The 2021 Mini Cooper JCW: Hot Hatch, Or Just Medium Heat?
The quicker option package on this Mini gives it more fun, but is it worth the price?
Mini has cranked out the Cooper in various forms for much longer than I've been alive, spicing up the hot hatch segment along the way. With signature looks, fun driving characteristics, and compact sizing that fits tiny European streets and parking spots, the Mini has been a popular option for drivers that need practicality while mixing in some joy behind the wheel. As years go by, the Mini Cooper has become less... err... Mini, bumping up its proportions and price considerably.
There are still affordable 2-door Mini Cooper options in the low $20,000 range, but the lineup can see prices surge up to well past $40,000 depending on how many doors, how much horsepower, and what sort of engine---whether petrol-powered or electric--you want. The versatility across the Mini lineup is good for people who want to stay loyal to the company that now offers tons of hatchbacks, convertibles, and crossovers, but its brand identity is shifting. Fortunately the name John Cooper slapped upon one of these still means there's more fun for your Mini dollar.
When I drove the hottest Cooper version--the John Cooper Works GP--at the beginning of the year, I had fun tossing it around some fun Texas Hill Country roads, but had a hard time justifying its price against its Honda Civic Type-R and VW Golf R competition. As a more subtle package, the normal Mini Cooper John Cooper Works seems more tempting on paper, so I had the people at Mini send one my way, to see how it stacked up.
The Useful Figures
Mini offers the Cooper John Cooper Works as either a 2-door or 4-door hatchback, to serve your compact car needs. As the JCW variant, this Mini gets a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder with 228 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. The JCW's horsepower figure is similar to the VW GTI, but a whopping 78 fewer than the outgoing Civic Type-R that gets the same output as the pricier Mini JCW GP. Mini offers the Cooper John Cooper Works with your choice of a 6-speed manual transmission or 8-speed automatic.
With a few trim levels available, the Iconic trim I tested tops the chart while aligning with its competition. Providing adaptive dampers, dual-zone climate control, an upgraded Harman Kardon audio system, performance summer tires, Chili Red roof and mirrors, heated front seats, and a panoramic sunroof (that the Civic Type-R doesn't offer), at a $7,000 upgrade.
At a starting price of $32,900, the Mini Cooper John Cooper Works bumped up to $40,750 after adding the Iconic trim level, with Moonwalk Grey Metallic paint, Carbon Black Dinamica and leather inside, with the manual transmission equipped. The base price point starts nearly $4,000 more than a VW GTI, and the as-tested price is $4,000 more than the one-price Civic Type-R and over $2,000 more than a well-equipped GTI.
A Peppy City Car
Make a run to the shops or take a better route to the office, and the Mini Cooper John Cooper works will improve the task. While it has an adaptive suspension, the Mini Cooper JCW's damping is on the firm side, and the tires have some tiny sidewalls, so bumps are pronounced through the chassis. The turbocharged four-pot engine is zippy for a little hatchback, and paired with the Mini's reasonably small dimensions, you'll feel like you're buzzing around more quickly than you really are.
A compact overall length and width will make downtown parallel parking a breeze too. Because this Mini maintains the classic Cooper shape, cabin volume for the front passengers keeps you from feeling claustrophobic. Sporty bucket seats are reasonably comfortable when you take a longer drive, and the heating function fires up quickly and effectively. Rear seats are okay for kids, but adults will feel a bit cramped if they're tucked in the back of the cabin.
Those donuts were not my doing.
Headroom throughout the cabin is great, although the windscreen being far ahead with its more upright angle means there's a trade-off. The sun visors don't do a great job of protecting your eyes when looking forward, and are totally useless when you switch them to the side window because the pivot point is so far ahead, leaving a massive gap along the window between the visor and the B-pillar. Boot space isn't great either, so if you're needing to store more than a couple grocery bags when you make your weekly run or a single roller bag during your airport trek, you're going to have to fold the rear seats down.
Wireless Apple CarPlay is part of the Mini's package, met with an 8.5-inch touchscreen. The infotainment placement maintains that cool Mini circular design, but in order to accommodate Apple CarPlay's landscape orientation, there's a lot of wasted real estate. An illuminated ring wraps around the central display, and changes color whenever you change the climate control's temperature, adjust the volume, or start driving the Mini more rapidly, which is a neat party trick.
Zipping Around Fun Routes
With a John Cooper Works designation, this Mini better hold its own in the twisty stuff. Engage the sport drive mode, nix the traction control, and enjoy more punch from this quicker Mini. As the throttle response quickens, the exhaust note gets noticeably deeper, with just enough burble while not being annoying. The adaptive dampers firm up even more, so if you're not on the smoothest of back roads, you're going to notice the Mini Cooper JCW get a bit jittery in the driver's seat while not compromising handling too much.
Engine performance is good but not great in the JCW, feeling slower than the equally-powerful VW GTI, and way behind the Civic Type-R. I wish it had more to work with, while not needing the full 306 horsepower found in the Mini Cooper JCW GP I reviewed. Maybe the gear ratios aren't tight enough, and the boost doesn't spool up progressively enough, but this Mini feels a bit restricted when you want to give it the beans on a fun back road.
I appreciate having a manual transmission available, but the Mini's shifter feel is lacking any real directness, and doesn't give a positive click when you nail the cog you're seeking. The Civic Type-R crushes the Cooper JCW here. Braking is exceptional in the Cooper JCW, with good pedal feel, and zero fade exhibited during a longer stint on a fun farm-to-market road. While there's a thicker diameter to the Mini's steering wheel, it's almost too much for my not-small hands, and the turn-in sensations from the Cooper are pretty artificial.
With 205mm wide Pirelli P Zero tires fitted, the Mini JCW is packing less meat than its GTI and Type-R rivals. The narrower contact patch gives the Mini a disadvantage in the corners almost as much as the tires being run-flat variants. There also isn't a limited-slip differential fitted, so torque steer is unpleasant when applying more than 30% throttle whether going straight or turning, and the understeer induced in any quick sweeper is downright brutal. Had Mini given this fun-focused Mini some normal summer rubber and an LSD, the grip wouldn't be nearly as compromised.
The Pros And Cons
Sticking to more conventional looks while adding some cool details, the Mini Cooper John Cooper Works is much more subtle and cool than its GP sibling I knocked for having way too much unattractive body cladding slapped on. The Union Jack detail in the taillight is a nice touch, though some might knock this Oxfordshire-built hot hatch because Mini is owned by BMW and there's a German-sourced powertrain installed.
Toggle switches are still used inside the Mini's cabin for several controls, including the starter. Real buttons and knobs are integrated for climate and audio controls on the center console. The steering wheel does get buttons for the audio and cruise control systems, but they are placed too close to the rim of the wheel, and several times I'd accidentally bump up the volume or engage the cruise control when turning the Mini.
Infotainment controls are hidden next to the handbrake lever, which is out of plain sight, making you look far down with your eyes off the road if you need to switch modes that aren't quickly available on the touchscreen. The center armrest--thankfully part of the interior, unlike the JCW GP I reviewed--is far too tall. It doesn't match the door armrest height, and makes it impossible to put your arm in a natural position to operate the gearshift. You either have to hold your arm high with a downward-bent wrist or squish your arm to the left of the armrest and against your side to change gears.
Fuel economy leaves a bit to be desired in the Mini Cooper JCW, with EPA estimates of 22/31/25, which are along the same lines as the GTI and Type-R. I achieved 23 during my week of testing, doing mostly city driving. Pair that efficiency with an 11.6-gallon tank, and this hot hatch has to hit the petrol station more often than it should.
The Cooper also has an alert that pops up once you have 50 miles of fuel range remaining, and even if you dismiss it initially, it will constantly remind you on the instrument cluster. That same instrument cluster is also made with a low-resolution display that not only looks cheap, but it washes out in sunlight. I also have to gripe that Mini gave the Cooper JCW massive fake vents in its fascia and on the hood (where it used to function for the top-mounted intercooler), but there are a couple small functional ducts for the brakes and intercooler in the bumper.
It's Fun, But Mini Is Losing its Identity
The new John Cooper Works model is still cool, and definitely a joy to toss around. The trouble is that its price point is continually increasing, and its performance doesn't match up very well versus the more nicely equipped--and less expensive--VW GTI, and is going to get left in the dust of the Civic Type-R on any fun road, autocross course, or track.
VW's GTI, it's quicker R sibling, and the Honda Civic Type-R are getting updated this year, with tons of revisions to make them even better. Pricing shouldn't jump up much either, which makes the Mini less attractive. Yes, the Mini Cooper has more personality than its competition, but the JCW's value proposition is getting weaker. If you really want to maintain your brand loyalty to Mini, go for it, but you're missing out on a more enjoyable experience by jumping in the driver's seat of its primary rivals.