It seems fitting that Mini chose to reveal its new John Cooper Works Hardtop around the Yale University campus. This car is peppy, cute, fun and absolutely coming to a Tri-Delt parking lot near you. Yes, even in crazied-up, track ready John Cooper Works form.
(Full disclosure: Mini needed us to drive the new 2015 John Cooper Works Hardtop so much that they recently released a manual version, and then flew me out to Connecticut to drive a bunch of the cars in various trim levels. They paid for lodging, flights and food, and let us loose on a race track. No one even crashed it this time. Hooray!)
The John Cooper Works brand is kind of like Mini’s version of big brother BMW’s M: hotted up, powered up cars for enthusiasts. At 228 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, the new JCW is not only the most powerful Mini you can buy right now, it’s the fastest and most powerful Mini, ever. Just expect to pay out the nose for a well-equipped one. (More on that later.)
And so Mini positioned this car as their track-oriented trim level, but I’m not so sure it really fits there, particularly in manual trim. The John Cooper Works Hardtop has one of the most confidence-inspiring manual transmissions I’ve ever driven, but for all the same reasons why I wouldn’t want that particular gearbox for my trackmobile.
It rev-matches for you, and that doesn’t go away unless you turn off DSC. There’s hill-start assist that keeps it from rolling backwards into some unsuspecting dingleberry who stopped too close to your rear bumper. It starts right back up if you accidentally stall it. The pedals all seemed very vague—especially the clutch and the brakes.
This isn’t really a manual suited for the track, where we’re all sitting around asking if de-powered or fully manual steering racks are better, comparing arm muscles and grunting approval when someone rolls in with a vintage 911. Rather, it makes for the perfect learner car for the family with a little bit of money who wants to unleash their kid in something fun to drive that’s nice, safe and comes with a warranty.
Parents of the world: this is your jam.
I’d still toss little Madison or Parker into a vintage car at some point so they know what clutches are supposed to feel like, but you can unleash them into the big, scary world in a Mini without any fear that they’re going to give you an embarrassing phone call that they can’t get started on a steep hill.
I’m not sure this is the impression Mini wanted to leave us all with, but let’s be honest: it’s the one they’re probably going to get. They’re in good company, given that the Miata and the Mustang are just at home in the Collins Hall parking lot.
Many of our launch activities were centered around performance-centric driving, with an autocross, a few laps of the Alan Wilzig Racing Manor and a visit to watch a Mini race in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge. Yes, you can track this car and have a blast doing it. It’s capable and fun!
Given that it’s cute, sporty, and the manual is more tuned for city use than track bombing, though, here’s why (provided you’re willing to spend this much on a small car) you shouldn’t think twice if your kid is pointing longingly at Mini’s newest little hoonmobile—and why you probably should drive one yourself.
Thankfully, the Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop actually still seems mini. You’ll notice that it’s bigger than its predecessors, but on its own, it’s a pretty small car — it’s still smaller than a Fiesta, for example. Save the “ha ha, it’s a MAXI now” jokes for more worthy targets like the bulbous Countryman. Given all the regulatory brouhaha about making cars that can take big hits and slam into pedestrians without causing too much damage, the Mini JCW did alright for itself.
There are some additional bulges and flares on the John Cooper Works Hardtop, including a hilariously non-functional hood scoop and a more functional rear spoiler, but you still look at it and know it’s a Mini. You won’t mistake this one for a Fiat 500L with your glasses off. It’s small and adorable, even in its Autozone-inspired performance trim.
Thing is, none of the extra scoops or wings detract too much from the iconic look of the Mini. They’re also very rounded-off and cute, and added in a way that looks cartoonishly attractive and integrated into the overall design of the car.
Bonus: there are a ton of new JCW-specific colors, stripes and two-tone paint jobs that you can get for this car. The really, really dark “Rebel Green” looks so cool in person that photos don’t do it much justice. The entire model line seems very customizable in a fun way, like what Scion should have been had it not been roped to the baggage of the late 2000s (and/or the elderly).
Because it’s a Mini, the inside is also small, but functionally laid out unless you really need a backseat. You can plausibly fit four adults in here, provided everyone is fairly short. If even one person needs any extra leg room, though, you’re hosed. The front seats will back all the way up to the rear seats, making it more of a parcel shelf if you’ve got two tall people up front.
All the seats are nicely bolstered, even in the back. This meant that there wasn’t any space for the usual middle seat in the back, which is probably for the best. Regardless, the John Cooper Works sports seats (included as standard with these cars) were fantastic and supportive in the corners, and just plush enough to be comfortable. Leave those two other people at home, and go have a ball.
The ultra-plush fully-optioned car I drove had leather and dinamica seats, with the latter being a fuzzy alcantara-like material. Cloth was also an option, with a neat asymmerical stripe pattern that fit the car. Both seats were stupidly comfortable.
Best of all, the tachometer and speedometer (now both located in front of you instead of in the middle of the car) move with the wheel, keeping them easily in view however it’s adjusted.
There are a lot of little bins and cubbyholes to help maximize the space inside, and everything feels pretty solid and BMW-like. You get two glove boxes, for Pete’s sake. The dash plastic is soft to the touch, and everything feels pretty well-made and solid, with the only oddly flimsy feeling parts being the harder plastic top glove box that was made of shiny plastic trim material and the weirdo half-moon-shaped doorhandles that pop out on a thin rod. Don’t rip your door handles off in a feat of strength and you’ll be fine, I guess.
Ze Germans have done well inside the car, even if it is reflected in the car’s price.
The John Cooper Works-specific steering wheel is a great, meaty one with thick little rests for your thumbs to sit when your hands are in the 9 and 3 position as well as all the buttons you’d need, particularly for thumbing through radio stations or your own downloaded compilation of GWAR’s greatest hits.
I do have to call out the turn stalks, which in typical BMW and Mini fashion these days don’t stay down when you click them but rather pop back to center while the signals are blinking. I’m told it’s something you get used to but I found it infuriating.
All the menus for the car’s various functions are in a familiar-looking knob-and-button combo in the center console. I’m as techno-illiterate as it gets (the newest car I have is a Lancer with minimal “comfort” options) and found it all to be relatively straightforward. Functions you really need to find for driving like “traction control off” and “start/stop off” are thankfully in toggle switches below the aircon knobs.
Other options like satellite radio ($300), a rear-view camera ($500), rear park distance control ($500), keyless entry ($250), a panoramic moonroof ($1,000), and heated front seats ($500) are love-’em-or-hate-’em items that you can add or leave off.
To be honest, the car didn’t feel big and unwieldy enough to really need a rear-view camera and parking aids to me, and most of the time, I forgot the test cars even had those. It’s a Mini. It is small. I didn’t feel like the back-up aids were worth the extra $1,000. If you can’t figure out how to park a Mini, how are you allowed to drive?
One option I couldn’t decide if I loved or I hated was the heads-up display ($500). In sport display mode, you could have the tachometer information right there in front of your face, making it easier to read. Radio information would also pop up there when you flipped through stations or songs, saving you the look-down to the information unit in front of the wheel. Problem? If you had polarized sunglasses on, none of it was readable. I spent most of the time with it flipped-down and off.
Speaking of the tach, Mini really loved translating that everywhere. You could put it in the heads-up display. By default, the lighting around the center nav unit went up and down with the car’s revs. D’awwww.
Finally, I just couldn’t fit in the trunk with the luggage shelf in the way. I fit in Cayman frunks, for Pete’s sake, but I could not wad myself into this one. It’s a good thing the rear seats are best used as a parcel shelf, then.
It’s a good thing that Minis are for driving and not for feats of contortionism, then, because they’re a butt-ton of fun and genuinely easy to drive. A 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder produces 228 hp and 236 ft-lbs. of torque. It pulls everywhere in every gear, just like a good BMW should. Sure, it’s a turbo, but the turbo comes on smoothly.
The Mini comes with three driving modes: Sport, Mid and Eco. It’s pretty self-explanatory what they’re all for, and they all bring up twee screens in the center display that proclaim phrases like “Let’s Motor!” or “Let’s Motor Hard!” when you swap modes using the selector by the shift knob.
Eco softens up the throttle response and keeps everything to a quiet, city-friendly purr. Sport is for bombing backroads, track days and autocrosses as loudly as possible. It sharpens up the response on the throttle and the steering, and everything gets louder. There’s a rowdy burble and pop off-throttle in Sport mode that makes the exhaust sound like demon farts and greatness.
There’s even an optional sport exhaust with a loud button that opens up the exhaust for more burbles, pops and obnoxiousness out of a teeny-tiny Mini. That. That. That is an option worth having.
I don’t care if it’s marketed as track use only, it’d be home use and office use and everywhere use. Shoot, I think I’d let the Coffee Bean drive-thru know I’m there with the loud button, just because I could.
Handling is as good as you’d expect a peppy short-wheelbase car to be. It’s clearly not a car that belongs in H Street Class for autocross (ahem). It tends to understeer upon ham-fisting it into a corner, but that’s most new cars, anyway, and probably solvable with a fat rear swaybar that will inevitably become available for Cars That Don’t Belong In H Street Class.
It has a relatively soft but capable suspension, which was great in Connecticut, where the roads look like they came out of a war zone. You can feel the weight transfer from side to side, and even during our autocross run, it didn’t seem floppy or unwieldy when it did so. It’s a tiny car. There’s not much to flop.
The test cars came fitted with the Dynamic Damper Control option ($500), which was supposed to adapt the car between softer and harder settings. Even in Sport mode, the car wasn’t too harsh.
It comes by default with 17” wheels, although most of our test cars came with 18” ones. There’s no room for a spare, so it comes with run-flats. You have to manually tick a box saying that you understand the risk of being stranded if you opt out of the run-flats, but that’s an option that’s available if you like better grip and live near civilization. Who am I kidding, though? Get the 17” wheels, sell or store the all-seasons that come with them, put on sticky summer tires and go to the track already. Run-flat grip problem solved.
It’s a high-powered front-wheel-drive car, therefore, there’s a little torque steer. Thankfully, there isn’t much, and it really only felt like it got out of shape when the car hit a bump or when you floored it like a total moron. Even then, it was predictable and easy to put back in line.
The steering was light and did the job, shining in city situations and tight maneuvers. Feedback was just okay—it doesn’t scream at you like an old-school manual rack or even my Mitsubishi’s heavier powered unit, but it’s a good, light modern power steering rack. Use a light grip as you should be using (as opposed to a finger-numbing death grip) and it’s fine.
My biggest driving complaint is that the pedals feel so muted. The brakes were huge Brembos that were great! They’re so big that the CTSCC race team has to downgrade their brakes to a smaller unit to run the Mini there. The Mini just didn’t translate much of that stopping power into the pedal itself. I could feel the car stopping, but the actual bite point of the brakes themselves didn’t seem to translate much through the pedal. The physical act of slowing down, not pedal feel, gave away that the brakes were working.
Best of all, though, traction control can come all the way off. There’s a sporty driving mode that’s halfway off, but holding down the toggle switch can nuke it from orbit entirely. It’s a decent traction control system—never once interfering at any point as far as I could tell—but on principle on a performance car, “off” needs to be “off.”
When I got in to drive the new manual Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop, one of the first things I said about it was “I hate this clutch.” Much of it was what I’m used to: heavier pedals that’ll put a Big Ass Ham for a calf muscle on ya. Higher engagement points that I don’t have to depress all the way to the ground to change gears. Mechanical everything with no computer meddling with any of it.
This Mini is the exact opposite. There’s so much help when it comes to basic clutch driving skills—automatic restarts on stalls, hill start assist, and rev-matching on gear changes—that it’s the perfect tool for a new stick driver. You can still know when you screw up, but it won’t punish you for it, and you won’t walk away feeling as if manual driving is a feat you’ll never master.
The throw on the shifter is decently short and has a nice notchy feel to it. Finding reverse is an angled back and over affair, making it tough to accidentally catch when the car is in motion. They’ve prioritized making this car easy to drive over engaging on track, and you know what? There are people who need that.
On track? Get out the pitchforks and torches, because I agree with Mini’s own performance driving school: the automatic is the one you want. Representatives from the Mini Motoring School were at the launch event and they claim that they’ve recently gone to an entirely-slushbox fleet with the latest John Cooper Works release.
Sure, my inner cynic thinks they were probably tired of replacing clutches and money-shifted fleet cars, but the reality is that the automatic fit the performance pretensions of this car better.
IndyCar’s Pippa Mann was one of the representatives from the Mini Motoring School on hand, and she pointed out that Mini is one of the few companies that has gotten the +/- paddles and knob right. You know, down for up, up for down, like it’s supposed to be.
The automatic accelerates faster than the manual to 60 mph (5.9 seconds as opposed to 6.1). Unlike early gimmicky +/- torque converters, this one actually did a decent job of holding in one gear. Shifts were smooth and while not instantaneous, they were fairly quick and involved zero cursing at the low bite point of the clutch.
Yes, this is probably part of “the problem” to manual enthusiasts. If we don’t buy manuals, manufacturers don’t see the point in making them. Mini added a manual to the John Cooper Works Hardtop after its launch to meet the demand of its own twisty-road-bombing, autocross-nut customer base, who buys the manual JCW over the automatic at a rate of 3 to 1.
Still, when the manual is geared towards manual newbies and not existing manual fanboiz, perhaps it’s not so bad to get the slushbox?
Should You Really Buy One?
At this point, a Mini is no longer a cheap city car. It’s a baby Bimmer with the drive wheels at the wrong end. No amount of British flags and retro foo-fah can cover up the distinctly well-made feel of a car that has anything less to do with British Leyland than, say, functional electronics. It’s very German, and it’s priced accordingly — starting at a $30,600 MSRP.
The two cars I spent the most time driving retailed for $37,000 and $41,800.
Sure, that includes several options you could easily leave off (back-up aids, dynamic damper control if you’re going to add fancy coilovers anyway, 18” wheels when the standard 17”-ers looked fine). And yes, it’s quick, but you can get a lot more power and a lot more quickness if you spent that kind of cash elsewhere.
The pricing is in line with a baby Bimmer, but definitely not in line with the cheap, functional city car the early Minis were. It’s right in line with the old John Cooper Works, though, which started at $30,100.
Considering that a new 2-series starts at $33,095, the baby Bimmer theory sort of makes sense. The John Cooper Works Hardtop is just a good car, even if it’s suffered that distinctly German drift from its people’s car roots to a luxurious and comfortable coupe.
Photo credits: Self (autocross, photos of Bunny, interior with water bottles, carbon fiber hood scoop, car on golf course) Bob Sorokanich (trunk size tests), Mini (others)
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.