With its cutie-pie looks, it’s quite hard to take the Mini Cooper S seriously as a hardcore performance machine, even in “S” form. But appearances can be deceptive. Just a few kilometres down a challenging road in a JCW version will leave its driver with little doubt that this is a serious challenger for the ultimate hot hatch crown.
MINI Cooper S JCW gives extra gruntThis is a car that is very much dominated by its engine, and yet the basics sound familiar. Using the BMW/PSA co-developed turbocharged 1.6-litre four as a base, Mini’s engineers have extracted a further 27 kW and 20 Nm of torque by upping the boost (to 1,3 bar) and making a number of revisions to the crank- and camshafts, inlet cam timing, through-flow exhaust and twin-scroll turbocharger, among other smaller modifications.
In total, power now stands at 155 kW and torque at 260 Nm. Now keep in mind that the Mini only weighs around 1.2 tonnes, so the power/weight ratio is impressive. What is very memorable about this engine is the very strong and quick way in which the boost “comes on” as well as a rorty exhaust sound, which is massively addictive.
The engine is mated with a six-speed manual transmission with shifts executed via a slightly oversized and awkwardly shaped gearknob. The shift action can be a trifle hesitant at times, suggesting that it doesn’t like to be rushed through the gates. This is not an entirely accurate impression, though, as it feels robust and well up to withstanding repeated hard use.
There is a “sport” button to sharpen the already live-wire throttle even more, which seems almost superfluous to requirements. A very likeable trait of the MINI Cooper S JCW is its responsiveness to throttle input – there always seems to be more power on tap, and overtaking acceleration is particularly impressive.
Fitted with large 17-inch wheels shod with 205/45 rubber, the Mini Cooper S certainly has plenty of grip. Launching the car for an acceleration run is therefore quite tricky, with the Mini either bogging down, or breaking traction too much. Familiarity will breed success in robot-to-robot dices, but before then, be aware that the car’s claimed acceleration time (6.5 seconds) may prove difficult to match.
Precision toolThe Mini Cooper S already has a firmly established reputation for being an engaging driving machine with fine dynamics. It is clear that the basics are good, because this MINI Cooper S JCW version certainly never creates the impression that the car’s dynamic envelope is being pushed.
In fact, it feels like it could handle even more power. Those 17-inch wheels really fill the wheelarches snugly, and the ground clearance is very limited, yet the ride is not unforgivably hard – firm, yes, but not harsh. The upshot is excellent body control, superb turn-in and great stability. Be too aggressive on the throttle, and you can induce some torque steer, but it’s easily controlled, and the steering is one of the best with electric assistance, boasting lovely accuracy and even a measure of authentic feel.
There’s also an electronic diff-lock keeping a watchful eye, but even so it is clear that the Mini Cooper S prefers smoother surfaces, as it can struggle to put its power down when the road surface deteriorates. In its preferred environment, however, it is simply sublime, with that crackling exhaust note adding to the sense of occasion. And with discs all-round (measuring 320 mm in front), the JCW scrubs of speed with no fuss and they appear resistant to fade during prolonged hard use, so play time can be prolonged.
Racy looksWith so many personalisation options offered for the Mini range, it is not that easy to spot this JCW version, but there are some subtle hints. Besides the wheels, look out for a John Cooper Works badge at the rear, a naughty little spoiler on the tailgate and two large-diameter exhaust pipes.
The treatment is similarly subtle inside, but remember that you can basically personalise a JCW to your heart’s content. What is important to note is that this is no stripped-out performance special and that the features count remains high – included are; six airbags, a sound system with auxiliary support, cruise control and climate control in addition to the regular items. The driving position remains excellent, as is the case with all Minis. The seat features (manual) height adjustment and the steering wheel boasts generous rake/reach adjustment.
Of course, the overall design of the interior remains a love/hate affair, with as many likely to be put off by the oversized and centrally mounted speedo as there are those who wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s no argument about the quality, though… the Mini Cooper S JCW is a very well-built little car.
VerdictExpensive at bang-on R300k, the MINI Cooper S JCW is however a front-runner for best-in-class honours. Often performance editions are unbalanced because they stretch the underpinnings of the basic design too far, but this is not the case here. The Mini Cooper S JCW feels as if it was part of the development process from the start, and is a massively entertaining (addictive, even) hot hatch that also boasts bags of charm.
We don’t like:
Throttle could be a tad more relaxed for daily use
Essentially a two-seater
Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, turbopetrol
Power: 155 kW @ 6 000 rpm
Torque: 260 Nm @ 1 850 rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual
Wheels: 17-inch alloy
Top speed: 238 km/h
0-100 km/h: 6.5 seconds
Fuel economy: 6.9 litres/100 km
Bigger, of course, but also packs more power so performance is similar. Arguably the most entertaining hot hatch out there right now, but it’s not exactly subtle.
A quasi-coupe with a quasi-premium badge... An almost-there product, with good looks, a characterful, powerful engine, but it ultimately lacks the dynamic finesse and sharpness of the Renault, VW and Mini.
Not quite as hot as the others here, but the Golf is such a polished product and also cheaper. Beautifully balanced in terms power and suspension set-up, it’s a real keeper of a car.