At £21,000 you have to wonder whether Charlie Croker would bother splashing out on three John Cooper Works BMW MINIs were he to plan the Italian Job today. But to look at the price of the new top-of-the-range MINI rationally has now become rather pointless. This little hatchback seems to now sit in a category of its own, making you rethink the very meaning of value for money.
They sell like hot cakes though and it’s likely there will be a long line of buyers for this new 208bhp JCW. So what do you get for almost five grand over a standard Cooper S? Even more fun is the simple answer.
It is clear that the MINI chassis was capable of taking 45bhp more and the result is a seriously quick car. I’ve come to Donington for the launch in a standard Cooper S, which feels quick and darty, but the JCW makes it feel a little soft.
BMW has now got its hands on the John Cooper Works brand and openly admits that it wants those three letters to have the same meaning in MINI world as the letter ‘M’ does on the back of BMWs. The JCW has a modified air intake and breathes more easily than a Cooper S, giving you more immediate grunt.
The pistons have been strengthened, the cylinder head is larger and the valves have also been beefed-up. The turbocharger has been strengthened also with an increase in boost from 0.9 to 1.3bar. There is hardly any lag and once the turbo is spooled up there is noticeably more thrust than in the S.
With the windows down you notice the perfectly engineered ‘snap, crackle and pop’, as the MINI representatives put it. Top speed is now 148mph and 0-62mph is a claimed 6.5 seconds which, when you’re in a small car like this, feels fast enough.
The suspension is the same as the standard Cooper S – although a JCW sports suspension can be specced for an extra £140 - but the power rarely overwhelms it. You get the same quality steering feel as in the S which can be a touch heavy on motorways but is perfectly weighted for a cross-country blast.
The car stays flat in the bends and unless you enter one far too quickly the chassis is pretty much unflappable, with bags of grip and gentle understeer on the limit. The only downside perhaps is that the JCW loses the optional mechanical Limited Slip Differential in favour of a trick ‘electronic LSD’.
This replicates the mechanical version by braking a spinning front wheel but somehow just doesn’t feel as effective as the more simple but frankly excellent traditional LSD. MINI says that the mechanical version would have created too much torque steer, something that the JCW does still have in small doses. On bumpy B roads you’ll notice the wheel tugging from left to right as the camber changes.
There are also three settings to the traction/stability control system which we were able to try in the wet and the dry. The first setting has Dynamic Traction Control and Dynamic Stability Control, and the second is a slightly less nannying DTC-only. There’s no doubt that the systems would work well keeping someone who’s idea of having fun in their JCW is taking their friends for lunch on the King’s Road out of a ditch, but for the rest of us they are simply frustrating.
The car is so responsive and controllable that good throttle control and quick reactions are all you need to keep it on the black stuff, and it’s a lot more rewarding and no doubt quicker too. Often the system works simply by cutting the power so you are left coasting, foot flat to the floor, waiting for the turbocharged 1.6 to start working again.
Externally the JCW has been treated to exclusive 17” lightweight Challenge-style alloys and a unique bodykit. It looks good, if you like MINIs, and has a meaner look to the S. Inside it’s…well, it’s pretty much standard S. Even the seats are the same, with buckets being a costly option. It’s all good quality though and once you are on the move you spend more time looking through the odd upright screen than you do at the seat upholstery.
At £4,750 over the S you have to wonder whether what you are getting is enough. It’s a fantastic car to take for a thrash and has genuine giant-killing qualities but you’d have to be really, really into MINIs to spend Golf GTI Edition 30 money on one, which is bigger, has more power and more kit. But for some reason on its own the JCW seems worth it, and in a way such comparisons are frivolous. All I know is for this kind of money I’d definitely think twice about pushing one out of the back of a coach…