Mini JCW: 2,656 miles

Second report: Our flagship hatch meets its racing cousin – so how does it compare?

  • The £1,365 optional satellite navigation blends into the MINI’s retro cabin design by being cleverly located in the middle of the large central speedo. It works well, with clear mapping and excellent features, and is easily controlled via the small central joystick.
  • Two months into life with the JCW, I still haven’t found anything I don’t like. The front clamshell shut lines were awry, but tightening a bonnet latch sorted this problem out simply enough.

Lots of manufacturers make a big deal about their latest sporty model being inspired by a racing version. In reality, many of these cars have little in common with their track counterparts – but that’s not the case for the MINI John Cooper Works.

I found this out for myself when I got the chance to contest two rounds of the German MINI Challenge as part of our 50 Years of MINI special. And I can confirm that our long-term model is only a small step away from the red race machine it’s parked next to in this photo – as I’ve driven them back-to-back.

I arrived at the Silverstone circuit in Northamptonshire in our green machine, and then headed straight out on to the grand prix track in the race-spec model. The latter benefits from a motorsport ECU, as well as reworked pistons, turbo and air filter, although its transmission and engine are the same as on the road car.

The competition MINI is stiffer and lighter, as it has a stripped-out cabin and full roll cage, while slick tyres and race brakes make it quicker. Through corners, though, its handling is very similar to that of my MINI. The punchy turbo power, raspy exhaust and precise gearshift are the same, too. The one big thing setting the two apart is that the race models can be fine-tuned – so in a grid of 32 Challenge MINIs, no two cars will handle the same. But in theory, two JCW road cars should feel identical – so our Racing Green example has left me scratching my head slightly.

I’ve covered hundreds of miles in two different JCWs on road tests in recent months, but our long-termer doesn’t feel the same as those cars. Under hard acceleration out of tight corners, YC09 OKV squirms and tugs a fraction more over cambers in the road.

They’re small differences, and haven’t stopped me loving our JCW for its agility, pace and wonderful feedback. A number of colleagues have noticed it, too – the tyre pressures are fine, so it’s a real mystery.

Nevertheless, our John Cooper Works still strikes a great balance between performance and handling, and with a few more miles on the clock the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine is loosening up nicely. Plus, the quality of the cabin continues to impress.

In fact, the more I drive the JCW, the more it confirms its place at the top of the hot hatch tree. As a car to live with day to day, only Volkswagen’s latest Golf GTI can beat it.

The trouble is, our model reminds me of the Challenge MINI whenever I climb behind the wheel – and having had a taste of racing the baby Brit, I’m desperate to get back on the track for another go!

Extra Info

THE JCW is a feisty and absorbing hot hatch. But over long distances, it isn’t as refined to drive as the new VW Golf GTI, plus it loses out in terms of cabin practicality.

Its 160-litre load bay is tiny compared to a hot compact family hatch like the Golf!

And Owen is right – our long-term car doesn’t have the same uncorrupted steering as other JCWs we’ve tested. Ross Pinnock Road test editor

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