Mini John Cooper Works Manual: Driven

That the new John Cooper Works, Mini's hottest yet, arrived chilled by the cold flannel of an automatic gearbox at its launch was something of a puzzle. Apparently fitted to pander to our clutch-phobic cousins across the pond, the manual version that everyone was itching to get their hands on was conspicuous by its absence.

Still no looker, sadly
Still no looker, sadly
Worse, this was an unfashionable torque converter auto, not even a snappy dual-clutch. A surprising choice in this day and age, doubly so when launching as a hardcore hot hatch in a notoriously fussy and fickle market. The biggest shock though? As life with our 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.

Tasty garnish
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.

Ah yes, this is what we're after
Ah yes, this is what we're after
Gripping narrative
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.

Now a car you will want to get inside!
Now a car you will want to get inside!
Passive and more aggressive
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.

: 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

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (44) Join the discussion on the forum

  • GregK2 19 Oct 2015

    Hooray for manual gearboxes driving

  • samoht 19 Oct 2015

    Danny Milner said:
    this Mini ... 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.
    I have another theory. With a torque converter, when you lift off, you don't generally get engine braking; rather the converter allows the engine to go back to idle without much connection to the wheels. With a manual, the engine and wheels are still solidly connected, so you get the immediate effect of engine braking. I reckon it's this engine braking that's making the car tuck in nicely, rather than 15kg here or there (if you put your weekly supermarket shop in the passenger footwell that would have the same effect, right?)

  • Baryonyx 19 Oct 2015

    Torque converter auto in a hot hatch? What the hell were they thinking?

  • Ozzie Osmond 19 Oct 2015

    £30,000 Mini?

    No thanks

  • delta0 19 Oct 2015

    Baryonyx said:
    Torque converter auto in a hot hatch? What the hell were they thinking?
    I think it has both a torque converter and a standard clutch that locks in place. Improves power output and responsiveness of the engine like a manual.

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