► Mini's updated JCW driven
► As part of 2021 facelift
► Auto version tested here
Just like everyone else right now, Mini's put a fresh mask on its iconic hatch. A 2021 facelift for the entire Mini hatchback and convertible range has introduced a few little tweaks here and there to help keep it competitive.
'Facelift? What facelift?' I hear you ask. Exactly – the differences are so minor, you'd be forgiven for not immediately spotting them. Still, it's another chance to go and zip about in the hot tamale of the regular hatch range: the John Cooper Works.
So, what exactly *is* different?
Visually, not a lot. There are fewer bulges and vents in the front end and the overall 'mouth' of the grille is a touch lower. It's more about changes to the customisation options, namely in adding more black detailing over chrome, the addition of a three-colour 'multitone' roof option and a new series of colours. Cooper S Sport models now have adaptive suspension as standard, and it's a no-cost option on the JCW model we've tested here.
Inside, the Mini hatch has had a few tech upgrades. The entire range now uses the digital instrument display that was originally on the Mini Electric and GP, the centre infotainment screen has been tweaked to include touch sensitivity (instead of just using the iDrive controller). There are new options, too, including adaptive cruise, a heated steering wheel and head-up display. Don't bother optioning that last one; the info is displayed on a pop-out piece of glass rather than on the windscreen, which is only about three inches higher than the digital dials themselves, rendering it rather pointless.
Other than that, it's arguably business as usual. Funky looks, and an equally funky interior that's easy to get your head around and not a lot of interior space beyond some deep cupholders. If you spec the centre armrest with the wireless charger in it, the fattest of smartphones simply won't fit, and the door bins are for bits of paper and not a lot else. Regularly carry adults in the back? Go for massive grocery shops once a month? It's a Mini remember, so neither of these things are its strong points.
Yeah, yeah, yeah – just drive it, please
Thankfully, the chassis hasn't changed at all beyond those optional adaptive dampers (that our JCW car didn't have). The John Cooper Works version finesses the already great basic recipe, even if there is a trade-off: it's firmly sprung, tightly wound and taut.
So, while all Minis are able to zip around town merrily, the JCW is a tad more belligerent. How do I know that? Because it clumsily trips over ruts and lumps with fierce jolts in town, engine growling and exhaust burping at passers-by. Ours had an eight-speed automatic (a six-speed manual is, thankfully still available for £1700 less), making traffic a breeze.
So, a JCW belongs more somewhere else?
Exactly. Namely on some quiet back roads.
While 227bhp doesn't sound like a lot these days, the Mini's bantamweight chassis, lighting-quick body weight reactions and gorgeously juicy steering just allow it to come alive. It's like a ballet dancer that can also knock your block off, dancing from corner to corner but sprinting out of them with some real force.
The brakes are sharp, too, with heavy loads making the rear end twerk like Miley on that wrecking ball, and it doesn't take much to get the JCW swinging its hips sideways on throttle lift-off – even with the traction control still on.
There is an element of sanitised fun here, though, which is very 2021. The JCW's exhaust starts with a fart and sounds great all on its own, adding a bit of aural drama without sounding yobbish. So why the auto-tune through the speakers? It just seems unnecessary.
And we'd implore you to get the manual. The auto 'box is fine, slushing its eight ratios together when you're just pottering about, and the metal paddles have a satisfying thunk when you pull them. But the manual clearly can't be beat on engagement and, like any BMW automatic in Sport mode, there's an irritatingly unnecessary kick in the back on every upshift. Almost as if you've been rear-ended.
Mini JCW: verdict
When we last tested the Mini JCW in a group test with the Golf GTI and 308 GTi, we had this to say: 'it's sensational to drive, feisty and instinctively responsive, like you're strapped to the back of a yappy dog chasing a pigeon.'
It still is that in 2021, remaining such a hoot to drive you forgive it for being a bit too firm around town. Some of the details sanitise the enjoyment a little, too, but the JCW is a great bag of fun – get one with a manual, and enjoy it while you still have the opportunity.
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