On the Road Review: MINI John Cooper Works Hardtop

To small car aficionados, the MINI brand holds iconic status. Originally a micro-sized car only sold in England and the European market, the brand had run its course as dwindling sales outlined a certain death.

Yet, BMW stepped into the picture and saw a brand that still had potential. There would certainly need to be lots of investment, as well as expansion of the size of the vehicle as well as the target markets, as any small car that wasn’t marketed to North America — the second largest new car market after China — would never have a future.

In 2000, BMW brought the redesigned MINI to America. It was a media darling from the get-go, an upstart entry into a market starved for the fashionable small cars that were denied us. Sales were modest at first — often limited by a decidedly small dealer network, as well as production. But the brand has endured, even expanded. We are now on the third generation of the “new” MINI, with eight variants in the lineup — five versions of the “base” three-door model, and three very different five-door models including the Countryman crossover model with AWD.

These third generation models reflect much more of BMW’s influence. The base engine as well as the optional turbo-engines, all four cylinders here, three- and four-cylinder gas and diesels in other markets, are BMW designs while chassis developments, electronic advances, and even styling, reflect BMW’s clout, and assets. Best of all, the Germans’ impact has not negatively affected the MINI’s unique English characteristics.

Buyers will still find the charm first evidenced in the MINI in 2000. The intimate cockpit is populated by circular surfaces everywhere; the air vents, the controls, all of the gauges are round and huge — including the oversized center cluster that houses media/information/navigation/back-up camera in our John Cooper Works model. A BMW-esque MMI center console controller handles operating chores for this big-screen adaptation of this driver information center, with relatively simple buttons and mouse-movements. Power door locks and power window controls are now on the doors instead of low on the bank of center panel toggle switches, replaced by the car’s new toggle-ignition switch.

Sport seats provide good adjustability and include manual thigh extenders, which proved very supportive over long drives. Aided by excellent heating elements — that toasted your backside from behind your knees all the way up to your lower shoulders, the MINI gets good marks for driver comfort. The cabin remains narrow, cozier for some than others, with large occupants touching surfaces with each elbow. I found more space by razing the folding center armrest out of the way. Rear seating is not much more than a parcel shelf; two very small occupants can fit in a pinch, while the deep rear cargo well swallows a lot more gear than you might imagine.

However, the MINI doesn’t necessarily tout its functionality virtues first and foremost. This is a designer car for a generation of buyers who want to standout, be different from the pack. In that regard, the MINI clubs the Fiat 500 and VW’s Beetle in sales and performance in this micro-car segment as vehicular differentiators. The MINI lineup also outsells Porsche, Jaguar, Scion, Tesla and many other premium brands in the U.S. market.

With constant improvements and model evolution, BMW has kept the MINI brand in buyers’ consciousness, for the most part. This is most evident in this week’s John Cooper Works Hardtop. This MINI JCW is also a third generation offering and is the fastest, most powerful MINI ever offered here.

Equipped with a BMW-derived 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, making a robust 228-hp and 236 pound/feet of peak torque that arrives at an extremely low 1,500 rpms, this MINI is anything but small in its performance. Mated to a German-produced Getrag six-speed manual gearbox, and teamed with a sweet third pedal, the JCW MINI is swift and a blast to push around. Power delivery is immediate, in all gears — that torque rush addictively inviting to explore every time you drive the MINI. The run from zero to 60 mph happens in less than six seconds, while MINI claims a top speed over 150 mph for this little 2,900-pound coupe. Highway cruising becomes a challenge as the turbo-MINI wants to run.

A few years ago, the industry was fixated on the ability to create 100 hp per liter of engine size. Honda made a really big deal about its previous S2000 sports car having 200 hp from 2.0 liters. The proliferation of turbochargers, as well as direct injection and variable valve timing, plus sophisticated new electronic controls, have made those previous goals irrelevant. The MINI JCW is clear evidence; its smooth power, available over such a wide powerband, makes the car simple, and exhilarating, to drive.

Click the switch behind the floor shifter into Sport mode (there are three modes, Green, Mid, Sport) and the JCW takes on a different character. The steering feel, already very good, becomes a little bit heavier. The tunable suspension stiffens slightly. In addition, the exhaust note becomes louder, deeper. Automatic rev-matching also occurs on downshifts — just like Corvette and Ferrari — while there is a louder bark in the exhaust note on over-run as well as at peak throttle. A MINI with attitude; who would have thought that such a fun-loving little car could have so much swagger?

Key to this performance is the absence of driver-annoying torque steer (usually the bane of high-performance front drive cars) while the BMW tuned chassis is splendid in its composure and confidence. Predictable to a fault, the MINI doesn’t disappoint when the pace hastens.

A base MINI hardtop, with 134 hp, starts at under $21,000. The MINI S hardtop, with 189 turbocharged horsepower, is just under $25,000. Jump into the “base” JCW model for $30,600 plus delivery fee. As shown, our heavily optioned JCW — 18-inch wheels, MINI Wired package, Dynamic Suspension control, rear view camera, heated seats, Park Distance Control, Sirius radio, and more, stickered for $37,000. This is Audi A3 territory, or close to a BMW 2-series. So, does the economy-minded MINI (29 mpg realized on EPA ratings of 23/31/26 mpg predicted) also stretch the brand into premium small-car territory?

Sales are up 33 percent so far in 2015, so something is obviously working.

A frolicking good time to drive, the fast, fun MINI is exciting to view, comfortable to experience, and in JCW trim, rewarding to operate for enthusiasts. Not bad for a tiny niche product that is maturing right before our eyes.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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