- Overall Rating
- What makes a car special is really all in your head – and this one decidedly got into mine. You’ll like this car if: you really like small fast cars.
- Looks Rating
- Interior Rating
- Okay, the retro-mini-look has been a bit overdone inside, but it is fun.
- Ride Rating
- For a car with this level of handling competence, the ride isn’t anything you’d complain about.
- Safety Rating
- Tough, well equipped with safety gear, and agile but small.
- Green Rating
- If you can afford and want something that goes fast and choose the efficient JCW, you’re doing your bit for the planet.
When Brit racing-car-maker John Cooper, who created the tuned version of the original Mini that carried his name, decided he wanted one that went really fast, he bolted a second engine under the boot-lid.
But even with a pair of powerplants, it didn't make as much horsepower nor was as quick and fast as the current hot Mini that carries the John Cooper Works badge.
Minis are now built by BMW, of course, with all that implies. Including the fact they aren't cheap anymore, as were the tiny, tinny boxes that first appeared in 1959. The least expensive modern Mini Cooper, with 121 horsepower, starts at $21,950.
But there are still fast ones, the $28,950 181-hp Cooper S, and an even faster one, the 208-hp, $36,900 John Cooper Works (JCW) version we're looking at here. After reluctantly returning it to the Mini press fleet.
Cooper would have loved this car's performance, and unlike the Twin-Min or Twini-Mini he cobbled together in the mid-1960s, this one wouldn't likely try to kill him.
Cooper gained fame building racing open-wheelers, but became forever linked to Minis by building a tuned version of the then-new econo-car and selling British Motor Corp. on building them with his name attached and two pounds Sterling in his pocket for every one sold. Various Cooper models were created during the Mini's heyday and forged, on race track and rally stage, the legend that still makes them eminently marketable today.
Cooper's twin-engine mid-60s special was fitted with a race-tuned 1,088-cc, 82-hp engine up front and a similar 1,212-cc, 96-hp unit in the rear, giving this stripped to the minimum 1,600-lb car a total of 178 hp and, of course, all-wheel-drive to its 10-inch wheels. An auto journo of the day noted it had the same power to weight ratio as a Ferrari Berlinetta and could top 120 mph (193 km/h) before the valves began to bounce at 7,600 rpm.
It impressed, and likely scared the hell out of, everyone who drove it. But not for long as Cooper rolled it up in a ball on the Surbiton Bypass, nearly writing himself off in the process. If he had, he wouldn't have been around to contribute his input to the new Mini BMW developed after its purchase of the Rover Group in 1994 and which arrived in 2001.
Just prior to his death, he founded John Cooper Works, which went on to make tuning kits for the new Mini, which by 2005 could be ordered directly from Mini itself. In 2008, the go-fast bits were no longer add-on kits, but built into the new Mini John Cooper Works model.
The 2012 JCW now has competition in Mini showrooms from new models – the convertible, Coupe, Roadster, Clubman, Countryman and Countryvan – but it's the version that to my mind captures best the essence of the old Coopers.
These new cars may be branded Minis but they are being built by BMW, remember, and as noted above they're not cheap, but they are highly sophisticated and in JCW trim look extremely cool and go satisfyingly fast.
Like Minis of old, they are decidedly compact. You can almost touch all four corners of the cabin from the driver's seat (resulting in rear seats being for occasional use only, by small passengers), and with a longer stretch maybe reach the wheels tucked tidily under the bodywork. Which on the test car was a dark Eclipse Gray Metallic with bright red roof and mirror caps, set off with black spoked wheels ($150), a black hexagonal mesh grille and twin tailpipes.
The test unit was fitted with an optional $1,900 Championship Red leather interior and, from the driver's sports-style seat, you're right up where the action is, the engine not far from your feet behind the firewall with just a short shelf of a hood covering it. Bolted to the column behind the leather-wrapped wheel is a tach (just like Mini enthusiasts mounted their Smiths instruments in the olden days) and on the centreline a medium-pizza-sized speedometer cum info-centre. A bit over the top, but kind of neat.
This car also came with a $1,900 Comfort package that included a huge sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, heated seats and auto-dimming mirror and a $1,850 Wired package that added navigation and all the usual electronic gadgetry. And bumped the price to $44,225 with delivery costs. See, I said it was BMW-like.
As it's been since the beginning, the Mini's motor is a 1.6-litre four-cylinder, but in JCW form this hyperventilates with the aid of a turbocharger to produce 208 hp at 6,000 rpm and 192 lb-ft of torque available from 1,850 rpm (spiking to 207 lb-ft in brief overboost mode). Only a six-speed manual gearbox is available. Wider 205/45 R17 tires and bigger brakes are also part of the JCW package.
The motor may be mini-sized but it's definitely an overachiever. It delivers a smoothly super rush of power in every gear that will run it up to 100 km/h in 6.5 seconds and to a (limited) top speed of 236 km/h – both faster than Cooper's dual-engined dual-carriageway burn-up special. Along with a sporty note that's always there, varying in volume with how hard you're on the pedal.
It's also more fuel efficient with ratings of 7.7 litres/100km city and 5.6 highway but you do have to pay the premium penalty.
Fast off the line and through the quick-shift gears, with responsive (BMW-like) steering and highly competent handling, the JCW Mini I is an absolute delight to drive. Not the quickest car around, but like the original Coopers, one capable of getting you where you're going in a very brief and entertaining span of time.
Tech specs: 2012 Mini Cooper JCW
Type: Hot hatch
Base Price: $36,900; as tested, $44,425
Engine: 1.6-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 208 hp/ 192 lb-ft.
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.7 city/5.6 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Mazda Mazdaspeed3, Nissan Sentra Spec-V, Volkswagen Golf R, Fiat 500 Abarth, Honda Civic Si, Kia Forte Coupe