Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2016 Mini John Cooper Works 3-Door

New Haven, CT – Looking at the all-new 2016 John Cooper Works, Mini has engineered out the unruly, making this third-generation hyper-hatch a relatively well rounded performance car. That’s a significant accomplishment, and a welcome one if the previous JCW (last sold as a 2013 model) with its nervous steering, ADD handling and poster-boy torque steer wasn’t to your liking.

The 2016 Mini John Cooper Works is the most powerful production Mini to date.

Granted, you could never accuse that car of being dull or uninvolving, and while this all-new JCW might lack some of its predecessor’s obstreperous spunk, it’s a helluva lot easier to live with. And faster by every measure.

Cheaper, too. With a suggested MSRP of $33,240, it’s $3,660 less than the old 1.6L JCW. So it appears the 18-month wait for this latest edition of the uber-Mini that carries the name of famed Mini hot-rodder John Cooper has been worth it.

The 2016 Mini John Cooper Works is the most powerful production Mini to date. They’ve taken the 189 hp and 207 lb-ft  2.0L turbo from the Cooper S and juiced it up to 228 hp and 236 lb-ft by installing a revised turbo that huffs more air into the cylinders. New pistons that slightly reduce the compression ratio keep things from going boom, and a big bore exhaust extracts the waste with a pleasingly gnarly sound.

The Mini dudes (and they are all dudes because this is uber-chic Mini land) say the 2016 JCW was engineered from the brakes out. The focus was to make this car a true track-day special – the old model’s brakes just weren’t up to the task. Enter Italian brake guru Brembo. They fashioned a whopping set with fashionably red calipers that modulate well and showed no signs of fade on our admittedly brief track session. These larger binders pushed the wheels out, increasing the track and thereby necessitating extra flares on the fender arches.

Cooling was also a priority (for both brakes and engine) so the plethora of front intakes are all business. The three in the lower valance direct air to the Brembos, while the larger driver side intake is for the auxiliary radiator. Its twin on the other side is a dummy, blocked off to reduce drag.

The prominent rear spoiler is not there just for looks – it reduces rear lift by up to thirty percent. While 17-inch alloys are standard issue, the testers here were fitted with optional $800 JCW Cup Spoke Two-Tone 18-inch alloys with 205/40R18 summer tires (a $50 upgrade).

Yes, the 2016 Mini JCW looks the business, all scooped, be-spoiled and resplendent in its own hues, which includes a new Rebel Green that will set you back $1,000.

Inside we’re treated to JCW-specific sport seats with integrated headrests. Fabric is standard, and these chairs are terrific, proving as comfortable as they are bolstering. The rest of the interior shows the classic Mini cues – retro toggles, pie-plate sized central display and a riot of circles. With this third-gen car, Mini upped its interior game. No more rattles and flimsy plastic bits. It looks premium in here, as it well should for this kind of money.

And speaking of money, as with all BMWs… er Minis, the upgrade and option list is as long as the Rhine… er, Thames. Standard with this car are LED headlights, LED taillights, a choice of three 17-inch alloys and fabric JCW seats. If you need heated seats, back-up camera, leather, navigation, hyper connectivity, driver’s aids, auto headlights, rain sensing wipers and so on, you’ll be shopping packages with names like Essentials ($1,050), Navigation ($1,500), Connected ($800), Loaded ($1,200), Visibilty ($1,300), Punch Leather ($1,500), etc.

Mini predicts most buyers will choose the six-speed manual stick with auto rev matching, but the $1,650 six-speed Sport Auto with paddle shifters is no slouch, banging off shifts with authority and showing brilliant mapping when flying around the track. That fact that it bestows the JCW with better fuel economy and acceleration numbers will be embraced by some, and scoffed by those who value driver involvement above all else. If you’re asking, the JCW gets to 100 km/h in 6.3 seconds with the manual and 0.2 seconds quicker with the manumatic. Top speed is 246 km/h.

Our first drive was in a loaded red JCW fitted with quilted leather, Harman/Kardon audio, a head-up display and the six-speed manual – very likely kissing 40 grand in Canuck bucks. The route took us through some winding roads of the Appalachian hills.

Naturally, this most athletic of Minis gets a stiff suspension setup, and as such, one more option that could be considered essential is the $1,200 adaptive Dynamic Damper Control that presumably takes the sting out of the ride and gives extra starch when needed. As all the cars at this event had DDC, I can’t comment on the standard underpinnings, but I will say this: even in Normal mode, the DDC-equipped JCW is a pitchy little tyke on anything less than smooth pavement. Granted, nobody is buying a Mini JCW for a luxury ride. Just don’t expect GTI levels of compliance here.

Once the road smoothed out, I put the JCW into Sport. The suspension stiffened further, the exhaust got progressively ruder (lots of gurgles and pops on overrun), throttle response livened and the steering firmed up. This is where the JCW comes alive. It still has the super quick turn-in that we love in Minis, and it just eats up these winding roads with an absolute disdain for the posted limit.

The 228-hp 2.0L pulls hard from low in the rev range, giving the JCW wings. It’s not a spinner, however, running out of puff just north of 5,000 rpm, so flirting with the redline is more an exercise in noise than speed. Nonetheless, finding the JCW’s rhythm is easy. The clutch and shifter work in harmony, and Sport mode activates auto rev-matching on downshifts so you’ll sound like a heel-and-toe champ.

The morning drive took us to entrepreneur and racer Alan Wilzig’s playground in Taghkanic, NY – a private racetrack on his 275-acre property that also houses his collection of over 100 racing bikes are cars. The track is about a mile long, 40 feet wide with 80 feet of elevation changes and a number of interesting corners. Perfect for the JCW.

The car’s chassis setup defaults to foolproof. On the limit it adopts gentle understeer, and is not adverse to a bit of nose-first, controllable sliding. The brakes are super strong and you get the sense the JCW could do this all day.

But where you’re really going to enjoy this nutty niche-within-a- niche Mini is on a flowing secondary road with the scenery flying by, the windows open and that little four-pot making all kinds of rude noises as you run up and down the gears and feel the lateral g-forces press you into the bolstered seats.

The 2016 Mini JCW is surely its own car, fast, bratty and bristling with personality. Oh yes, it will be pricey if you linger too long on the options list, but either way, it presents itself as a uniquely spicy alternative to the buttoned-down GTI, the raucous Ford Focus ST, the sublime Ford Fiesta ST and that Italian/Mexican/Tasmanian Devil known as the Fiat Abarth.

Pricing: 2016 Mini John Cooper Works 3-Door
Base Price: $33,240