The Mini brand has a lot of passionate enthusiasts behind it, with two distinct schools of thought. A lot of people yearn for the “good old days” where the original Mini from the 1960s defined the image of the brand. That was a car that combined good value, astonishing packaging, and amazing handling that shamed a lot of supposed sports cars at the time, and pretty much to this day. Nowadays, in the land of big three-row crossovers, the original Mini is literally just that – it almost disappears in traffic. The Mini brand was resurrected by BMW in 2001, and served as the basis for that company’s retro-styled front-drive compact vehicles.
Even in 2001, the first-generation BMW-built Mini was considered gargantuan beside the original old-school Mini. It had to comply with safety standards of the time, and it also had to incorporate a lot of features befitting of a small, but premium hot hatchback. Little did people know – this first-generation Mini would go on to become what people would remember in the “good old days”. The early Mini Cooper S represented a serious choice for the enthusiast, providing that legendary Mini quirkiness, packaging, and agility, while retaining the slightly raw feeling that subsequent Minis would stray away from.
To show people that performance remains a core tenet of the Mini brand, they’ve dabbled with the John Cooper Works nameplate. It makes a return for the third-generation Mini (new for 2014), and this one particular car I’m reviewing here has one stand-out option: the optional sport automatic transmission.
The Mini brand is one that holds on to a strong brand identity. From the round headlights, to the hatchback design, to the upright windshield, the Mini is the kind of car that even those who aren’t necessarily “into” cars will recognize. The traditional two-door hatchback remains closest to this look. Building on the Mini Cooper S, the hood scoop remains purely decorative, but the big changes lie underneath. My particular test car was painted a shade of Rebel Green (not British Racing Green) with a red roof and mirrors, and black “bonnet stripes”. It’s an attractive colour combination, but I did receive some remarks that the car looked like a big olive. Endearing, perhaps?
The front-end features additional large apertures and ducts to feed fresh air to the intercoolers and braking system – so much so that the 2015 Mini Cooper S John Cooper Works (henceforth informally referred to as “JCW”) looks like it has a bit of an under-bite, if you like to assign faces to your cars. Out back, a more pronounced rear high-mount wing and diffuser flank the two large centre-exit exhaust tips. My particular test vehicle came with the 18-inch JCW “Cup” wheels, and what makes them interesting is how they barely clear the larger brake calipers. Owners will need to exercise extreme caution when parallel parking – the spokes stick out well beyond the boundary of the tire.
Being attached to the BMW brand, the premium feel and extensive feature-set is never going to be far away. Inside, the Mini Cooper S JCW does a great job if your expectations are in-line with what BMW traditionally offers in their fully-loaded executive sedans. Seats covered in leather and suede “Dinamica” do a good job holding you in place while you go around corners, and the large ring-lit centre-mounted screen houses various functions from satellite navigation to infotainment.
The “Essentials Package” includes a huge panorama sunroof and add heated seats. The “Loaded Package” adds keyless entry, the all-important centre armrest, and automatic climate control, among other things. The “Visibility Package” adds rear park distance control (in conjunction to the rear-view reverse camera) and a heads-up display for the driver. Just like there are so many ways to configure the exterior look of your Mini, it’s possible to come up with a fairly unique feature-set to meet your needs.
As premium as the JCW looks and feels, the Mini brand has always been about the driving experience. They’ve never been “fast” cars, but they are rather “quick”. Being at the top of the food chain means the most power under the hood. All Minis nowadays feature a variant of the BMW TwinPower engine. This refers to the use of direct-injection as well as a twin-scroll turbo for fast response. Base Mini Coopers get a turbo 1.5L three-cylinder, and the Cooper S gets a turbo 2.0L four-cylinder. The JCW builds on the Cooper S by decreasing the compression ratio, and increasing the turbo boost.
In this case, it’s a 2.0L inline-four gasoline engine that produces 228hp from 5200-6000rpm, and 236lb-ft of torque from a useful 1250rpm all the way up to 4800rpm. This updated engine is actually fairly similar to the unit found in BMW’s “28i”-series vehicles, except the fact that Minis feature transverse powertrain layouts. Considering how the original Mini of the 50s and 60s didn’t even come close to triple-digit horsepower ratings, 228hp is quite a bit for the front wheels to deal with.
Previous JCW versions in recent memory have been a manual-only affair, allowing the driver to extract the most from the force-inducted four-cylinder engine, as long as you were able to manage having three pedals to dance with. I will admit to being a little disappointed when I showed up at BMW Canada’s head office to pick it up, and didn’t see the gated six-speed shifter. For the first time, you can now opt for a six-speed automatic transmission with your Mini JCW. Purists may protest this decision by BMW, but the fact of the matter is that the automatic transmission opens this car up to a much larger market.
The lack of a third pedal is easily the biggest defining feature of this particular car – so let’s get it out of the way now: it is much better than I was expecting. Mini (and BMW) have managed to configure and tune this “sport” transmission (sourced from Aisin) to deliver better performance than the manual-transmission car. 0-100km/h happens in 6.1 seconds – 0.2 seconds quicker than the three-pedal Mini Cooper S JCW. Gear changes are quick, crisp, and confident, whether you’re in the default Drive, Sport, or manual modes. If you tug on the shift paddles behind the steering wheel, you’re treated to an entertaining burp sound from the exhaust, as the engine pulls timing between shifts. When it comes to transversely-mounted automatic transmissions (that employ torque converters) that deliver power to the front wheels, it’s easily one of the best I’ve tested to date.
Powertrain aside, the Mini Cooper S JCW continues to be about providing a nimble feel and overall handling prowess. The Loaded Package adds Dynamic Damper Control. The short wheelbase combined with the upgraded spring rates in JCW models means the ride is always firm, even in the default setting (selectable on a rocker around the gear selector). Sport mode firms things up even more and is best suited to smooth surfaces (read: not the broken streets of Toronto). When flinging the JCW around highway on-ramps, the heavier steering (in Sport mode) delivers a decent amount of feedback – but not too much – to your fingertips, and the whole car stays relatively flat under high lateral load. It’s also worth noting that Sport mode increases the base engine idle speed, and also increases the volume of the synthetic engine sounds played through the stereo.
With all that power to go fast in straight lines, and the suspension to keep your momentum up in corners, it’s also important to be able to stop. Mini has outfitted the Cooper S JCW with huge 12.4-inch brake rotors with Brembo fixed four-piston calipers. The front braking system is downright huge for a car this small – the upgrades will ensure dependable stopping power, time and time again. Fade resistance is much improved simply due to the increased thermal capacity of the larger hardware, too. The brakes are large enough that owners will need to get a little creative when it comes to fitting winter tires and wheels – your garden-variety steel wheels may not clear them.
BMW has done a lot of work lately in improving fuel efficiency, whilst at the same time preserving the dynamic feel the brand is known for. BMW’s own M cars all employ forced-induction nowadays, and the real-world result is huge torque and surprising efficiency – if you are restrained with the loud pedal. Mini rates the 3-door JCW at 9.3L/100km in the city, 7.3L/100 on the highway, and 8.4L/100km in a combined cycle. During my week of mixed driving, I ended up with an indicated average of 8.7L/100km. Not bad, considering the pace one could maintain in a little car like this. It’s worth noting that the automatic transmission does quite a bit better in terms of efficiency, too – there’s a gulf of nearly 10% between the automatic and manual transmission in the city. The JCW will accept 44L of 91-octane premium fuel.
The Mini brand has always been about the hot hatchback. How it differs from a lot of other hot hatchbacks is how they deliver value to the customer. The Cooper S JCW starts at $33,240, but that figure rapidly climbs as you check the option boxes. There’s a price (no pun intended) on being able to customize so many aspects of your Mini, by mixing and matching option packages. The aforementioned packages, including the Navigation, Essentials, Loaded, and Visibility Packages, all add up to a not-unsubstantial $4,850. Then there are the many stand-alone options, such as the two-tone bonnet stripes ($150), upgraded JCW wheels ($800), Harman/Kardon stereo ($750), and the JCW-only Rebel Green paint ($1,000). The sport automatic transmission adds $1,650, and the leather seating (surprisingly not part of any package) adds another $2,250. This brings the as-tested MSRP to $44,740, before taxes and additional dealer fees.
Many would argue that this is a lot for a small Mini. The thing is, cars from this nameplate have never been exactly cheap, and have always erred to the premium side of the segment. If it were up to me, I would skip some of the options, such as the Visibility Package and the leather seating. The former isn’t needed, because the Mini really isn’t a difficult car to park. The leather and Dinamica seating surface is nice, but I’d rather pocket the $2,250 and sit on grippy cloth instead. The Sport Automatic transmission, as good as it is, can also be skipped if you can operate a manual transmission. Lastly, opting for British Racing Green saves you another $1,000, and you get the more “appropriate” colour for this British car that happens to be made in Germany. Exercising restraint on the option list can easily keep you under the $40,000 mark, but that area is still occupied by cars like the Subaru WRX STi and Ford Mustang GT, just to name a few.
At the end of the day, it really comes down to the style of car you want to be seen in, and the type of car you want to be driving. Those who value the retro-modern sense of style the Mini Cooper S JCW can bring you will understand and accept its quirks. Those who value the driving experience over all else may likely look elsewhere. Personally, I’m far too practical to want a car that prioritizes a unique sense of style and cheekiness over outright speed. I like the overall size of the car and how easy it is to drive, but I’m also corrupted by the horsepower and speed offered by some competitors. The 2015 Mini Cooper S John Cooper Works is one of the fastest and best Minis yet, and the new Sport Automatic means it is accessible to a much larger audience. Anybody who opts for it won’t be penalizing themselves whatsoever.