What’s Hot: Terrific handling, entertaining dynamics, punchy engine, keen standard feature list
What’s Not: Road noise, a proper LSD would be handy.
X-FACTOR: The JCW is back and - on road or track - a fitting tribute to a much-loved original.
Vehicle Style: Three-door light performance hatch
Price: $47,400 (manual), $49,950 (auto)
Engine/trans: 170kW/320Nm 2.0 turbo petrol 4cyl | 6sp manual or 6sp automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 5.8 l/100km (auto) | tested: 7.9 l/100km
Sequels don’t always live up to your expectations - neither cinematic nor automotive. And while the original may have a cherished place in your heart, it only takes one subpar follow-up to tarnish that memory.
Just look at Jaws: The Revenge, Alien Resurrection and the nonstop cringe-fest that was the most recent Indiana Jones movie. I won’t mention its name, it doesn’t deserve it.
The list goes on.
Yet while creating a successful sequel can be a risky task, there are more than a few that absolutely hit the mark. Case in point: the MINI Cooper JCW.
Now in its third generation since BMW took over the brand, MINI’s track-day scrapper, the JCW hatch, has returned to Australia.
Pricing was announced last month but we’ve finally had the chance to pilot it on road and track, and it’s a cracker on both.
And while this particular sequel is bigger, flashier and packed with more computer-generated effects than the JCWs that preceded it, the core values of agility and entertaining dynamics are still very much present.
That JCW essence remains evident in the way the car drives, sounds and looks, and if you’ve been a fan of the franchise so far, odds are you’ll love the latest installment.
- Standard equipment: Dual-zone climate control, head-up display, cruise control, trip computer, cloth/dinamica upholstery, reversing camera, rear parking sensors, LED headlamps, JCW Sports seats.
- Infotainment: 8.8-inch colour display for Professional Navigation system, sat-nav, AM/FM/DAB+ audio headunit, 12-speaker premium audio, USB audio inputs, Bluetooth phone and audio integration.
- Luggage space: 278 litres minimum, with dual-level boot floor and storage nets.
Bells and whistles? The new JCW hatch has them in abundance, thanks to a lengthy standard equipment list that stuffs it with almost every modern feature you’d want in a car - unless you’re a Luddite who still plays music off CDs, that is.
An 8.8-inch colour display takes pride of place in the centre of the JCW’s dash, and houses the brand’s high-end Professional Navigation infotainment system (virtually the same as BMW’s Navigation System Professional).
Controlled by a rotary controller on the centre console, it’s intuitive and easy to use.
There’s also a head-up display (with unique JCW content such as a tachometer, gear indicator and shift light), deeply-bolstered sports seats, a digital radio tuner and a 12-speaker premium audio system. All standard.
Other JCW-specific flourishes include John Cooper Works scuff plates, a sports steering wheel, a tachometer-like trim piece for the central display, different gear lever trim, stainless steel pedals, a reversing camera, black headlining and cloth/Dinamica upholstery.
It’s not the roomiest hot hatch around (in fact, it’s probably one of the least capacious), but the JCW hatch’s driving position is easily one of the best.
The JCW-specific sports seats hug you tightly and are mounted low in the cabin, the steering column has enough adjustment to bring it nice and close to your chest and outward vision is decent (thick A-Pillars cost it some marks).
It looks sporty, it feels sporty, and though this is one of the most expensive non-premium hot hatches around, its equipment levels mean you won’t feel short-changed.
ON THE ROAD
- 170kW/320Nm 2.0 litre turbocharged petrol inline four
- Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, front wheel drive
- MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear suspension. Electronically adjustable dampers standard
- JCW brake package with Brembo hardware and fixed four-piston front calipers, sliding rear calipers.
- 18-inch alloy wheels. Dunlop SP Sport Maxx or Pirelli Cinturato tyres.
- Electric power steering
With a higher-tuned version of the Cooper S’s 2.0 litre turbo inline-four under the bonnet, the JCW hatch sends 170kW and 320Nm to the front wheels via a six-speed manual or auto gearbox.
That’s more than enough to qualify it as the most powerful MINI ever, soundly beating the 155kW/280Nm 1.6-litre of the second-gen JCW as well as the 160kW/280Nm MINI John Cooper Works GP.
It’s a sweet engine too, with an exhaust note to match.
Low-down torque is plentiful with all 320Nm available from just 1250rpm, and it lasts to 4800rpm. Peak power arrives at 5200rpm, and the JCW loves to rev to its 6500rpm redline.
With the optional automatic the JCW hatch will run to 100km/h in 6.1 seconds - 0.4 seconds faster than the previous-gen JCW hatch manual and just 0.1 seconds slower than a Megane RS275 - while the manual does it in 6.3 seconds.
The auto is also thriftier, drinking just 5.8 l/100km on the combined cycle against the manual’s 6.7 l/100km.
Production of manual-equipped cars for Australia has been delayed until September, so all we were able to sample at launch was the six-speed automatic. We’ll test the three-pedal model in due course.
The auto is a good gearbox, however, with excellent driveability (no twin-clutch malarkey here) and snappy manual gearchanges via the two steering wheel mounted paddles.
It’ll also hold gears right against redline when being driven in manual mode, which we love. Automatic upshifts are the devil when going for a spirited strap through the hills.
There’s no proper limited-slip differential in the driveline, and that can be an issue sometimes. On the rain-soaked roads of the launch route, we encountered axle tramp on hard launches as well as some wheelspin.
That said, the electronic stability control system does a good job of controlling torque. It’s almost seamless in its intervention, yet in Sport mode (which also stiffens the dampers) will allow some degree of slip before it starts reining the car in.
Thanks to some soggy Victorian weather we can vouch for the JCW’s wet weather grip on the standard Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres.
You can lean on them quite a bit before they’ll give in to understeer, and the absence of AWD isn’t as much of a handicap as it is in other FWD hotboxes.
Unfortunately road noise is incredibly high, even on smooth roads. Blame the runflats.
The rainy road drive was followed up some track time at a dry-ish Phillip Island, where the JCW impressed us even more. MINI bills it as the athlete of its range, and we can verify that, yes, it’s a bit of a track star.
Able to easily hit 210km/h-plus by the end of Phillip Island’s front straight, the JCW hatch is not short of outright speed.
The fixed-piston Brembo front calipers and huge rotors wash off that speed with ease and never faded (though the Antarctic temperatures may have had a part to play there), which is a definite confidence-booster on a circuit.
But more than anything else, it’s the JCW’s chassis balance that endeared itself most.
Previous incarnations of the JCW hatch have been wonderfully adjustable in their handling, with easily-managed lift-off oversteer and a nimbleness that’s hard to beat.
The new JCW doesn’t deviate, and will dance around on the threshold of grip if you play with the throttle. Want to tighten your line? Lift off the accelerator and the car will rotate. Put the power back on when you want it to stop.
And it’ll do all of this even with stability control on if you're in Sport mode. Activate the looser DTC mode and the effect is amplified as the stability control is slackened. Deactivate it entirely if you really want to give your reflexes a workout.
Dynamically, it’s one of the most enjoyable FWD cars to drive hard.
The steering could do with a 'pointier' feel, however. The electrically-assisted steering rack is essentially the same as in the Cooper S; a faster rack ratio would not have gone astray here.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
While there are more gadgets and doo-dads to distract you from the driving experience, MINI hasn’t messed with the core JCW formula that made the first two generations such stellar hot hatches.
It’s an oversteer-happy little tyke that’s quicker than many competitors (Golf GTI Performance included), is loaded with heaps of standard kit and boasts plenty of MINI charm.
This is a most entertaining sequel indeed. The franchise is safe for now, and while the price of admission is definitely high it’s absolutely worth it.
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