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2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop First Drive Review

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 8/11/2015 Manufacturer, Michael Shaffer
2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop First Drive Review

I left Motor Trend to pursue a freelance career last year. This marks the first time I've missed the Best Driver's Car program in five years. Instead, I find myself rustling the lush green leaves of a humid New England summer and driving Mini's brand new 2015 John Cooper Works Hardtop. And it's a shame. Not for me—though I am deprived of watching all the hot metal flying up Highway 198 and then dancing around Laguna Seca—but rather for Mini, which just missed the window to compete for a chance at the podium with its newest, sportiest hatch.

Mini is excited to tout this new range-topping Cooper as the most powerful production car offered from the dealership. In the era of Veyrons and LaP918s, 228 horsepower doesn't exactly warrant screaming from the mountaintops. Especially when Subaru is squeezing 268 hp from a similarly sized engine. But Mini has managed an impressively linear powerband from the potent 2.0-liter TwinPower Turbo four-cylinder. A few short years ago, small displacement four-cylinders that got their grunt from forced induction were essentially useless before the snails spooled up. Lag, baby, lag. However, the new JCW pulls strong throughout the rev range and most impressively had ample power while performing a pedal stomp at 60 mph at 2,000 rpm in sixth (top) gear. I suppose the 236 lb-ft of torque deserves at least a brief chat from the mountaintop.

2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop

Power isn't what makes a driver's car best, however. The 155-hp Miata contended this year and did damn well using the light-and-simple formula. Mini has excelled with this same formula since the brand's introduction five and a half decades ago, and they've been tweaking it ever since. Front-end input isn't as cartoonishly sharp (or as fun) as in either the Ford Fiesta ST or Focus ST, but the JCW's grip was plentiful carving the sweepers in Connecticut's beautiful, undulating countryside. The FWD Mini was prone to a bit of understeer pushing a little harder on the track, even with the optional Pirelli P Zeros fitted to the cars for that portion of the day.

A hard jab on the massive, new 13.19-inch Brembo units near the nose livens up the rear heading into corners, but the adjustable dampers (a $500 option) were still soft enough even in the harshest setting that body roll shimmied the car less predictably than something with a stiffer setup. Mini says the fixed suspension is significantly harder than the adjustable system, but none of the 30 or so cars on hand were specced with them to make the comparison.

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2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop

Thankfully Mini did bring both the new Sport Automatic Transmission and traditional six-speed manuals for evaluation. In fact, Mini knew the manual was so important to the model and to the 75 percent of buyers that option their JCWs with the old-school tranny that the automaker waited to do this drive until two months after the automatic JCWs went on sale because the manuals weren't ready. The automatic (which is similar to the Cooper S' but modified enough to merit a different part number within Getrag's catalog) is perfectly adequate for the JCW and actually shaves 0.2 second off the manual's 6.1-second blast from 0 to 60. Please note that the Miata can do the same in 5.8 seconds. Despite that performance benefit, the auto is not the transmission box to check when configuring your JCW Hardtop.

Paddles and automatics have their place in the GT3 RSes, SVs, and Fezza Speciales seeking to dispose of every millisecond for lap time bragging rights, but this Mini needs three pedals. A manual is so much better suited to this type of car and simply wakes the JCW up. No matter how quick it may be, the Brits (by way of Bavaria) wouldn't broadcast the JCW's Nordschleife lap time. And why should they? The more relevant information is how much fun CooperClown37 on www.Mini2.com had thrashing their new ride for a personal best at the local autocross.

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2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop

Although the six-speed is the transmission to get, it's not without fault. The throws are relatively short, but the shift lever itself is taller than it needs to be, which makes for a slightly vague throw. That's not a huge gripe, but a shorter lever would be welcome. I do have a huge gripe about the dead spot below R on the H pattern that I kept snagging on aggressive 1-2 changes. I quickly learned to avoid it, but it was still an odd occurrence I haven't experienced with many other manuals. Not that it means much, but Aston Martins with clutch pedals do the same thing.

The biggest gripe of the whole package, though, starts with a dollar sign. Although the starting MSRP for the new Mini JCW has only increased $500 over the outgoing model to a reasonable $30,600 (excluding $850 for destination charges), the cars we were evaluating with the navs and Bluetooths and big sunroofs and new Rebel Green paint ($1,000!!) topped out as high as $41,000. In that price range the case could be made to sacrifice some space and practicality in exchange for a dynamically more engaging and $5,000 less expensive Toyobaru Twin. Or think outside the segment and grab a nearly identically priced Chevy Camaro 1LE. The Focus ST also makes a very good case for itself at nearly $6,000 less expensive with more space and 24 more horsepower. More worryingly, a representative on site was quick to point out the Cooper is actually closer in size to the Fiesta, which in ST trim starts just under $21,000. Sounds like a comparison test is very much in order.

2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop

Although the newest, sharpest Mini is on the expensive side, the JCW Hardtop is not without tremendous merit. Initial build quality is high with well-weighted controls, premium interior materials, and MINImal (to borrow Mini's terminology) obnoxious ergonomics prevalent in earlier Minis. The new Brembos are stellar, and although we would have loved to try the standard suspension setup, the JCW is a blast at eight-tenths on rural twisty roads. It is pricey, but value is relative. If CooperClown37 has been pinching their pennies, they'll be happy to make the trade up.

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2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop

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