Car reviews - Mini - Hatch - JCW range
Strong and smooth engine, brilliant handling, impressive stopping power
Room for improvement
Engine and exhaust way too quiet, lack of adequate visual distinction, pricey
12 Sep 2008
IF YOU want a smooth and quick Mini, the new John Cooper Works Mini are on the money.
With potent braking and strong, linear power delivery, these cars would do pretty well if you decided to take one to a weekend track day, especially if that track was fairly twisty.
That said, the JCW Minis don't deliver all that you might expect from a car that costs between $48,000 and $51,300.
For that money, most of us would count on our car being easily distinguished from all other models in the range from both inside and out.
Unless you pick the red brake callipers, you have very minimal chance of picking this as JCW Mini from a distance.
The wheels might be a different design, but they are the same size as those on the Cooper S. Where is the spoiler and the bodykit? Oh, that's available, at a price.
There isn't much more than a badge on the inside to indicate this is a special car, which is a bit rich given standard Minis already cost far more than they should when you analyse what you actually get for your money.
Still, it's hard to not enjoy yourself behind the wheel of a JCW Mini.
This week's media launch at Victoria's tight and twisty Broadford Motorcycle Complex revealed the JCW-tuned Mini hard-top and Mini Clubman are extremely competent and very fast too.
A power output of 155kW is not something to write home about, but when the car is just 1130kg, things start to get a bit more interesting.
Of course, this simply matches the output of the previous generation JCW kits bolted on to the old supercharged Chrysler-sourced engines, but it is still impressive.
The new engine is a nice unit and has a healthy powerband. There are no peaks or troughs and the turbo is very quick to get going. It has enough low down torque to negate the need to rev it much around town.
Of course, when you have a chance to stretch its legs, the engine will happily rev out to 6100rpm without becoming breathless.
It seemed very fast on the track at Broadford, hitting about 160km/h plus on what is one of the shortest straights around.
Thanks to a modified exhaust system, the JCW Mini does give off a slightly sporty note, but it is very sedate compared to the last-generation supercharged model.
The old one thrilled the senses with its supercharger ringing and snap and crackle of the exhaust whenever you backed off. That's all gone with this model, unfortunately, and as a result it's all a bit disappointing.
The electronic limited-slip differential control system seemed to work quite well coming out of corners, but wasn't too intrusive. If you push hard enough the inside wheel will still spin a little.
This system may or may not be as effective as a mechanical limited-slip diff but it certainly didn't seem to tug at the wheel all that much, which can be a problem with many LSDs.
The braking power of the JCW Mini is one of its strengths. Track work often reveals weaknesses with the anchors of production cars, but the JCW Minis held up remarkably well considering they were being given a flogging. They not only pull up the car impressively well, but continue to do so lap after lap.
The manual gearbox feels good too, although as with other Minis you can sometimes get locked out of any gears when you change down and head for second gear too forcefully.
This is because reverse is located by moving the stick across and up and the gearbox locks out any selection if it thinks you are possibly going for reverse while moving forward. That makes sense, but the gearbox should have been designed better in the first place.
Of course, Mini owners will adapt to this quickly and just be gentler when selecting second.
As you might expect, the JCW Mini is very agile. Its firmer suspension allows you to flick the car into bends with even more enthusiasm than before.
Aiding this is steering that's direct, allowing the car to change direction in an instant. The Clubman is not quite as precise as the shorter Mini, but really the difference is minimal and the extra weight doesn't seem to have a noticeable effect.
There is some bodyroll in both cars - a bit more than I expected, anyway - but racetracks seem to emphasise this. It certainly wasn't an issue on the road sections.
What the road loop did reveal is that the JCW cars are not the harsh-riding monsters that I expected. Given the different damping rates and thicker anti-roll bars I had expected the ride quality to diminish considerably. It didn't.
The road section revealed the Mini JCW's claimed consumption figures are pretty optimistic, however. The cars we rode in were a couple of litres per 100km off the combined figures, even when a large section of the run included highway driving.
For the record, this observation does not include track driving, which understandably pushed consumption figures higher.
But fuel economy is not what the JCWs are about. These hot Minis are designed to deliver driving thrills by accelerating fast, stopping quickly and cornering well.
While they succeed in all of the above, they don't deliver the exciting assault on your ears the previous model did. They also disappoint because they don't look much different to cheaper Minis - unless you are prepared to shell out for even more cash.
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