What it is: 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop, two-door compact luxury sports hatchback
Price Range: $30,600 and up, and up and up
Pros: Fun to toss around, comes standard in manual, really fun styling and design
Cons: Cost, overtly “fun” styling
Would I Buy it with My Own Money: I’d say a tentative yes, but only IF I was just going for styling with a little performance. If, say, I was strictly going for a hot hatch, I’d probably go with a more affordable option like the Fiesta ST, Golf R or Mazdaspeed 3.
When Mini made its return to the U.S. market back in 2001, the tiny cars were cute racing go-karts in the eyes of the American buyer — if they were remembered at all. The teensy cars with cartoonish colors and Union Jacks stood out in a world of big beige sedans. Nowadays the market has a lot of really good hot hatchbacks that run the gamut of cost, but the 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop comes in at the top of the range. The question is whether it's worth all that sterling
First a quick refresher on British racing history. John Cooper Works was started by the son of racing legend John Cooper—the man known for creating tiny, rear-wheel drive race cars that everyone from Sir Stirling Moss to Bruce McLaren ran in Formula 1. The tiny rear-engined cars won 16 Grands Prix and two back-to-back World Championships and earned the Cooper family a fast name in racing history. When John Cooper struck up a partnership with British Motor Company to soup up the uber-efficient Mini in the 1960s, the Mini Cooper was born.
Fast forward to 2000 when John’s son, Michael started a bolt-on tuner company in his father’s name—for an added cost you could get a few more horses and a few more lb-ft of torque as well as some special badging, all without voiding your warranty. In 2008, BMW bought John Cooper Works and started rolling out the performance versions of the colorful Mini, which it had acquired in its purchase of the Rover Group in 1994. The first and second iteration of the new BMW-owned Mini Cooper John Cooper Works editions left many a driver and rider with sore kidneys and a light wallet.
The third generation 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop we drove on roads in Connecticut and around semi-professional racer Alan Wilzig’s private track in New York, seems to have found a measure of balance, though it will still gladly strip you of greenbacks without a second glance.
This is the most powerful engine that BMW has fit into the tiny car —the JCW tuned four-banger is turbocharged and puts out 228 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. All this newfound power needed a new chassis, with bigger brakes; Mini also had to redesign the wheel arches and wheels to fit over the calipers. All of these tweaks makes the once miniature car much maxi-er. While an automatic six-speed transmission is available, Mini claims that the six-speed manual transmission outsells the automatic 13 to 1— and when you’re behind the wheel, you can see why.
The automatic is enjoyable and sedate in traffic, even if you are doing the flappy paddle dance. The row-your-own manual, however, is far more fun and offers a lot more of what most JCW Mini buyers want. Mini claims the six-speed steptronic automatic version can do 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds, while the manual gets you to highway speed two tenths of a second later.
At Wilzig’s racing manor, surrounded by a glut of specialized racing Bimota motorcycles, old Alfas and a brand new, bright green McLaren, we tested the 2015 JCW Mini Cooper on the manor’s private and technical track. Though Mini touts its racing history, and there are many photos floating around of Minis up on three wheels around a track, the car feels rolly and tippy– a lot like a crossover. It’s unsettled and nervous making—and certainly not something an average driver would be comfortable pushing to the limit.
On an autocross however, the 2015 JCW Mini shines, particularly in the manual version. The little (albeit not as little as it used to be) car is quick to respond and really fun to throw around tight corners. Push it a bit hard, and you get a wag of the tail that is easily brought back into line by the traction control. Sure, it’s a bit nosey in corners, and you feel the weight on the front axle on those tight turns, but the understeer is giggle-inducing at autocross speeds.
You don’t have to motor hard all the time, though. The 2015 JCW Mini can be driven in a number of modes and comfort levels. Toggle the large wheel at the base of the stick shift and you can push the car into Sport, Mid, and Green modes. In Sport mode the steering weights up and the throttle gets a touch more sensitive, while the exhaust note gets a titch louder in the cabin, and the jukebox-style center screen announces “Let’s Motor Hard” as the little Mini animation dreams of a go kart and rocket ship. In Mid mode, the steering is lighter and softer, and in Green mode the inputs become light and the throttle a bit laggy to make your motoring more eco-friendly. With the optional dynamic damping control (which we didn’t get to try) you can also control the ride in the new JCW Mini Hardtop. Like most BMWs nowadays, you’ll be sad to hear that synthesized engine sound is piped through the speakers—and even with the windows down it’s surprisingly sedate considering you’re motoring around in what is the most powerful Mini yet.
The interior is typical of Mini, but with a handful of JCW upgrades. A carbon fiber print across the dash and upgraded sport seats are amongst the most noticeable. The round center screen is your main portal for all settings, navigation, and entertainment, and in typical Mini fashion the design is fun and light-hearted. It looks a lot like a 1950s-era jukebox complete with color-changing rings; change the driving mode and the colors around the outside of the screen change. The round ring on the outside of the display acts as a tachometer and progresses as you rev the engine.
The goal of this particular Mini was to “replicate the experience of owning a high-end M for less,” and the pricing certainly reflects that. Want to get your Mini JCW in black? That will cost you. (Anything other than Pepper White, Chili Red or Volcanic Orange will cost you, too). How about an alarm system? That’s $500. Heated JCW Sport seats (the sport seats are included in the build when you choose the JCW line), that’s an additional $500. With all these add-ons, the Mini JCW rapidly approaches the $40,000 mark. The average transaction, according to Mini, is around $37,000.
The truth is that Mini buyers seem acclimated to option inflation. Mini spokesman Justin Berkowitz argued that technically the base cost of the new JCW Mini, at $30,600 (there is an $850 destination fee included) has increased by less than inflation, and has more features than the previous version, which started at $30,100.
All-in-all, the 2015 John Cooper Works Hardtop Mini is a lot of fun, but I’m still not sure I’d shell out close to $40,000 for one—even with its ever-more-distant British racing heritage.