First Drive: Carving Canyons in a Mini John Cooper Works
Fired up like Paul Bunyan at an all-you-can-hack Christmas tree chopping competition, I approached the John Copper Works Mini hardtop with a noticeable spring in my step. My co-pilot for the trip, Harvey Briggs, has informed me that he’s chosen this particular chariot for our documentation of the final leg of Mini Takes the States 2016, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with his selection.
For those of you who are unaware, anything Mini-related sporting a John Cooper Works (JCW) badge is typically a solid little ass-kicker. Being that this one isn’t a cloth top, chassis flex is reduced even further, making it a solid option for when canyon corners come a calling. We’re soon underway, performance exhaust snarling in our ears, as we made our way out of Utah and down into Las Vegas, before heading onward to sunny Palm Springs, California.
Our journey would lead us through lush mountain valleys, teaming with entire ecosystems that were supported solely by the bubbling streams and languid lakes found resting atop sky-high peaks. From there we voyaged southward, down into 115-degree deserts and the most inhospitable southwestern terrain imaginable.
So get ready to rally, because in true Mini fashion we took the wild west without issue, and I can now see why Mini Takes the States has grown so popular. Here are a few reasons why I think the JCW hardtop should grow in popularity as well.
To say that this is a high-strung, rambunctious BMW stepchild would be an understatement. This is a car that’s designed to hug corners and convert nonbelievers, and even though its boosted 2.0-liter powerplant only puts down 228 horsepower, the way in which it hits you is all BMW in nature, so acceleration is immediate. Fully attached to a JCW close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox, it offers respectable gains when cruising on the interstate in Green Mode and balanced driving dynamics while in normal settings. But performance mode was easily our favorite choice, and the exhaust notes alone made it a worthy driving option.
Other areas of the JCW Mini that caught my fancy were the fantastic four-pot piston brakes, which looked ludicrously proportioned on the little turbo hardtop, but were far more balanced than we could have ever hoped for. This precision was only overshadowed by the hardtop’s tight handling characteristics, which are turned up to 7.5/10 in regard to stiffness versus ride comfort and quiet when compared to a stock Mini Cooper. All together the driving characteristics of this car equaled out to about what you would expect to find in a tuned Stage 1 build, and while Briggs and I both would have loved to see about another 50 foot-pounds of torque and horsepower hitting the highway, we didn’t find ourselves lamenting a moment.
Noticeably, you never seem to get bored behind the wheel of this car. If looking over the fun and funky interior ever loses its luster, you can always dive into the expansive infotainment touchscreen, which takes a little getting used to, but once mastered unleashes endless customizable options for you and your little British beastie. Even the cabin lights feature a wide range of colors that one can toggle their way through in order to suit a particular mood. And speaking of moods, let’s not forget Mini’s iconic, and almost alien-like “Mood Ring,” which encircles the touchscreen and changes its LED glow in response to engine speed, driving mode, audio volume, climate control, and interior lighting.
But perhaps the best part about the cabin of this car is how well put together everything is, and the way in which Mini has taken a miniature automobile and optimized its interior in order to fit full-size Americans. I’m six-foot flat, and Briggs is easily 6’2″, and with seats not even fully recessed, we were able to cruise in comfort over the course of our 700-mile trek to parched Palm Springs, California. Almost the entire cabin of this car is BMW-grade, as everything from the Harman Kardon audio system and the outstanding surfboard sport pedals to the generously stitched leather steering wheel and the rows of toggle switches feel premium grade. They may look like toy from the outside, but climb inside and you will find that the modern Mini is 100% primo grade.
After spending close to a dozen hours in our JCW hardtop, Briggs and I came to a few conclusions. For one, the little turbocharged 2.0-liter in it can be very thirsty if you don’t watch out, so if MPG gains are your goal, avoid Sport mode. Secondly, shifting between the trio of drive settings offers noticeable results almost instantaneously, so don’t assume that you can safely attempt a speedy tractor trailer overtake when in Eco mode. Finally, we deduced that even with all of its capability, it’s impossible to look tough in one of these.
Cons to the JCW Mini hardtop were few and far between, and even though there were some nagging issues that popped up along the way, they turned out to be more of annoyances than anything else. Take the manual gear selector in this car for instance: It sits a hair too high and is non-adjustable, the shift knob doesn’t have a whole lot of heft to it, and since the cupholders live right in front of it, you mash your right hand into your water bottle every time 3rd or 5th gear come calling. Upshifting and downshifting into 2nd could also be a bit of temperamental experience at times, as the gear selector never truly felt at home in said position, as we both occasionally found ourselves wrestling it into gear after it didn’t want to engage.
We also encountered a few qualms with the front seats in the car, which had ample adjustable thigh support, but padding and seat angles that did not always want to favor long hours of windshield time. Nevertheless, these seats were by no means intolerable either, and even with all that bolstering we were able to slide in and out without issue. There is also the fact that JCW Minis only run properly on 93 octane, and that maintenance costs could be relatively high compared to, say, something like a Civic Si.
But perhaps the biggest issue we ran into with the JCW Mini hardtop was its price. While the two-door version may start out at just a hair under $31,000, once you outfit it with a few of the features and packages pictured here, you’re left treading water around the $40,000 mark. For that much money you could easily get a more powerful, all-wheel drive Volkswagen Golf R, and have plenty of money left over.
But as our recent review of the Golf R illustrates, some cars can be a little too grown up. The John Cooper Works hardtop on the other hand is still a cheeky little miscreant, as all of its quirky styling, nifty interior packages, and performance upgrades help make it the more enjoyable vehicle. Of all the adventures we had on Mini Takes The States this year, it was our trusty JCW Mini hardtop that was the biggest blast. And isn’t that what motoring fun is all about?
Through it all our little JCW Mini kept going, and not once did we find ourselves feeling overly cramped within its confines or fighting with some kind of unforgivable engineering qualm. It was damn close to being the ultimate machine for a road trip of this nature, and after god knows how many hours behind the wheel of one, I can see why Mini Takes the States continues to grow in popularity.