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Car reviews - Mini - Hatch - John Cooper Works

Our Opinion

We like
‘Go-kart’ handling, blippy exhaust, sharp steering, joyful drive experience
Room for improvement
Noisy cabin, tight rear seat, not much car for the money

15 Jul 2015

AUSTRALIANS are lapping up Minis in numbers that the niche BMW Group-owned brand has never seen before, with the warmed-over Cooper S Hatch making up a decent amount of the model mix.

And for good reason. The Cooper S is a fabulous little car, offering just enough sizzle to keep keen drivers entertained without going all-out crazy on performance.

But it was never going to be enough to satiate true hot-hatch fans… which is where the F56 John Cooper Works Hatch comes in.

The second example of the modern-day JCWs – the first-gen version was offered as a performance-enhancing kit until BMW decided to make it a variant in its own right in 2009 – is available in Australia now in auto guise, with manual models due in a few months.

We hopped in the JCW at BMW Group headquarters in Melbourne’s south-east for what promised to be a smile-inducing drive through the Gippsland hills to Phillip Island, but something called an Antarctic Vortex happened to hit southern Australia the same day, with high winds, rain, hail, and fog making for some rather hairy conditions.

As always, we exercised caution – not difficult given the amount of water on the road and lack of visibility.

There was some concern about driving in the conditions in a powerful front-wheel-drive hot hatch, but we needn’t have been so worried. The Mini JCW proved just how capable it is over a wide variety of terrain in some very challenging conditions.

Power for the JCW comes from an uprated version of the Cooper S engine, which is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol unit with a specially made turbocharger, dishing out 170kW at 5200rpm and 320Nm at a low 1250rpm more than enough grunt for a 6.1-second 0-100km/h time.

That engine, combined with a sports exhaust system, gives off a slightly growly note in normal mode, (known as Mid mode in Mini’s Driving Mode system), but switching it over to Sport unveils a host of crackles and over-run pops that accompany each gear change.

In the city, the JCW darts around suburban roads like something the size of a Mini should, weaving in and out of traffic with ease and picking up speed when you need it, without hesitation.

Off-the-line acceleration is seriously quick without being terrifying, and there is no noticeable lag. Torque comes in nice and early thanks to a wide, progressive curve.

Out of town, and on twistier roads, is where the JCW really shines. There is almost no way to avoid using Mini’s ‘go-kart feel’ tag-line, because that is precisely how it handles point it and it goes, with no hesitation.

On the drier sections of the drive route, the JCW sticks to the road like a sultana to a sock, offering a flat, roll-free ride, while punting into corners late and loud is a complete hoot, thanks to the taut little chassis and the short wheelbase.

Regardless of the quality of road surface, a lot of noise does penetrate the JCW’s cabin, which makes it a bit boomy for our liking.

Once the nasty weather really settled in, things calmed down behind the wheel, but the JCW remained composed. The suspension set up is designed for maximum handling performance, but it never feels harsh firm, perhaps, but not harsh.

Pushing the Mini in these conditions highlights the effectiveness of the traction control system, and after a couple of hours of driving through pouring rain on soaked roads, we realise we managed to lose traction only once, when we encountered a bit of axle tramp when pulling away at an intersection.

After arriving safely at our destination, it’s time to check out the cabin. The JCW could not be anything but a Mini, with the big circular centre stack housing the 8.8-inch screen, the now-familiar Mini aircraft-style toggle switches, and the ambient lighting that changes colours as often as you want them to, depending on your settings.

Headroom is substantial in the JCW, although impeded ever so slightly by the sunroof, but there is still plenty of room. There are also loads of cubbyholes for storage and an appropriate number of bottle holders.

The JCW sports seats are ultra supportive, and can be optioned up with leather in different colours, but the standard Dinamica and fabric seats feel and look great.

As with other three-door Minis, there is very little rear legroom, but headroom remains more than adequate, and the rear pew is super supportive. Anyone over 165cm is going to want to escape quickly, though.

The boot is also small, although it coped with two people’s luggage without issue. It is, after all, a three-door light city hatch.

For your $49,950 (excluding on-road costs) for the six-speed auto version as tested (manual versions are $47,400), you get a solid, if not spectacular level of standard gear.

While the price has come down by about $3000 compared with the old model, it is still a lot to pay for a very small car. The Volkswagen Golf GTI is bigger and has comparable performance figures, but is about $10k cheaper.

‘Professional’ sat nav, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, DAB+ digital radio, 18-inch light alloy wheels LED lights and daytime running lights come as standard, while a heads-up display with JCW-specific information, and rear, but no front fog-lights, are part of the standard mix.

As with many Euros, the Mini is offered with options packages that are too numerous to detail here.

The next day we hit the Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit for some laps in the JCW.

On a straight or tackling a bend, the JCW keeps its cool, and the Sports automatic transmission offers razor-sharp changes up and down the ’box in manual or auto mode. The exhaust orchestra and raucous engine note are even more addictive on a track.

Some gymkhana exercises on a wet skidpan highlight the traction control, and also reveal how strong the specially engineered Brembo brakes (with the sexy red calipers) are, and how sharp the steering is. At higher speeds it is nicely weighted but it feels a touch heavy around town.

There is a lot to like about the JCW – it offers sprightly performance from its sweet turbocharged four-pot, it can be thrown around readily, has a terrific engine note and sports super sharp handling.

While we thoroughly enjoyed the JCW, we can’t help but compare it to the glorious Mini Cooper S, which at $36,950 (plus on roads) offers great value for money, but it is more of a warm, but not quite hot, hatch.

For some, the Cooper S will offer more than enough performance, but the John Cooper Works is for those that need more. It makes the most of a very capable package, and it’s an incredibly entertaining drive if you’re in the mood for a little fun.

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