All you muscle car guys out there can go ahead and laugh because I must admit that I genuinely enjoyed driving the John Cooper Works Mini Cooper hardtop. After hounding this little turbocharged rocket ship from Utah to Vegas to Palm Springs, California during the last leg of this year’s “Mini Takes the States” road trip, I came away convinced that there’s more to it than just a small car that’s a joy to drive.
Here’s who should buy a 2016 Mini John Cooper Works
From a purist’s standpoint, in Sport Mode the hottest Mini feels more like an over-sized go-kart than another subcompact, which is why a small but growing cult of fans absolutely adore the John Cooper Works, named for the man who gave the world the iconic Cooper. Sporting two doors and a hatch, the nimble little BMW-engineered hot hatch is a 228-horsepower Energizer Bunny on wheels, and it just keeps going and going, with 236 pound-feet of torque pulling you along.
Equipped with a Getrag six-speed manual transmission, and outfitted with available big Brembo 4-piston brakes, the JCW hardtop is the unique compact for driving enthusiasts who love to push the envelope, but still need to keep it practical. While a convertible version launched in 2016, opting for a hardtop rewards drivers with a more rigid and precise cornering experience, and in Sport Mode, every aspect of the vehicle feels tightly drawn and hungry for action.
On the flip side, clicking the JCW over to Green Mode rewards drivers with reasonable 25/31 mile-per-gallon fuel economy; considering that this is the amped up version, that’s really not all that bad. Being nimble and slight of stature, JCW highway cruising is efficient and comfortable, and since the exhaust note is toned down considerably in Green Mode, the cabin feels like a comfortable, quiet place to be. Not bad for such a little beast.
Another big selling point for the JCW hardtop is the fact that Mini offers more customizable options than your average LEGO kit, giving buyers who want to stand out even further from the pack a chance to build the Mini of their dreams. There are logo embossed puddle lights, sensational interior leather packages, custom JCW badging, and every imaginable color and stripe combination you can think of. Hell, even without the 10 million combinations of add-ons, the standard JCW Mini will make you stand out, and you’ll be hard pressed to find another automaker out there that focuses on its customers like this. Besides, it’s hard to not love a car that says “Let’s motor hard!” when you flip it into sport mode.
Here’s who shouldn’t buy one
The JCW version of the Mini Cooper isn’t tailor-made for everyone, nor should it be. This is a sporty, surprisingly throaty little performance hatch (when you want it to be), and it doesn’t like apologizing for its actions or pretending to be anything other than what it is, especially when pushed to the limit.
What surprises a lot of people when they first climb into a Mini, is how spacious they are inside when compared to the vehicle’s compact footprint. Rear legroom can be cramped if the front two seats are occupied by larger individuals, but there’s plenty of headroom and elbowroom otherwise. Unfortunately, the rear cargo hold in a JCW hardtop is lacking, especially compared to rivals like the Volkswagen Golf GTI or the Ford Fiesta ST. So if roof-rack bubbles aren’t your thing and you need space for your 100-pound Rottweiler, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.
Another hang-up for some people could be price. While the JCW starts at just below $31,000, performance bolt-ons and other options can easily push the car above the $40,000 mark. If buyers are comparing the Mini to a well-optioned Volkswagen GTI S, some could write it off based on price alone, and with the competition at an all-time high in the hot hatch segment, they probably won’t end up regretting much. Fortunately, a lot of these upgrades are available a la carte, so buyers can pick and choose what they want in order to keep the piggy bank from breaking.
Also, if you are a person who values comfort above all else, you should probably steer clear of the JCW, because as well-appointed as they can be, its tight suspension and sharp shifts can be a bit much for drivers looking for a relaxed ride. If a softer suspension and shift-free transmissions are your thing, Mini offers its hardtop in plenty of relaxed, cushier variants. So one test drive in a JCW will quickly let you know that this hot hatch probably isn’t for you.
Having said that, after traveling from Utah to California in one of these JCW hardtops, I’m impressed with how easy they are to drive, and how road fatigue was almost non-existent the entire time. This car is an absolute blast to hit the open highway in, and its quirky design cues and unique upgrades make road trips all the more enjoyable. So while it may not be for everyone, this special version of the iconic Cooper is undeniably a ton of fun, and at the end of the day, isn’t that why people buy performance cars anyway?