As hot hatchbacks go, the Mini has serious cred. The original model reached U.S. shores before John, Paul, George and Ringo, practically inventing nearly 60 years ago the small, fun-to-drive, front-wheel-drive three-door hatch. Fast forward to this century, and the reborn Mini has transformed from one car into a brand with four-passenger two- and four-door Hardtop models as well as the larger five-passenger Countryman and Paceman. It’s the two-door Hardtop, though, that best captures the original Mini character thanks to lightweight construction, a road-hugging stance, agile handling, snipped overhangs and a low center of gravity.
2016 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works Hardtop Review
Mini to the Max
Any Mini is fun to drive, but the John Cooper Works version of the MINI Hardtop takes the formula to the max. There’s nothing minimalist about the way the Mini JCW Hardtop drives. It’s the most powerful Mini ever, courtesy of a new BMW-engineered 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo. The roster of technology includes direct injection, Valvetronic fully variable valve timing, and Double Vanos variable camshaft control. But what you need to know is by pumping out 228 horsepower, a 10-percent bump over the previous-generation version, the Mini JCW Hardtop will sprint from rest to 60 mph in about six seconds.
Accelerate with Ease
That’s quick enough to hang with VW Golf GTIs, Subaru WRXs, and Ford Focus STs. The real bonus of the upsized mill, however, is the way it enables the JCW Hardtop to accelerate with ease regardless of engine or road speed. In a word, the engine is extremely flexible, developing its maximum 236 lb.-ft. of torque (up 14 percent from the previous engine) from a just-above-fast-idle 1250 rpm and riding that rich thrust all the way to 4800 rpm. As a result, the JCW Hardtop is always sweet and responsive to throttle inputs. There’s little or no turbo lag. Good elasticity lets the engine stay in the strong part of the torque curve around town and to explore opportunities in the ebb and flow of traffic. And the JCW’s standard sport exhaust system cranks the sound signature from the dual center-exit outlets to an appropriately aggressive level.
Choice of Transmissions
Manual transmissions are disappearing from the equipment lists at some automakers, but not at Mini. The JCW Hardtop can be equipped with a 6-speed manual with rev-match downshifting or 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters for manual control. Purists take note: The automatic car is actually quicker to 60 mph and has a stop/start feature that shuts off the engine at stoplights to save fuel. Thus, the 6-speed auto version receives higher EPA fuel-economy estimates (25 mpg city/31 mpg highway) than the 6-speed manual car (23 mpg city/31 mpg highway). That said, the Mini JCW Hardtop is otherwise so involving and the 6-speed manual’s short-throw shifter so crisp that it seems disingenuous to hand off gear-shuffling duties to an automatic transmission. At least the buyer has some good options here.
Slicing and Dicing
The maximum Mini mantra extends to the JCW Hardtop’s chassis as well. Even with the standard 17-inch tires, steering turn-in is crisp and grip is tenacious. And despite electric boost, the JCW’s quick and precise power rack and pinion steering shares a modicum of tactile feel with the driver. It’s smart, too, with algorithms to counteract torque steer (where the steering wheel pulls to one side) during hard acceleration. The upsized Brembo four-wheel disc brakes deliver all-day deceleration performance with a firm pedal and quick, predictable response. The John Cooper Works treatment stiffens the rear suspension and fine-tunes front suspension geometry, but the ride frequency is a stiff one.
There’s a penalty to be paid for the JCW’s excellent body control. Take the JCW Hardtop over a less-than-stellar road surface and impact harshness rears its ugly head. This is exacerbated by the Mini’s standard run-flat tires (there is no spare tire), which have stiff sidewalls to support the weight of the car if there’s a loss of inflation. And it’s worse with the cool-looking, but even harsher-riding, optional 18-inch tire/wheel package. One option is to go with the extra-cost Dynamic Control dampers, which let the driver choose between Sport and less-jarring Comfort mode with a console-mounted switch.
Meanwhile in the JCW Hardtop’s well-kitted cabin, the driver and front passenger perch in well-bolstered sport seats with added lateral torso support. There’s a lot going on inside, some of it quite plasticky and busy-looking, but also with tasteful dashes of stainless steel, aluminum and body-color trim as well. One cool feature is the Mini Driving Mode selector, which changes the throttle response, steering effort, exhaust sound, and, on models so equipped, shock-absorber settings between the default MID, gas-saving Green and more-aggressive Sport modes.
And there’s another aspect of spending time in the Mini JCW Hardtop that’s directly related to its very high grip levels, and agile and maneuverable handling. The stiff ride and harsh impacts stir up some road noise and can set off some squeaks and rattles unworthy of a premium small car.
Pricing and Options
Though the Mini JCW Hardtop’s $30K base price isn’t too scary for a BMW-engineered product, its option sheet runs long and deep. As the Mini exists in the premium small-car segment, there’s an available premium Harman/Kardon audio system with navigation, 8.8-inch infotainment screen and console-mounted touchpad controller, as well as a host of safety and semi-autonomous driving aids such as a head-up display, active cruise control, collision and pedestrian warning systems and more. The JCW Hardtop is available in a wide variety of single- and two-tone paint jobs, stripe kits, with custom treatments for roofs and mirrors. And there are four different wheel options.
By the time you’ve added a few option packages and maybe did a little personalization, the price tag can climb past $40K. And going up against much less expensive compact pocket rockets such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Subaru WRX/STI, Ford Focus ST, and Ford Fiesta ST could give value-conscious buyers pause.
But never mind. We’re talking about the Mini here, with its unmatched mix of storied history, iconoclastic character and exclusivity. You’re not likely to see a flotilla of these at the mall parking lot or spot yourself coming and going on the way to work. The new MINI John Cooper Works Hardtop isn’t for everyone. And that’s probably just the way its small cadre of dedicated buyers prefer it.