THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF EDITORIALS LAMENTING THE DEMISE OF THE MANUAL TRANSMISSION. And no shortage of driving enthusiasts singing from the same song sheet.
But I’m not about to add to that chorus.
Why? Because I readily, though begrudgingly, concede that modern automatics - DSGs and conventional - are far, far better than the 'slush-boxes' we once knew. In fact, in certain performance cars, they’re actually preferable - faster and more fuel efficient.
Add to that the user-friendliness of a two-pedal trans and the greater comfort offered in day-to-day driving, and the reasons for picking a manual can become a little slim.
So why, then, would anyone buy the MINI Cooper JCW with a manual gearbox - the one we're driving here?
Vehicle Style: Three-door performance hatch
Price: $47,400 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 170kW/320Nm 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol | 6spd manual
Fuel Economy claimed: 6.4 l/100km | tested: 8.7 l/100km
The F56 MINI JCW hatch launched here last July, but only with a six-speed automatic.
A traditional six-speed manual has since joined the range. But while conventional wisdom says manuals make for better performance cars, the three-pedal JCW is actually two-tenths slower to 100km/h than its auto-equipped counterpart.
It also burns more high-octane petrol. Granted the automatic may cost $2550 more than the manual, but the question we're asking here is whether there are any other advantages to owning a JCW manual beyond just saving a few bucks.
- Standard equipment: Sports seats, leather/microfibre upholstery, front and rear park sensors, reversing camera, head up display, dual-zone climate control, cruise control with speed limiter, dusk-sensing LED headlamps, rain-sensing wipers
- Infotainment: 8.8-inch colour display for Professional Navigation system, sat-nav, AM/FM/DAB+ audio head unit, 12-speaker premium audio, USB audio inputs, Bluetooth phone and audio integration.
- Cargo volume: 211 litres, seats-up
The JCW gets plenty of goodies as standard, key among them being a head-up display, a large 8.8-inch navigation display with iDrive-style infotainment controller on the centre console, digital radio tuner, a 12-speaker Harman Kardon stereo system, reversing camera, dual-zone climate control, parking sensors – the lot.
Add to that some JCW-specific touches like a black headliner, cloth/microfibre upholstery, JCW sports seats, alloy-faced pedals, unique instrumentation and a JCW “page” for the head-up display that's perfect for keeping an eye on speed and tacho while out on the track.
You'd think such a small car would result in compromises in cabin comfort, but MINI has designed the JCW to accommodate a wide variety of body types.
There's so much adjustment in the steering column and seat that virtually anybody should be able to get comfortable behind the wheel, and the chunky leather-wrapped steering wheel is just the right diameter for a spunky hot hatch.
The manual shifter is positioned just the right distance from the steering wheel, though the centre armrest can interfere with your left elbow if it's folded down. The clutch pedal is light and easily modulated, and there's room for a proper dead pedal beside it.
The Sports seats give great support for driver and front passenger, and even boast decent long-distance comfort – if you can bear the firm suspension. The rear seats are... cosy... but you'd expect that from a tiny three-door like the MINI hatch.
It’s a snug cabin, no doubt, but like all good MINIs it makes intelligent use of its space.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 170kW/320Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol inline four
- Transmission: Six-speed manual with rev-matching, front-wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear suspension. Electronically adjustable dampers standard
- Brakes: JCW brake package with Brembo hardware and fixed four-piston front calipers, sliding rear calipers.
- Steering: Electrically-assisted
By modern hot hatch standards the Mini JCW hatch is a middle-of-the-road performer. Its outputs, 170kW and 320Nm from a 2.0 litre turbo four, are healthy and a 6.3-second 0-100km/h sprint time is pretty sharp, but not enough to be class-leading these days.
It makes up for that with its lively persona, with a quick-ratio steering rack, responsive throttle and superb chassis.
A proper multi-link independent suspension sits between the rear wheels rather than the more common (and cheaper to manufacture) torsion-beam setup - a clear sign that MINI will happily spend more bucks to endow its sporty hatch with outstanding dynamics.
And whether you pick manual or auto, the handling story is the same. Steering responses are immediate with zero slack, and the taut suspension tune delivers crisp direction changes.
It’s delightfully neutral when cornering, and rotates easily with a lift of the throttle. Understeer is hard to provoke, given the level of front-end grip on offer and the surprising adjustability of the JCW’s chassis.
On the flipside, don’t expect it to be comfortable on rough roads.
Tip the drive-mode selector ring to the left to put the car in Sport mode, and the throttle sensitivity is cranked up to 11, the steering becomes a touch heavier, the adjustable dampers become firmer and the ECU squirts a little fuel into the cylinders on overrun to generate a satisfying, rallycar-style crackle from the exhaust.
None of that really makes the car faster - well the suspension tweak might if you’re on a race track - but it all results in a stronger emotional response. The car feels and sounds faster, ergo, it MUST be faster – that's what your brain is telling itself.
It's also more fun. Silly farty-pop noises on the overrun may seem obnoxious to outsiders, but from within the JCW they're a giggle-inducing joy. You'll find yourself playing with the throttle just to hear them.
Sport mode is a little bit of a gimmick, but the auto-blipping throttle that helps match revs on gearchanges is anything but.
It's fast and accurate, and effectively eliminates the need to heel-toe on downshifts. It's disabled when Sport mode is selected and stability control is turned off, but the alloy pedals are perfectly spaced for heel-toeing the old fashioned way.
And you know what? It’s more satisfying being able to exercise that level of control over a car like the JCW.
The arcade experience of cycling through ratios via a pair of steering wheel-mounted paddles pales in comparison to having to physically row through a six-speed gate and step on a clutch pedal. A keen driver, a die-hard enthusiast, will appreciate that level of connection.
And all it’ll cost you is 0.2 seconds on the zero-to-100km/h sprint and 900ml more fuel burn over 100km. That’s the price you pay for feeling like you, rather than the car, is in command. Some enthusiasts wouldn’t have it any other way.
ANCAP rating: 4-Stars - this model scored 31.78 out of 37 possible points.
Safety features: ABS, EBD, brake assist, traction control (switchable), stability control (switchable).
Dual front, dual side and full-length curtain airbags are standard equipment, and all four seats receive three-point seatbelts.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The $40-50k bracket is thick with hot hatches of all kinds, from the evergreen Golf GTI to fan-faves like the Megane RS.
In terms of price rivals the Peugeot 308 GTI is probably the biggest challenger - it’s an introvert in terms of design, but it monsters the JCW with its 200kW output while weighing less and sporting motorsport-grade chassis hardware.
The Abarth 595 Competizione has more than enough Euro-retro charm to counter the JCW and costs significantly less at $40k retail, though has less power and a fair few ergonomic flaws. It oozes cool, though.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
We were glowing when we rated the MINI JCW automatic back in 2015, but the manual takes the enjoyment factor to new heights.
It’s the gearbox to get if you’re all about the warm-and-fuzzy feelings that you get from driving, as it amplifies all of the other traits that we love about this scrappy lil’ hatch.
If you’re a rational type or a nerd for speed stats, you’ll probably find more appeal in the faster, more frugal six-speed auto.
But there’s really just one choice for those seeking the most fun behind the wheel of a MINI Cooper JCW - and it’s the one with three pedals.
And that's why you'd buy the manual.