight and feel available to it, leaving the base models for those who want the show without the go?

We feel that the non-JCW Cooper S has become too much like a BMW for its own good, with comfort and refinement drowning out the previous version’s darty steering, mechanical snap, crackle and pop and ultra-connected road feel.

If it wasn’t for the frankly ridiculously large central speedo, upright pillars and ‘MINI’ logo sprinkled liberally all over the car, you might forget that the car you are driving is actually a Cooper S.

But not in the JCW, which is a return of sorts to the original model’s priorities of fun and connectivity.

Until the current-generation cars, JCW provided aftermarket performance accessories that could be fitted by the dealer or at the factory. Since BMW bought the operation, JCW has become a Mini model in its own right.

Under the bonnet is a worked version of the PSA/BMW co-op 1.6-litre direct-injection four-cylinder petrol engine, boasting fine-polished camshafts, a beefed-up cylinder head and valves, a revised air intake, 0.4 bar of extra turbo boost pressure and a freer-flowing exhaust.

All this results in a 27kW power and 20Nm torque hike – to 155kW at 6000rpm and 260Nm from 1850 to 5600rpm respectively – with an overboost button to provide short bursts of up to 280Nm, as in regular Cooper S cars.

BMW says that the 100km/h mark can be hit in 6.5 seconds (6.8s for the JCW Clubman), and that is certainly believable – but only with the ‘Sport’ button pressed on. Then the Mini roars into life, sounding edgier and being far more eager to rip across the bitumen.

Armed with a strengthened six-speed manual gearbox boasting a closer stack of ratios (no auto is available), the driver feels completely in control, vigourously squirting forward with each up-change, accompanied by that marvellously mechanical soundtrack that can only be from a Mini.

The JCW’s freer-flowing exhaust is especially fun, crackling between gear changes to really adding a sense of boy-racer occasion.

Impressively, we averaged 10.3L/100km while having plenty of fun. BMW quotes 7.0L/100km with regular driving for the JCW Clubman.

Other upgrades include recalibrated suspension with firmer dampers and thicker anti-roll bars, a 10mm drop in ride height and more potent brakes that have neck-snapping stopping abilities.

For all the whingeing about the latest Mini not feeling as raw as before, the fact remains that even the base car offers incredibly entertaining handling, beautifully measured steering effort and feel, and a solid, four-square stance that only enhances the already high levels of stability and control.

Of course, the JCW is more of the same, but with even higher limits of dynamic capabilities. The steering in Sport mode, for example, reacts exactly how you want it to turn-in is sharp and slick, with no inertia from the rest of the car as it simply responds instantaneously.

Every Mini should feel this interactive at the helm. It is the very essence of the brand.

Like the regular Mini, JCW cars come standard with electronic stability control (which can be switched off by pressing the button for a few seconds), but with a revised traction control function that allows the wheels to ‘slip’ more in the name of sportier driving.

So, while grip in the dry or wet is exceptional, you can still break traction if you want to and easily catch it all again with no fuss. Kill the ESP, though, and you have tyre-smoking handfuls of steering correction to deal with.

Surprisingly, there is no mechanical limited slip differential to help the front wheels put power to the ground more effectively. Instead, there is an ‘Electronic Differential Control Lock’ that simply brakes the inside wheel when needed.

Mini claims this system enhances traction while limiting torque-steer. Our experience shows that it works fairly smoothly in keeping a hard-charging JCW proceeding through a corner, but there is still a feeling of power-flow interruption and subsequent hesitation if you’re really trying to hurry on.

But the ride is something else. If you only use smooth roads the firmness and crashing over bumps may not concern you, but we strongly advise a trial before you buy because on some surfaces we guarantee you will curse this car’s lack of suppleness.

Speaking of sampling, this was our first chance to try out the wagon version of the Mini, though that term is misleading since there is not much ‘utility’ about this squared-back British design icon, save for a relatively useful if shallow cargo floor.

At least there are a few more litres of space available below the removable floor, and the back doors themselves each contain a storage recess.

The dual rear doors are heavily spring-loaded to stop the left one from closing in on the right one and damaging it, but we wonder whether some ham-fisted individuals will end up denting the doors anyway.

The view out the back is hindered by the usual culprits (wide pillars, high-waisted shoulder line, shallow windows), but in the Clubman you can now add the hand-width obstruction between the rear windows created by having the dual door set-up.

Then there’s the Clubman’s elephant-in-the-room in the shape of the shamelessly left hand-drive-centric flipside right door arrangement. BMW simply does not build the Clubman in any other format, so there is not much to add to the disapproving chorus crying out for having rear passengers use the roadside of the car rather than the pavement.

Aside from that, the right-side doors are very easy to operate once the novice user learns the location of the handles.

There is marginally more space on the sculpted rear bench for two adults of average height, with snug but comfortable seats, and a simple front seat-folding lever to aid your eventual exit. But both doors need to be opened in sequence – which can be quite a job since they’re quite heavy – and watch that your feet don’t get tangled in the seatbelt housing.

Thoughtfully, Mini provides a cup and phone/mp3 holder for each passenger, as well as an unbelievably useless ‘map’ pocket that is only suitable for stamps and pamphlets. And it is a shame that none of the rear side windows retract.

Fit and finish out back is also commendable and the whole presentation is in keeping with the rest of the Mini’s interior, which brings us to the front.

Time has certainly not mellowed our view that the Mini’s interior design is a tacky caricature on the BMC original, due to the laughably oversized speedometer that, ironically for its size, is as hard to read on the move as it is to admire. Thankfully, BMW also provides a digital readout in the separate tachometer binnacle located on the steering wheel column.

In JCW guise, the dash also suffers from the fiddly automatic climate control layout, which manages to infuriate and look cheap all at once.

Coupled with the try-too-hard toggle switches for the electric window winders (why can’t they be on the door or in an equally more accessible location?), cumbersome two-stage starting process (push and press key/button start-ups are just annoying) and the astoundingly tasteless multi-coloured pin-point cabin lighting, and the Mini’s cabin tweeness continues to jar.

Yet there are so many things that work well in here, like the cool frameless front doors, excellent face ventilation, chunky little steering wheel (that tilts and telescopes), amply supportive seats and a chunky, quality feel to the fixtures and fittings (aside from the Clubman’s flimsy centre armrest/storage compartment).

And even the tallest person will find plenty of space in either front seat, making the Mini ideal transportation for those who have to downsize but don’t want to feel the pinch doing so.

Other than the tacky JCW badging, we approve of the fairly subtle exterior makeover, which includes specific-design 17-inch wheels that reveal red brake calipers, and slightly larger exhaust outlets.

And, while the pricing gulf between S and JCW is $8900 ($8100 for the S Clubman), it is a far-more reasonable $5300 ($4300 Clubman) over the S Chilli models, with the JCW gaining bi-Xenon headlights, leather/cloth combination seats, climate control, a premium sound system, dark rear windows, piano black interior trim and Anthracite roof lining.

The Clubman models also come with Bluetooth connectivity and a USB interface, an armrest and a removable false floor in the shallow cargo area.

There are also plenty of options available, including JCW-specific larger rear spoiler, redesigned bumpers, an even sportier suspension tune, strut braces, perforated brake discs, carbon-fibre cabin trim and a gearshift indicator light.

As with all Minis, but even more so with the JCW Clubman, there is no point trying to rationalise this car’s price.

It is perilously close to the Audi A4 Avant, to name just one of the similarly-priced prestige and luxury models on the market.

Yet this is a unique and individual effort that rewards the keen driver and offers something approaching practicality if the regular Mini hatch is a tad too small for you.

The Clubman’s diminutive proportions also make it as easy to park as it is to place through the apex of a fast bend, so consider this if you are an urbanite thinking about buying a wasteful SUV.

The JCW is expensive, and quite hard on the buttocks at times, but it is a blast to drive.

And, getting back to our original question, BMW has not gone too far at all. Flaws and all, we should be happy that such a unique and unusual vehicle even exists.

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