MINI John Cooper Works Convertible – Has it got what it takes?
Story by Marc Rutten - Ex automotive journalist and business manager of Shmee150
Welcome to the third generation New MINI! Also known as the F-Series, the new generation MINI is due it’s facelift early next year, which allowed me the option to have a go in the latest and greatest from Oxford until it receives a number of refinements, a modest refresh and a few small updates here and there.
The MINI as a concept does not need any introduction. Released in the 60’s in the Classic format, the Cooper name became closely associated with Mini. In 2000, Michael Cooper, founded John Cooper Works, which made racing tuning parts for the first generation Rover/BMW-built MINI. In 2008, BMW acquired the company and since the 2nd generation, the John Cooper Works MINI rolls out of the plant based in Oxford.
The BMW-owned MINI brand, (please don’t mix it with Mini, that’s the Classic brand name) builds compact and cute urban cars with both three and five doors; with diesel or petrol powerplants; a roof or with no roof; slow or fast. MINIs can be customized to a massive extent and offer the customer freedom to create something that is different from their fellow MINI drivers, who tend to wave when they drive past each other.
Let’s touch on what we have in front of us. According to the brand’s spokesperson, the ultimate front-wheel-driving machine with go-kart-like behavior that puts a smile on your face. A statement which I, as a MINI owner and driver am used to experiencing on a daily basis, but let’s see how much of that is available in this new version. Is it still as agile, small, nimble and powerful as before? Does it still feel like “a pocket rocket” and more importantly; can we still call it (a) MINI?
At first sight, not much seems to have changed following its predecessors. You still get the things that make every MINI loveable. You have the instantly recognizable shape, the go-kart steering position behind a high dashboard and the sharp dimensions that make it so easy to drive in the city. A more thorough look at the package and you notice the difference with regards to its highly praised first generation R53 and its nicely packaged second generation R56 model.
Yes, the third-generation has grown in size. It is no longer a small car. At 3.8 meters long and 1.7 meters wide, it looks a bit overweight in comparison to its previous family members. Add this to the noticeably increase in weight, mainly because of the abundance of tech fitted, and you might start to frown your eyebrows and wonder what the Bavarians have done here.
The first few kilometers on the road explain what has happened. BMW have taken the concept of the MINI and moved it into a more mature, obtainable and larger package that has positioned itself in the direction of other, larger and more powerful competitors in the market of hot hatches. The engine is a great example of this! The John Cooper Works is now powered by a 2-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged engine that produces 228 bhp and 320Nm, which is a chunk more than its predecessor. Linked to the short throw six-speed manual, you have a combination that suits the F56’s character. Although, auto-blipping in a MINI, really!?
The build quality and especially the interior are other examples of the major step this vehicle has made. The cabin feels very high quality, particularly in the areas you regularly touch, such as the steering wheel, the multimedia controller or the sport mode selector. Materials and finish are up at levels we expect from a BMW product.
The build quality and especially the interior are other examples of the major step this vehicle has made.
The bucket seats, finished in a fetching red and grey Alcantara for the JCW, really set things apart from any other MINI I have ever been in. The driving position feels still really MINI-like and allows you to control the different buttons across the dashboard with ease. The cabin is comfy and cozy for the driver and front-seat passenger; but not so much the rear seats, which are best left for toddlers or a casual third full-size passenger.
The convertible allows you to remove the top. Via a simple push of the toggle switch in the front roof frame panel you can open it in 18 seconds. Neatly stowed behind you, it can be closed again while the car is moving, as long as the speed is less than 19 mph. If you prefer, the convertible has, like its predecessors a sliding sunroof function, which allows the front section of the top to be retracted.
A point to note is the extensive amount of tech in the MINI. Never before have I seen so many features in a MINI model. The BMW product line clearly acted as a visible inspiration throughout the cabin. The 8.8-inch screen with an illuminated surround and its controller is the most noticeable member added to the 3rd generation, New MINI. Little funny and quirky features are still part of the package. Such as the puddle lights, the surround lighting up in a variety of ways when you rotate different buttons or change the driving modes, and the “Always Open Timer,” providing sun worshippers with the ability to calculate the number of hours or minutes they have driven with the top down.
Now let’s touch on the most important part of this story. How has this maturity impacted the ‘pocket rocket’ behavior of the vehicle on the road? First of all, the new JCW is a lot smoother, useable and more complaint on the road than its predecessors. Even though the handling through the suspension is less go-kart-like than before, it still has a bit of this flavor, although not enough for my liking. Often it felt a touch soulless. It is stiff enough to offer a composed body control, but as a customary MINI driver you feel the transfer of additional weight immediately. Its center of gravity feels unusually high for a MINI, and the JCW tends to roll more and rotate around its center point when you turn in. This behavior is not how I want a MINI to react when I drive it on a twisty road. The torsional stiffness of the convertible didn't help my verdict, but I have to mention that I have driven the Hatchback before and experienced the same behavior.
After the initial period behind the wheel, this JCW feels a significant step up in performance terms over the last generation. The ride is accompanied by lovely pops & bangs from exhaust, which sounds much more boisterous when you have the convertible. There is power in abundance and the extra 23 percent rise in torque is immediately noticeable in the lower rev band at 1,250 rpm, but this is not where it ends. The JCW has a two extra issues which need to be addressed.
First of all, the power delivery through the electronic limited slip diff is an annoyance when you are in full "go-kart" mode. The diff often has decent problems distributing the available power across the axle effectively. Add this to absence of decent grip via the stock Pirelli Cinturatos and we have picked up on the first flaw. Turn-in cornering speeds are never an issue for the F56 JCW, but getting out of the turn is a struggle for grip. The agility is therefore noticeably worse than previous generations!
But that is not all! The second major issue is the steering feel. MINI’s have always been in forefront when it came to the wheel’s communication. The electronic rig inside the 3rd gen JCW is not bringing a smile to my face, in many instances it was the total opposite. Even though there seems to be some kind of communication through the wheel, it is often mixed with a muffled, turning feedback that is far from enjoyable. Add this to the mediocre stock rubber and the absence of grip, and I felt disappointed.
You might ask; isn’t there anything to love? Oh there definitely is, firstly the standard JCW brake kit offers a set of 330mm discs on the front axle, clamped by four-piston Brembo calipers. The kit provides strong, effective braking at any time of the day. Loved it! Add this to the improved built quality, the more extensive specification offering, the absolutely wonderful front seats and the lovely motor which has more than enough grunt, and somewhere under that layer of my remarks is a diamond to be found, one that is capable of shining in the sheer brilliance of old, but to have it shine as before we need to polish it, we need to polish it a lot! In other words, changes are to be made desperately!
Now that I have concluded, I feel it is time to take a step back and look at my initial three questions and answer them one-by-one! Is it still as agile, small, nimble and powerful as before? Yes, the MINI F56 JCW is powerful, but in its standard specification it is not as agile nor nimble, and it definitely doesn’t feel small. On contrary it feels big, maybe even a bit obese and too grown-up. Less joyful for certain!
Does it still feel like “a pocket rocket”? Yes, it does but it transfers the meaning of these words in a totally different way to the road. It is a much more mature vehicle, offering a new level of playfulness that we do not see often in the hot hatch market space. It is definitely better, more obtainable and easier to drive for a larger group of interested customers. Much more a German hot hatch in the common sense, than the British born MINI ever was.
Can we still call it (a) MINI? Yes, you have to, because this IS a MINI, one that embraces the lifestyle of MINI and shares the current brand characteristics in every single sense, but it is also one that has taken even further distance with regards to the Classic Mini and its primal characteristics. If you are looking for those, get yourself a 1st Gen MINI JCW GP, a younger JCW or GP2, or put some budget aside for a decent 3rd Gen aftermarket tuning package, because this base F56 JCW is not your immediate choice.
MINI JCW Convertible