PH Fleet long-termer proves, the six-speed Steptronic gearbox is actually pretty good!
Providing you snap the gear lever across to the left and take fingertip control via the plastic steering wheel-mounted paddles, it does your bidding promptly and efficiently, while simultaneously trimming acceleration times (0.2 seconds from 0-62), improving efficiency and adding convenience. Smooth and free of lag, it boasts all the gadgets - there's launch control and on downshifts you can hold the left paddle and the electronics will automatically give you the lowest gear possible. What's more, the burp from the exhaust on upshifts is particularly addictive.
An admirable case of transforming basic ingredients into a thoroughly palatable dish then, but for the purist, surely the manual remains the only real option? It's by no means a foregone conclusion, though. You see, the Mini has automatic rev matching, which anyone who has invested the time to learn how to do this with fancy footwork will probably find utterly contemptuous.
Let's park that for now, though, particularly as this will sound like gibberish to most of the JCW's target market. Instead, grip the part-leather, part aluminium ball-topped lever and you'll find it moves with a satisfyingly positive action. It's not an especially short throw, and it doesn't like being rushed, preferring instead to be navigated with a momentary pause at the cross gate. But then you don't actually need to constantly fidget between ratios, as there's just so much torque on tap, no matter where you are in the rev range. So while it doesn't especially enhance the experience as a Type R 'box does, in no way does it hinder it either
Crucially, you can still blip your own throttle too. Simply switch the auto setting off completely, by disabling the traction and stability control, or ignore it and carry on as though it wasn't there; the pedals are well-spaced and the computer won't suffer a meltdown trying to work out what's going on. Throttle and brake responses are a little over-eager for smooth progress at low speeds, but once you're on a good bit of road and pressing on, everything begins to click.
Which is exactly where the next, and perhaps the greatest, surprise presents itself. So far, our auto JCW long-termer has been slightly disappointing in this context, exhibiting remote steering, a vagueness on turn-in and a lack of outright mechanical grip. We'd pinned most of the blame for its lacklustre handling on the run flat tyres: particularly bad in Pirelli P7 Cinturato guise; good if not great when swapped to the alternative Dunlop Sport Maxx RTs.
But from the very sweeping high-speed bend in this manual it was obvious that this was a completely different beast altogether. And the more I drove it, the better it got. At last, a JCW that meets expectations - feeling alert, obedient and keen to change direction. That startling enthusiasm began to fade a little as it settled into the corner, but rather than remain obstinately mute, this Mini actually communicated its intentions along the steering column. And it responded so much more willingly to weight shifts too, whether from a sharp lift or a trailed brake. Speccing the manual gearbox saves 15kg, and it could well be this weight loss that helps unshackle the handling.
Although it shares identical wheels and tyres with our long-termer, this manual JCW doesn't ride on the same two-position Variable Damper Control suspension. Which, for all their best of both worlds promise, have barely been switched out of comfort since we took delivery. Think of the Sport mode more of a track day setting.
Mini says the alternative passive setup is stiffer again, but we found it surprisingly tolerable. Yes, it's firm, but there is decent compliance and the slightly more frenetic edge it brings seems to give the JCW a much-needed shot in the arm. Based on this experience, we'd happily deal with some extra rowdiness in return for the greater connection it brings.
All of which is great news, as saving £1,380 on the gearbox and £240 on the dampers buys you a much more rewarding JCW. One that's as agile and darty in the corners as it is quick in a straight line. Moreover, when a well-specced JCW can end up deep into Golf R territory, never mind equivalent on price to the Megane 275 Trophy, Civic Type R or the forthcoming Focus RS, every penny counts.
MINI COOPER JCW MANUAL
Engine: 1,998cc four-cylinder turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive (6-speed auto, front-wheel drive)
Power (hp): 232@5,200rpm
Torque (lb ft): 236@1,250rpm
0-62mph: 6.3sec (6.1sec)
Top speed: 152mph
MPG: 42.2 (NEDC combined, auto 49.6mpg)
CO2: 155g/km (133g/km)
Price: £23,050 (£29,220 as tested comprising Media Pack XL £1,400; Chili Pack £2,470; black bonnet stripes £80; sun protection glass £220; folding/auto dimming mirrors £335; heated front seats £215; Mini Yours Fibre Alloy interior £210; Adaptive LED Headlights £60; Harman Kardon hi-fi system £590; Intelligent Emergency Calling/E-call £140; Mini Head-up Display £450)
Figures in brackets for automatic, where different