If your idea of performance driving is occasionally making aggressive passes or zipping from stopped to 40 mph at green lights, the four-door all-wheel drive 2018 Mini John Cooper Works Clubman All4 will suit you just fine. The car looks fun, it’s practical, and whatever Mr. Cooper’s people did with the exhaust gives this variant a real nice presence. But driving it hard makes it feel unsettled in the time it takes to get a tea kettle boiling.
(Full disclosure: I asked BMW’s media staff if I could borrow a JCW Mini to find out what it’s like to drive. They were kind enough to oblige me, a long time ago, and dropped one off at my house for a week with a full tank of gas.)
The offerings from Mini haven’t really been “miniature” since before Mark Wahlberg’s Italian Job remake. But even with that in mind the enthusiast-spec, all-wheel drive, four-door wasn’t exactly what I expected. Or wanted.
The Mini Clubman is really more of a small station wagon than a hatchback, with four doors and a decent cargo area. “All4” means it’s all-wheel drive and of course the John Cooper Works is the sporty version—in this application, not quite a full-on hardcore performance spec like M cars from parent company BMW, but hotter than your average Mini S.
This automatic Clubman is a 3,486-pound car powered by a 2.0 four-cylinder turbo, out of which Mini promises 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. That’s a little edge over the two-wheel drive JCW in terms of torque. In terms of weight, it’s slightly more substantial than an old Lexus IS300 Sportcross, which has a heavy iron-block straight six in its nose. The standard 2018 Mini, powered by a 1.5-liter turbo three-cylinder, churns out just 134 HP, and the 2.0-liter S model is dialed up to a still-modest 189 HP, for your reference. Those specs carried over for 2019.
And since we’re talking context, a 2002 Mini Cooper S (that’s the early “revival” design) weighed just about 2,500 pounds. The OG Mini was approximately as heavy as your lunch box.
Back to today’s JCW Clubman, a six-speed manual is standard (and slightly lighter) but my test car was fitted to the optional eight-speed automatic that costs $1,750 and a small piece of your soul to order. Mini posits an impressive 147 mph top speed and highway fuel economy figure of 31 mpg, if you’re hanging out closer to the speed limit.
It is made in England, by the way. Final assembly is in Oxford even though the engine’s German and the transmission is Japanese. A Mini owned by a German company, with a German motor and Japanese gearbox! It’s The Car in the High Castle.
Mini is still leaning in to the cutesy oversaturated “Britishness” that the BMW-subsidiary brand relaunched with in the early 2000s. I’m pretty sure they do this because Americans buy that shit way more than the actual Brits do.
The interior of this thing is as curvy as a ball crawl pit or a bubble factory. Round headlights! Round everything, actually. Circles are so much more whimsical, you know. The retro switches do look great, and I loved the fact they they’re bidirectional.
Really, being the Hugh Grant of hatchbacks is not a bad schtick and I can’t knock an automaker’s commitment to providing some personality in 2018. Or 2019. I mean, this one’s getting a little tired, but I digress.
My enthusiasm for the Mini experience was dulled by the odd proportions of this car’s cockpit, though. While the vehicle is small, it is a Mini after all, the steering wheel felt enormous and awkwardly girthy in my hands. The traction control switch is so far away that I had to move my shoulder and lean down to grab it. It felt more like I was fishing in the passenger footwell for an errant piece of popcorn rather than cutting the car loose into fun mode.
The iDrive-esque infotainment system was fairly easy to figure out, with every action easily traceable back to a central home menu, and the seats were fine on my backside, but I never really felt comfortable in the driver’s seat of this car.
All Minis have an aura of sportiness about them, but the JCW trim is supposed to be the fast one. A little extra lead in your pencil for spirited standard driving. I’m sorry, I’m still shaking off the anglophilia overload.
Anyway, you’re reminded of this car’s sporting pretenses every time you blip the throttle, as the JCW’s exhaust really makes the turbo four’s emissions into music quite nicely. Launch control, which is also a thing this car has, smacks you hard enough to feel like you mean business leaving a light.
I was a lot more interested in the Mini JCW’s ability to elbow its adorable little way around corners, though. Especially since I was in an all-wheel drive “All4” variant.
The first turn I took at a modest pace, and was surprised to hear the tires squealing in protest. But I’m glad they did, because as I dialed the intensity up a little higher, the car fed me a big dose of understeer and wanted to run wide.
As I worked my way through Malibu’s mountains in the middle of the night, the car never stopped feeling heavy. The steering seemed physically responsive enough, but the body and tires didn’t want to hang. And even more disappointing though all this was the absence of any real sensation of speed.
Even when the speedometer reported something high, which I had to see constantly through the car’s chintzy plastic flip-up HUD, the Mini JCW didn’t really feel like it was going all that fast.
The whole point of this car, the whole reason why you get a Mini, is to have something exciting, thrilling, fun.
As for the other displays, the gauges are generally illegible and I never could figure out how to call up a water temperature display despite some of my friends on Twitter insisting it’s in the menu.
This sporty four-door all-wheel drive version of the Mini starts at $37,800 and my test rig was optioned to just over $44,000. But if you can spec a four-door Mini all the way up to $47,000 with driver assistance tech and a raft of luxury features.
In spite of my gripes with the ergonomics, this car’s interior and its general build quality seems satisfactory for the asking price. But I think you really have to be bought into the Mini brand to find this car appealing, particularly because the Volkswagen Golf R exists.
The Volkswagen is a lot blander looking inside and out, and frankly I’m still too offended by dieselgate to imagine buying a new VW myself. But the fact remains that the Golf R is comparably sized and priced against the JCW ALL4, while being significantly more powerful and also a little bit lighter. It’s been a long time since I’ve personally driven one, but I do remember having a blast behind the wheel.
If you wanted to lean more luxurious in this general scale, you might actually find it’s worth checking out the Mercedes-Benz GLA250 4MATIC. It’s marketed as a small SUV but it’s not that different structurally from being a big hatchback. The utility and list prices are close.
The Mini does have the most built-in character compared to similarly priced and sized alternatives, and if you’re really into this car’s look, there is no substitute.
The Mini seemed to return to its natural state of happy compliance when it got back to moderately populated city streets. This miniature four-door wagon swallows up four people and a whole bunch of stuff surprisingly easily, and like I said earlier, there is some sense of performance pretenses as long as you’re pretty much behaving within the limits of practical urban driving.
But if you’re looking for an earnest compact performance car, the Mini JCW will let you down as you start to test its limits and it never felt memorably exciting to me. So unfortunately, I feel like the car failed to live up to the experience the style and sound work to sell.
I bet a manual transmission would go a long way to getting back some of the tactile feedback I was hoping for through earnest labor. The Mini just leans too heavily on design as its main method of being fun, though. And it might be a little too luxurious for its own good.