Reviews

2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop Review

The second-gen JCW is both better and worse than the first.

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut — There’s a dead bird stuck in the front air dam of the all-new 2015 Mini John Cooper Works (JCW). Had the little brown sparrow juked right instead of left, he would’ve bounced off a non-functional scoop on one edge of the Mini’s front bumper and lived to fly another day. But he went left, and the functional scoop that feeds air into the auxiliary radiator of the quickest and most powerful Mini ever swallowed him whole.

How Cooper and JCW came to be

The 2015 Mini John Cooper Works wouldn’t exist without John Cooper, the Formula 1 team owner who saw performance potential in the small city car that his friend Alec Issigonis was designing for British Motor Corporation (BMC). Before what became the Morris Mini-Minor and Austin Seven debuted in 1959, BMC gave Cooper and Issigonis the go-ahead to develop 1,000 Mini Coopers that would be upgraded with disc brakes, a close-ratio manual transmission, a larger-displacement engine, and two carburetors instead of one.

The MINI Cooper hit the street in 1961, and people bought the lot of them. And then they begged for more cars with more power. (Apparently 55 hp isn’t a lot.) About a half-century later, long after the Mini Cooper had established itself as an icon, John Cooper’s son, Michael, launched John Cooper Works out of Sussex, England, and started popping performance parts for production Minis. Then BMW (the parent company of Mini) bought the aftermarket company outright in 2008 and slapped JCW badges onto a high-performance Cooper, the first-gen John Cooper Works.

What sets the JCW apart

Mini says this second-generation JCW is built around its brakes, which are sourced from Brembo and built specifically for the 2015 Mini John Cooper Works. The 13.2-inch front brake rotors and fixed four-piston calipers are so much larger than what’s on the Cooper S that Mini needed to tailor a new wheel to fit them.

The turbocharged inline-four engine produces 228 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, and it features hemispherical-type piston crowns for improved durability and a special turbo with improved heat resistance. The JCW also has a high-flow exhaust system that uses wafer-thin tubing to reduce weight. Meanwhile, equal-length half shafts and brake-based torque vectoring help curb torque steer.

The exterior of the 2015 Mini JCW is, as Mini says, “purposefully designed.” There’s an aggressive front air dam that channels air (and birds, evidently) into the car’s radiators. There’s an equally aggressive rear aero diffuser that produces downforce, a rear spoiler that reduces lift, and nicely contoured rocker sills that are aero-friendly. (Oh, and a fake hood scoop.)

The interior is typical of high-performance variants of cars everywhere, complete with miles of red stitching and omnipresent mock carbon-fiber trim. The JCW’s single-piece sport seats with big bolsters are as curvaceous and sexy as Jessica Rabbit, and they squeeze you oh so gently when you sit down. While the seats can be trimmed in leather and faux suede, the basic synthetic cloth (the same material you’d get in a base-model BMW 3 Series in Europe) is better, we think.

Quicker with the auto

The 2015 Mini John Cooper Works has been on sale for months, so why are we driving it only now? The first allotment of 2015 JCWs were built only with automatic transmissions, so it’s taken a while to get a manual-transmission JCW into our hands. Good thinking, although this Mini is quickest with the launch-controlled auto: 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. The manual takes 6.1 seconds, which is still a tenth of a second better than the last-generation JCW that debuted in 2008.

We climb into a Chili Red JCW with a six-speed manual transmission, flip down a red toggle switch on the center stack to start the engine, and put the car into Sport mode. The exhaust gets louder, the throttle gets snappier, the steering has more resistance, and the optional $500 two-mode suspension dampers get a bit firmer (but still nowhere near as aggressive as the sport suspension, which we won’t get to sample). We drive the elm-shrouded streets of New Haven away from the Yale University campus and soon find ourselves on the back roads of Connecticut.

Seeing and feeling

Our eyes say the Mini is big. As you no doubt know, the Mini Cooper continues to grow year after year, and out here on tight roads it feels more compact crossover than hot hatch. The car is short but tall and wide, and you see too much headliner and not enough windshield from the driver’s seat. Our butt says the Mini is big, too. Pitch the JCW into corners, and the body rolls. Acceleration feels fairly bleak coming out of the corners, as the turbo-four seems to struggle in this 2,845-pound car.

Yet when we listen to what the rest of our body is telling us, we’re sure this is a performance car after all. With every automated rev-matched downshift, the exhaust backfires aggressively. The action of the shift lever is firm and precise, and the clutch pedal has been adjusted so you can better feel the engagement point. To be sure, the body rolls noticeably in the corners, but the tires stay on the pavement, squealing as the thick-rimmed steering wheel tries to dance its way out of our hands.

And then there are the brakes, our favorite JCW-specific feature. Only the front brakes are unique, but they’re freaking fantastic. The brake pedal is always firm since the pads resist the heat soaking that leads to fade. Even after a gauntlet of brutal corners, the brakes bite hard enough to make the Mini’s rear end squirm around. This car stops so quickly our sunglasses fly off and hit the steering wheel.

Then we do a burnout. A big burnout, using the emergency brake to hold the car in check as we shift from first to second to third, the cabin filling with delicious-smelling smoke. We emerge from the big synthetic cloud and fall out of the car laughing. Then we hear another car in the distance coming quickly toward us, so we get back in and book it toward the state border.

On the track

We soon cross into New York and arrive at Wilzig Racing Manor, a $7.5-million adult playground built by a billionaire whose affinity for Italian-built Bimota motorcycles is matched only by his love for all things neon green. We’re going to play on his private road course, a short but challenging circuit with lots of elevation changes.

The snub-nosed Mini is lethargic coming down the front straight, but we let our speed build for as long as we can and (hello, Brembos) brake way later than we should. The Mini slows down just enough for us to squeal left then quickly pitch right into a downhill sweeper, the JCW’s cabin swaying back and forth. The engine of the 2015 JCW is at its best in its mid-range, where it’s eager to rev and there’s plenty of grunt. We carve through a long chicane before going headlong into a deeply cambered left-hand toilet bowl that the Mini effortless swirls through. The steering, the chassis, and the brakes all send messages that inspire confidence, all coax us to drive harder, and all put a grin on our face.

What your money can buy

We pull into the pits and look to see how much owning all this fun would cost us: $31,450. And that’s without any optional extras, because with every piece of tinsel you can get the JCW to almost $44,000. Mini says super-stripped examples basically don’t exist. If the cars we tested are representative of what the average JCW costs after bonnet stripes, two-mode dampers, and the like, you’re looking at about $35,000 for a 228-hp Mini Cooper.

For $35,000, you could get a fully loaded Ford Fiesta ST, Mazda MX-5 Miata, or Subaru BRZ and still take your special someone on a romantic, weeklong trip to Paris. Maybe those cars don’t have the same brand prestige as a Mini, but the BMW 228i and Mercedes-Benz CLA250 do and then some, and you could have either for the same price as this Mini Cooper. There’s no doubt that a Mini JCW has special appeal, but the price of enthusiasm isn’t cheap.

A JCW, but just

The 2015 Mini John Cooper Works is a performance machine with capabilities that exceed expectations, but its low power, big body, and high price offset its impressive handling, great brakes, and spunky character. In the 60 years since John Cooper’s sports car née cheap, cute city commuter, Mini has built cars of all shapes and sizes for all sorts of buyers. The JCW should attract only one kind of buyer: us.

And it does, for now. Any bigger, any glitzier, a buck more expensive, though, and it wouldn’t. Mini puts a lot of care into its performance models but more into building its brand aurora. We worry the Mini will continue to grow, the JCW badge will become a novelty, and the whole car will stray even further from its roots. This is a serious issue as far as we’re concerned. Performance is what launched the John Cooper Works brand, performance is what we expect when we see the JCW badge, and performance is what we get, fortunately. For now.

2015 Mini John Cooper Works Specifications

  • On Sale: Now
  • Price: $31,450/$37,350 base/as tested
  • Engine: 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/228 hp @ 5,200-6,000 rpm, 236 lb-ft @ 1,250-4,800 rpm
  • Transmissions: 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic
  • Layout: 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback
  • EPA Mileage: 23/31 mpg (city/hwy manual), 25/31 (city/hwy automatic)
  • Suspension F/R: Strut-type, coil springs/multilink, coil springs
  • Brakes F/R: Vented discs/discs
  • Tires F/R: 205/40R-18 Dunlop Sport Maxx RT
  • L x W x H: 152.5 x 68.0 x 55.7 in
  • Wheelbase: 98.2 in
  • Headroom F/R: 40.3/36.9 in
  • Legroom F/R: 41.4/30.8 in
  • Shoulder Room F/R: 50.6/47.8 in
  • Cargo Room (seats up/down): 8.7/34.0 cu ft
  • Weight: 2,845 lb (manual), 2,885 lb (automatic)
  • Weight Dist. F/R: N/A
  • 0-60 mph:

    • 6.1 sec (manual), 5.9 sec (automatic)
  • 1/4-Mile: N/A
  • Top Speed: 153 mph

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