► 2015 Mini JCW Mk3 review
► Most powerful production Mini so far
► Automatic version tested on UK roads
The Mini hatchback performance pecking order is well established: the One is the boggo, Cooper the cooking and Cooper S the hot one. Then, on the top shelf, there’s the John Cooper Works.
This is the new one, and it’s as extreme as the Mk3 Mini hatchback gets. (For now, anyway - another stripped out GP version hasn’t been ruled out.) With 228bhp, it’s the most powerful production Mini yet.
My, what a lot of grilles it has!
Seven at the front, if I’ve counted right. The JCW’s front bumper bins the foglights in exchange for extra intakes to keep the more heavily boosted engine cool. The nearside one feeds an additional cooler unit, while its opposite number’s actually a dummy, blanked off to reduce drag.
That engine’s very closely related to that of the Cooper S. It’s the same 2.0-litre four-pot, but with new pistons, additional cooling ancillaries, a computer reboot and a whole lot more boost, hoiking peak torque by 23% to a useful 236lb ft. The exhaust system’s been altered too, partly to reduce back pressure but also for a parpier soundtrack on-throttle, and a louder chorus of Rice Krispies backing vocals off it.
Steering and suspension are carried over unchanged from the Cooper S, albeit with the optional firmer ‘Sports’ set-up for the latter as standard. Passive dampers are standard, adaptive ones a £240 option. Mini expects nearly all customers to spec them, and they should – for reasons we’ll come to shortly.
A three-door bodyshell is the only choice – there won’t be a JCW version of the new five-door Mini.
How well do the JCW's front wheels cope with all that power?
Very well. The John Cooper Works uses microchips rather than a mechanical locking diff to transmit all that torque, braking one front wheel and transferring force to the other, and the system’s well resolved in this car. There’s barely a hint of torque steer and the traction control does a good job of curbing wheelspin without feeling intrusive.
It’s keen to turn in, too, the front end’s dartiness amplified by a very direct steering set-up. And the back end’s very mobile, with the JCW eagerly pivoting about its middle to keep the nose tucked in. Despite that, it rarely feels intimidating – we were able to explore its limits a bit more freely in a brief session on track, and for all its pointy front axle and skatey rear, it’s ultimately a stable car with plenty of lateral grip. The enormous brakes (330mm at the front, with four-pot callipers) do a great job of getting it stopped, too.
The Mk3’s larger capacity engine (the previous JCW was a 1.6) spreads its torque nice and evenly, and although it’s certainly quick (this is a Mini that can top 150mph flat out), its smooth delivery ironically makes it feel less fast than it really is at times.
One problem on the road is the stiff ride. Our test car was on the optional 18-inch wheels with lower profile tyres (17s are standard, but BMW expects most customers to choose the 18s) and adaptive dampers, and in their firmer Sport setting the car never feels settled, jiggling and skipping from one bump to another.
Luckily you can mix and match the driving mode settings, so your best bet for most B-roads is to put the dampers into their ordinary, far more tolerable, softer mode and the engine into the peppier Sport setting. We weren’t able to drive a car with the standard passive dampers but they’re firmer still than the adaptive units' firmest mode, so are probably best avoided.
Most natural current JCW rival on price and performance is the slightly more expensive four-wheel-drive Audi S1, which has a more fluid ride and feels faster on the road thanks its greater wallop of torque – but also feels less immediate and playful. Neither car is better or worse, just different.
This one’s an automatic, is it?
Yes, the manual won’t be available for another month or two at the time of writing – self-shifting cars are important for overseas markets such as Japan and the USA, so they’ve entered production first. Mini expects 80% of British JCW buyers to go for the manual, though.
The auto is a six-speed torque converter found elsewhere in the Mini range, but with new software for the JCW. Namely, that means manual mode really does mean manual control – it’ll run into the limiter and keep doing so until you tell it to change up, and it won’t kick down automatically, only shifting down if it really must to avoid stalling. That’s good.
A good hot hatch should really have three pedals and a lever, of course, but the auto JCW is less of a compromise than it could be. Apart from the occasional lurch on upshifts and hesitancy to downshift to second on the track, it’s a smooth 'box that behaves well on the road.
Fast, fun and with enough differentiation in looks and performance to stand out from the Cooper S, the Mini JCW is a convincing, if pricier, package. It starts around £24,000, but a few choice options could easily push it north of £30k (our test car came in a whisker under £32,000).
That said, I have a feeling a Cooper S wouldn’t be much less fun on most roads – nor, for that matter, the old JCW.