Blame the Americans. That’s not exactly what MINI’s people are saying, but it’s why the first opportunity to drive the new John Cooper Works MINI is an automatic-only affair. Seems production ramp-up had to be one or the other, and the automatic won out. Buyers in some of the bigger international markets are not as keen on shifting gears themselves as us – or at least not doing so with a proper stick and a third pedal. Around eight in every ten John Cooper Works sold in the UK will have three pedals and a stick, though, but that ‘sports’ automatic six-speeder (torque convertor here, no double clutches) comes with paddles as standard.
Still, MINI UK is launching its hottest hatch yet at our home circuit, so there’s that going for it, and Nicolas Griebner, MINI UK’s Product Manager, speaking with a hint of a French accent, is talking up the JCW as having the sort of magic that his country was once renowned for.
Promising stuff, and looking at the specification it looks like Greibner’s comments have some substance. The 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder unit produces 228bhp from 5,200rpm- to 6,000rpm, though it’s the 320Nm of torque peaking from 1,250 to 4,800rpm that’s most useful, especially given the circa 1,220kg kerb weight. MINI is quoting a launch-control assisted 0-62mph time of 6.1 seconds in the auto (6.3 manual) though it’s proudest of its 50- to 75mph figure (in fifth), which, at 5.6 seconds, betters that of a Porsche 991 Carrera S by 0.3 seconds.
Helping achieve the 40bhp hike over the standard Cooper S are new pistons, revised turbo and auxiliaries, a boost pressure hike from 1.9 to 2.2 bar, a larger intercooler (the JCW’s additional cooling denies it that traditional performance signifier of front fog lamps), bigger, 330mm, Brembo front brakes with four-piston callipers, revised suspension and a new exhaust. The exhaust is tuned to reduce back pressure, achieved by increasing the diameter of the mid-pipe. MINI’s attention to detail saw it reduce the pipe’s wall thickness too from 1.5- to 1.2mm so as not to add any weight.
Inside, there are standard bucket seats, which, if you add the Chili Pack (which almost everyone does, despite it being £2,470), come covered in leather and Dinamica (think Alcantara). Fork out the extra and you also gain 18-inch two-tone JCW Cup wheels, the design of which apes that of the GP specials MINI occasionally rolls out, as well as dual-zone climate control, floor mats, a MINI Excitement Pack (honestly) and apparently better residual values, too. Keep ticking boxes and you can be looking at a £30+k MINI, though it’s worth spending the minimal £240 on the Variable Damper Control system, as it brings a modicum of comfort to the JCW’s otherwise fairly uncompromising ride.
Go with the passive springs and dampers and it’s set-up firmer than the already taut Sports setting with that variable option. Sport mode is fine for flinging the John Cooper Works around Goodwood, but not so great on the less than racetrack-smooth tarmac on the roads that surround the circuit. It’s busy, not overly so, but noticeable, though it’s worth winding back those dampers a touch to get a bit more compliance from the chassis, and the trade-off in agility is barely noticeable. MINIs have always been an entertaining steer and the JCW is no different. It’s faster though, appreciably so, and with keener agility.
Despite the relentless pace it’s not a difficult, testing car to drive quickly, as there’s loads of grip, plenty of traction and steering that’s quick witted and accurate, if not imbued with much in the way of real information. There’s no fight under full power, as the JCW has the ability to put down its grunt without armfuls of torque steer thanks to Torque Steer Compensation being included in the lengthy list of electronic driver aids – as well as a specially developed driveshaft design.
The combined result of all the changes to create the JCW is unquestionably the fastest, yet friendliest hot MINI to date. It does lack the insane fizz of the last MINI to stake that claim though. The John Cooper Works GP – based on the previous generation MINI – was a far more feisty, engaging car than this new standard JCW. There’s some magic in the chassis, while there’s no doubting the engine’s potency and sheer spread of power, either, but that automatic transmission really does rob it of some magic.