2013 MINI John Cooper Works | road test



John Cooper Works MINI test drive is definitely not going to be about value for money. Like all things trendy, you will either want one and be prepared to sell your mother into slavery to get one, or you won’t. I am in the second category because whilst it is a fine little car in most senses, I don’t want one, and because, try as I might, no one will take my mother away!
I remember squirting a MINI estate (or was it a Traveller? – I still get the names confused with Minis of the only-one-capital-letter variety) around Spain a few years back and thoroughly enjoying the experience. The handling was sublime, the power and its delivery beautifully balanced to the car’s weight and it had just enough kit inside to make it special without being confusing. The JCW, I’m afraid is not the same car and is maybe just a step too far along the look-at-me route, that anything trendy has to tread, for its own good.
It is not fair, given the years, to continue to draw comparisons between BMC and BMW MINIs. The unique selling propositions in either case were and continue to be almost polar opposites – the new cars are statements of success both in terms of marketing and in what they say about their owners. New MINIs are not classless. Where there is a wee bit of common ground left is in the handling: the vans and station wagons of old handled better than the saloons because they were on a slightly longer floorpan, and the same is true today. This little pocket-rocket is just too little to be anything other than frenetic when you are hustling it along. It’s twitchy and edgy, there’s an alarming amount of torque steer and there is something spookily American about the inside – it should have more room in it given the outside dimensions. 
 I wonder how many of you have gotten this far in the story and decided that the piece is written by an Old Age pensioner who should be concentrating on getting the most out of his bus pass? Maybe you are not wrong – the John Cooper Works MINI is decidedly not a car for anyone over about 40-ish, though you’d have to be close enough and pretty successful to afford one. But moving my reservations about getting in and out, never mind being able to reach the seatbelt aside, the not-so-little car is actually a hoot to drive!
The John Cooper Works MINI is the one to have if you want to spend all day on the set of The Italian Job. The Press car (sexy as you like in black, black wheels, black interior and lipstick roof!) has been worked hard in its short life so far and there was not a massive amount of grip left on the big 17' front tyres: every corner, irrespective of surface, managed to get the MINI squeaking and straight-line acceleration from traffic lights did not have to be too provocative to get necks craning. Turn in though, along with the almost too firm suspension, was spot on and the traction control took care of any sideways movement with minimum interference. It would be a tiring car to drive all day if you were in a hurry, but short point-to-point squirts are this car’s forte.
 BMW’s 1.6-litre turbo pokes out more than enough to keep the JCW MINI spinning along, and even at quite high road speeds, the car remains fundamentally stable. The 6-speed gearbox, however, has quite a long first gear and is a bit too eager to shift into, and hang on to, the starter cog: to compensate for the quick delivery of the engine, there is a marked delay in engagement at congestion speeds and slowing for speed breakers is really quite annoying, given the time it takes to get going again. Neither the paddle shifters nor the manual over-ride on the stick are intuitive to use – I can’t help feeling that if you have to look at what you are doing in a manual mode, you’d be better sticking to automatic!
The interior is an ergonomic challenge: I like the retro instrumentation, with the big dial now doing duty as nav screen, entertainment and climate options as well as fuel gauge, but the actual speed reading is tricky to see. Just as well there is a digital readout in the driver-centred rev counter, which neatly adjusts with the steering wheel. The rest of the switches and buttons seem to be somewhat haphazardly grouped, but I imagine it would all become familiar with time. The finish and materials both inside and outside the car are superb with shut lines and stitching matched perfectly wherever they appear. Even the harder plastics are nicely finished: mind you, you would not really accept anything that looked or felt cheap in a car like this. It’s all a bit Star Trek really, and that is underscored by the USS Enterprise-shaped key!
 From a safety point of view, the MINI is not lacking. It is pretty difficult these days, to sell any car that does not have a brace of airbags, anti-submarine seats and a host of acronyms for everything from anti-skid brakes to traction control. The lists for most cars now are endless and being top-of-the-line MINIwise, the JCW packs everything in that you would expect to be there: there is nothing particularly new or cutting edge, but it has all the bells and whistles. Big coloured brake callipers tend to be more show than go – or in this case, stop – but they are evident too because at this end of the market, where the car is the statement, they have to be. They work too.
So, what’s not to like? Actually, there is very little not to like in the hottest of all the MINIs, and in this case, the toybox is pretty crammed between the Recaro seats and the Harmon Karden sound system, the contrasting stitched floormats and the double sunroof. It just all seems a bit much for a Mini, as does the price. Don’t get me wrong here – I really did quite like the car and it did remind me of screaming Coopers of old, but – and maybe this is an age thing – it was just a bit too much like hard work for me.
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