I’ve always been a big fan of hot hatches. The way they can combine searing performance and practicality in an affordable package makes many the best ‘real world’ fast cars out there. Mini has produced some corkers over the years, but the last few hot third-gen cars I’ve driven just haven’t quite hit the mark for me.
The Cooper and Cooper S both have fine chassis, plush interiors and are well put together, but there’s something a little underwhelming about both. The Cooper’s 1.5-litre turbo three-pot just doesn’t have the responsiveness you want in a car like that, and while the 2.0-litre four-cylinder in the Cooper S is much more like it, it still lacks vim and vigour, despite the pops and bangs eminating from the exhaust.
So, as I clambered aboard the new John Cooper Works model at the car’s recent launch, I wondered if I was about to experience round three of disappointment. After all, it’s still rocking the same basic engine and chassis as the S…
However, on paper, things are much more promising. Thanks to more boost from the twin-scroll turbo, new pistons and a bigger intercooler, power is up from 189bhp to 228bhp, while torque is at 236lb ft. And that makes a difference. A big difference. In fact, it’s the torque that’s the most impressive thing, coming in at just 1250rpm.
Whatever the engine speed, this is one punchy little so-and-so, and it belts out a brilliantly rowdy bark from its sports exhaust, which crackles as though it has a handful of giant Rice Krispies stuffed in the back box.
0-62mph takes 6.1 seconds in the six-speed automatic and 6.3 in the manual, and unlike the Cooper S, the JCW feels every bit as quick as those figures would suggest. With the auto cars being the first off the production line, that’s the only gearbox option we were able to drive. Far from loathing it, though, this launch control-equipped box o’ cogs actually seemed like a decent fit for the car. However, the satisfaction of a manual change is amplified when driving a car like this, so a manual is what we’d want; around 80 per cent of UK JCW buyers will think the same, reckons Mini.
A boisterous engine is one thing, but if this car’s to succeed, it needs to handle. After a day of driving on some of the gorgeous twisty roads found in Britain’s South Downs - and trying not to crash at the unforgiving Goodwood Motor Circuit - I can tell you the JCW has that attribute pretty damn sorted.
Compared to the Cooper S, the JCW has stiffer springs, revised dampers (adjustable units are an extra £240, an option you’d be silly not to select), a tuned multi-link setup at the rear and much more besides. All this fettled clobber works together beautifully, and - aided by a piffling weight of just 1205kg - the JCW feels agile, composed and as though there’s little that could ruffle its feathers. The steering is nicely weighted and direct in Sport mode, and feedback from the road is good.
That’s not to say it’s dull; it’s actually outrageous fun. And it’s even up for a little movement at the rear, particularly when you’re making the most of its beefy four-pot Brembo stoppers. The electronic diff - which uses little nibbles from the brakes to tighten your line - is effective, without its interference ever being noticeable. To cap it all off, there’s barely a hint of torque steer, despite each of those 228 horses making their way exclusively through the front boots.
‘It’s a belter to drive, is well built, and if you’re driving more like a normal person, it carries on being an easy-to-use Mini hatchback’
While I still have misgivings about the third-generation Mini’s aesthetics - that biscuit-in-gob look of the front grille is particularly unflattering - there’s no doubt that this is now the prettiest of the current range. The rear bumper is beefier, while the front has been subject to some aggressive dental work. Those big fog light-replacing vents have purpose, too: it’s all to do with extra cooling.
The distinctive interior won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s a pleasant space to spend time in and is well screwed together. The seats are nicely supportive, but I found it difficult to find a properly comfortable position to stick them in.
So, it’s a belter to drive, is well built, and if you’re driving more like a normal person, it carries on being an easy-to-use Mini hatchback. However, it should be good, as it’s not what you’d call cheap: the on-the-road price for the auto is £24,380, and it’s easy to get carried away with the options list: our test car was specced up to £31,945.
If you’re more sensible with the options you choose, though, the Mini JCW does make a good case for itself. It’s a lot more expensive than something like a Ford Fiesta ST, but it’s considerably more powerful and with its plusher interior and posher badge, aimed at a different market. The closest thing it has to a competitor is the even more expensive four-wheel drive Audi S1, but trust me, the hugely entertaining JCW is the one you want, and the only new Mini that should be on your wish list.