Goodwood racetrack, England, and the latest Mini John Cooper Works - it's about as British a car launch as you could possibly conceive. Gloss over the fact that Mini is owned by Germany's BMW and what a jolly time we'll all be having chaps. If it wasn't for America that is, as Mini's U.K. Oxford plant was only able to ramp up production with one transmission in time for the launch event, and to placate the export markets that means the optional six-speed automatic.
Like mayonnaise on French fries and beers in cinemas, Europeans do things differently, and the U.K. is particularly partial to three pedals and a stick. More than 80 percent of British buyers will purchase this John Cooper Works Mini - a car the firm says is the most powerful production Mini to date - so equipped. American buyers will bias the six-speed automatic, which at least comes standard with paddles (those are optional on the standard Cooper S), giving you the ability to take control when the mood strikes.
It might just do that more often than not. Even stymied slightly by the six-speed auto (a torque convertor, rather than dual-clutch setup), the Mini John Cooper Works is still a hilariously entertaining drive. Thanks to a turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder engine that's seen its power boosted to 231 hp, achieved by the fitment of lighter pistons, ECU trickery, improved cooling, increased boost pressure from a revised TwinPower turbocharger, and reduced backpressure in the exhaust system. It all allows the John Cooper Works to scratch and claw to a Launch Control-assisted 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds and gives it 50- to 75-mph Fifth gear acceleration that betters a Porsche 911 Carrera S.
Yes, really. But then that 231 hp is backed up by 236 lb-ft of torque, which comes in at a usefully low 1,250 rpm and remains, delivering that peak output until 4,800 rpm. That makes for an engine of huge flexibility, which is as happy lugging at low revs as it is racing toward its redline.
Credit to the engineers here, too. Opt for manual mode on that six-speed automatic and it's exactly that. It'll bounce off the limiter endlessly until you pull the right paddle, and the only downshifts it'll do without your input are those to prevent it stalling. Though if you're going to drive it so, then do the right thing and save a few dollars and do it properly.
Mini's mission statement for the John Cooper Works with this third-generation model was fairly plain - to distance it further from the regular Cooper S version. Visually, that's achieved by some exterior changes that center around the front and rear bumpers, or more properly, how many apertures they now offer. The front is so holy, the John Cooper Works loses driving lights as there's no space for them. There's an additional cooler to the right-hand side, though on the other side there's a blanking plate to reduce drag.
Bonnet stripes cost $100, though you'd be disrespecting John Cooper's memory by not optioning them; he famously added white stripes to his formula cars to distinguish them from the other British race cars painted in the national color of green (Coopers dominated racing in a world pre-sponsorship). Options are the way with Minis, and despite the John Cooper Works being the range-topper, there's still plenty opportunity to add more; some of the cars we tested saw their price rise by almost $10,000 with extras added, pushing the John Cooper Works into Volkswagen Golf R territory.
That's very senior competition indeed, though the JCW's a rambunctious foil to the ruthlessly efficient Volkswagen. Minis are all playful, and this most powerful one retains that characteristic. The suspension has been heavily upgraded over the Cooper S, with revised axle kinematics, aluminum swivel bearings, new bushings, high strength axle supports, and control arms.
Optional variable damper control is a must-tick option; at $500, it brings a choice of settings, which even in its tautest, most focused setup is more supple than the standard passive damper choice. There are hollow antiroll bars, a hydraulically damped engine mount, and triple path support bearings that decouple the dampers from the body to improve handling while retaining a degree of comfort.
It all seems to work, too. On the optional 18-inch John Cooper Works alloys and less than racetrack smooth roads that surround the West Sussex Goodwood circuit, the Mini JCW delivers a ride that's impressive given the car's intent. The control is fine, with the front wheels tracking beautifully, even when asked to deal with the full gamut of the engine's output. A split driveshaft design and Mini's new Torque Steer Compensation system help here, giving the JCW formidable cross-country ability and agility.
The engine's seemingly neverending in its force, and despite its turbocharged nature, it's instantaneous in response, feeling more naturally aspirated than forced induction. It's entertainingly boisterous, too. Thank the JCW-specific exhaust, which reduces backpressure with revised internal plumbing in the back box and a wider diameter (but thinner walled—so as not to increase weight) rear link pipe helps with the aural enhancements, too.
The standard Pirelli tires give good grip, though the chassis' throttle adjustability does allow slip, even with the electronic aids still on in the background. The Brembo brakes - 19-inch rotors up front with four-pot calipers - offer mighty stopping power with decent pedal feel. It's all hugely entertaining, the JCW moving around underneath you predictably and benignly, there are no nasty surprises in its dynamic make-up.
All fantastically fun and safe, though a bit more feel from the steering would make a big difference; it's quick-witted and accurate, yet lacks in anything that you could really classify as useful information. A small complaint, along with that automatic transmission, which doesn't ruin the John Cooper Works, but it certainly doesn't allow it to reveal itself in its very best light. If you're buying this British car, then do yourself a favor, be a good chap and buy it with a stick.