The Mini was the first car ever built. Ok, that’s not true but the diminutive little runaround has been with us for such a long time it feels like forever and in that time one relationship stands out above all others. Anyone even slightly interested in cars will be aware of the historical connection with the John Cooper name and the latest model to bear the signature does so with confidence. The John Cooper Works is a tenacious little hatchback with 231bhp crammed into its stocky frame. I’ve been fortunate to test both the manual and automatic versions and both are very good indeed.
There’s very little to choose between them of course. On the surface they are identical, which is to say both of them are the vehicular equivalent of a ballet dancer in full body armour. There’s something childishly satisfying about a Mini in a body kit, it reminds me of the doodled cars that adorn the margins of many a schoolbook. The JCW is delightfully cartoonish, from certain angles it’s got a comically startled expression on its’ face and the central twin chrome tailpipes are straight out of a Disney film. But like the ballet dancer, beneath the costume is a solid and powerful body.
That power comes from the 2-litre engine designed for the latest Cooper S with a few modifications. The JCW has been upgraded with the addition of a clever little turbo-charger (it’s integrated into the exhaust manifold so gas doesn’t have to travel far to spin it up making turbo response quicker and more efficient), new fuel injectors, variable valve and variable camshaft control. The engine is bolted to a sports exhaust that further improves performance and, much more importantly it acts as a portal to the fires of Hades judging by the demonic howls emanating from the bowels of the exhaust. It’s not a surprise to discover that this is currently the most powerful Mini in production (for how long remains to seen with rumour of a 4-wheel drive, 300bhp version).
The Mini’s undersides have been on a course of steroids too. The Brembo brakes are designed with track driving in mind so they can easily handle anything a regular road trip cares to throw at them and the suspension has been upgraded to provide what Mini call “an even more thrilling ride”. It’s certainly thrilling but it also has a slight tendency to skittishness on uneven roads or under heavy braking. The Mini is perfectly stable under normal driving conditions but push hard and there are moments when the whole car has given a little skip or squirm, a gentle reminder that the limit is rapidly approaching. As a motoring writer I’m supposed to steer clear of cliches about Go-Karts but it’s difficult when someone deliberately designed a car to feel like one – especially when you select Sport mode on the optional variable suspension and you see the words “Go” and “Kart” displayed on the screen.
Having driven both versions of the JCW, my heart is saying the manual is the real drivers choice but my head (and a growing fondness for laziness) is telling me the auto is the one to go for. The 6-speed manual has a lovely short-shift and can hit 60mph in 6.3 seconds. There’s something visceral about chucking a Mini round corners at speed and the manual provides that traditional connection between car and driver. The Steptronic automatic is a tad quicker at 6.1 seconds, probably due to German engineering being more efficient than the left arm/left leg combo, and it also has the added advantage of convenience. When you’re not tearing around with a rampaging Ferret down your trousers the auto is definitely a much more relaxing drive. It will still take off like a startled Hare if you plant your right foot and if you want more input you can always resort to the shift paddles on the steering wheel.
There is a veritable plethora of Mini’s available to buy right now, some better than others. If you’re looking for a cheap little car to nip to the shops then the John Cooper Works would be a tad extravagant with prices starting from £23,000. If you’re just after a gentle little town car to potter around in then you need to be looking elsewhere. If what you really want is a comfortable, turbo-charged pocket rocket that barks at pedestrians and won’t back down in a fight, without ridiculously high running costs then may I suggest you take the Mini JCW for a test drive?