Mini John Cooper Works 2015 first drive

The new MINI John Cooper Works is an absolute boon. If you can justify the cost, the most focused MINI ever could be a hoot to drive every day.

Andrew Brady | May 2015

Put aside any preconceived ideas you may have about MINIs being cutesy and adorable. This is a MINI that’s been tweaked by MINI’s John Cooper Works division, to produce 231hp from its 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged engine.

That makes the third-generation MINI JCW the most powerful production MINI ever. It boasts a mighty 39hp more than the regular Cooper S (no slouch itself), and 20hp more than its predecessor.

It’s not just power that it’s gained. The MINI JCW looks the part too – front fog lights have been dropped in favour of extra cooling, while the honeycomb grille and red ‘move over’ blade suggests this is hotter than your regular Cooper S.

What’s the MINI John Cooper Works like to drive?

Mini John Cooper Works 2015 first drive

MINI has successfully given one of the best-handling superminis more power and made it even more of a riot to drive.

This is a car that pops when you lift off, a car that farts when it changes up a gear (we tried it in six-speed Steptronic auto form – manual versions will follow later in the year). Despite totally 21st century power figures, this is an utterly old-school hot hatch, in the way it snubs practicality in favour of a car that’s a genuine giggle to drive.

With its launch control system, the automatic MINI JCW will hit 62mph in 6.1 seconds. Despite putting the entirety of its power through its front wheels, the grip it has is impressive, with only a hint of old-school torque steer.

This is helped by an electronic torque vectoring system which shuns a mechanical limited slip diff in favour of using the brakes to control power between the front wheels. Press hard on the loud pedal mid-corner and you’ll see how well this system works, the JCW finding more grip rather than running wide in a traditional front-wheel-drive manner.

While many snub the thoughts of auto hot hatches, the MINI’s six-speed ‘box has been tweaked so it can be driven like a proper manual. By that, we don’t mean a clutch pedal emerges the second you slide the lever into manual mode, but the paddles give you total control. Unlike most, it’ll hold onto the gear you’ve requested until you tell it to change up, even it means bouncing off the rev limiter.

Put aside any thoughts of turbocharged engines being a compromise, too – with peak torque available as low as 1,250 revs, the lag is all but unnoticeable. MINI is proud that it’ll accelerate from 50-75mph in 5.6 seconds – faster than a Porsche 911 Carrera S, making it ideal for overtaking.

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Usually taking a road car such as this on track soon reveals its inadequacies as it starts to feel out of its depth, but the MINI JCW is utterly focused and capable of putting on a good show at your local track day, if you so wish.

We attempted a slalom course on Goodwood’s test track, and it puts into context just how well the MINI JCW handles. Its nose tucks in at speeds much faster than you’d expect from a front-wheel drive hatch, while the rear-end proves to be pleasingly mobile.

This translates into a road car that exudes confidence in the bends – the harder you push it, the happier the JCW seems, helped by positively-heavy steering giving a good level of feedback (although, as is often the case, we’d like just that little bit more).

The brakes also encourage you to make progress – 330mm Brembo discs on the front make light work of stopping the 1,205kg hatch.

It rides well, too – firm, perhaps, but far from uncomfortable, even with the optional 18-inch alloys of our test car. The £240 adaptive dampers (also fitted) perhaps helped here – normal mode is a decent compromise for bumpy B-roads, while putting them in sport stiffens them up for track.

Can the MINI JCW do the sensible stuff?

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The MINI JCW is remarkably good to drive then, even on track, without being too firm or focussed for everyday road use.

But you don’t just get a brilliant driving experience for your money. The interior is premium, yet interesting, in an utterly MINI way (pay attention, Audi). This is true across the board where MINIs are concerned – they all feel special, and ooze quality. But this top-speccer has a number of special JCW to see where your money’s gone.

The seats are trimmed in Dinamica (like Alcantara but not Alcantara), as MINI decided leather seats would be too slippery. There’s a smattering of JCW logos around the cabin to remind you that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill MINI, but if you want luxuries such as sat nav or a reversing camera, you’ll have to pay extra for it.

Practicality isn’t its strong point, either – kids might be happy in the back seats for long journeys, but we suspect it wouldn’t be long before they started complaining of travel sickness. The boot isn’t huge, and access isn’t the easiest. But that’s not what this car’s about.

Verdict: MINI John Cooper Works (2015)

Mini John Cooper Works 2015 first drive

We touched at money, now let’s get down to figures. The MINI JCW will set you back £23,050 with the manual gearbox, or £24,380 with the six-speed auto.

That’s a lot for a MINI. And by the time you start to add options, you could easily spec one up to over £30,000.

But, it’s quite simply class-leading. Its nearest competitor is the Audi S1, which starts at £26,155. For the extra couple of grand you get four-wheel drive, but the S1 just isn’t as playful as the MINI.

The JCW isn’t as practical as those a size-up, such as the Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen Golf GTI, but it aces them in terms of performance. It’s also cheaper and arguably more playful.

If you’re justifying on spending such a serious amount of money on a MINI, have a look in the classifieds and see what used examples of the previous model are going for. Thanks to its iconic image, its residual values are rock solid.

You’ll either ‘get’ this hot MINI, or not. But we totally get it, and love how it manages to combine new technology with a desirable image, premium interior with an old-school hot hatch feel. Our only regret is not being able to drive one with a manual gearbox – most buyers will choose one over the auto, and we reckon it’ll be the icing on the JCW cake.

Rivals: MINI John Cooper Works (2015)

  • Audi S1
  • Ford Fiesta ST
  • Nissan Juke R
  • Vauxhall Corsa VXR
  • Volkswagen Golf GTI

The Audi S1 is the MINI JCW’s closest competitor, although it’s four-wheel drive and just not as fun. The Ford Fiesta ST is cheaper, has the fun factor by the bucketload, but not as premium. As a crossover the Nissan Juke R isn’t there dynamically, but it’s an interesting alternative. Like the Fiesta the Vauxhall Corsa VXR isn’t as premium and lacks the performance to really compete. The Volkswagen Golf GTI is bigger and more grown up, but would be more practical for families.

Specification: MINI John Cooper Works (2015)

Engine turbocharged, four-cylinder 2.0-litre

Gearbox Six-speed manual, six-speed Steptronic automatic

Price from £23,050

Power 231hp

Torque 236lb/ft

0-62mph 6.1-6.3 seconds

Top speed 153mph

MPG 42.2-49.6mpg

CO2 133-155g/km