The original Mini was a small, cheap and frugal city car, ideal for pottering around in and perfect for parking in tight spots. It was made in England, which meant it had awful electrics. And it wasn’t particularly fast. But that was half a century ago. The Mini John Cooper Works has almost nothing in common with its illustrious ancestor.
When Sir Alec Issigonis dreamt up the original BMC Mini in the late 1950s, he could not possibly have thought that, five decades later, a modern derivative of his little box on wheels would deliver the kind of sports car that thrills, well, sports car fans.
But the Mini John Cooper Works is just that: a contemporary box on wheels with the muscle to embarrass many a more fancied, more pedigreed go-fast machine.
Admittedly, the Mini of the 21st Century is a far cry from the Issigonis original. For starters, Mini now finds itself in the BMW fold, even though it’s still built in Oxford. And thus, the engineering underpinning it is light years removed from the first Mini’s wheezing, 850cc, SU carburettor-fed drivetrain .
And while the original measures a mere 3,1m long and 1,4m wide, the Mini John Cooper Works (let’s call it the Mini JCW for brevity’s sake) has grown substantially: it’s 3.7m long, and 1.9m wide.
The styling doffs a hat to the first (traditionalists would call it the “real”) Mini, which means it’s stubby, squat and boxy. But big, cartoon-style alloy wheels have been planted at each corner . And the JCW add-ons, like a low front spoiler, a rear wing and deeper sills, only add to the visual incongruity of it all.
The interior also has an air of caricature about it. There’s a saucepan-sized speedometer in the centre of the dash, with a smaller, pod-like rev counter perched on the steering column, directly in the driver’s line of sight. The switches are chromed toggles and the finishes include painted metal surfaces.
But in ergonomic terms, it all works well enough, and the retro approach never gets in the way of functionality. The big round dial contains a TFT display for the optional on-board satnav system, and an iDrive-like controller affords access to the sound system, Bluetooth phone connectivity, vehicle set-up and on-board computer.
Front occupants get loads of space, but the rear is cramped, and not recommended for longer distances, unless you’re vertically challenged, or younger than 10 years old. As for the boot … you’ll have to strap those golf clubs to the roof, or fold the rear seats down to create more luggage space.
Press the starter button, however, and every idiosyncrasy is instantly forgotten. The growl emanating from the Mini JCW’s twin, centrally mounted exhaust tailpipes is guttural, menacing and utterly enticing.
That’s because this is no ordinary engine. The four-cylinder engine might only have a 1,6litre capacity, but it’s been tweaked and fettled to deliver a quite astounding 155kW of maximum power at 6,000rpm, while the substantial 260Nm torque peak is available from only 1,850 revs.
Compare that to the 24kW and 62Nm of the first Mini …
The JCW’s engine is, of course, turbocharged, and features technical advances such as multipoint fuel injection, and variable valve timing, to extract that amount of muscle from such a small capacity. Drive remains to the front wheels, but via a close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox.
Small wonder then that those fat, 204/45 R17 run-flat tyres really struggle for grip when you floor the throttle and drop the clutch: there just isn’t enough grip and too much initial urge. Some judicious footwork is required to get off the mark in rather less dramatic, but more efficient fashion.
Get it right, and you can expect a 0-100km/h sprint time of 6,5 seconds, and a 238km/h top speed. But those figures are anodyne, compared to the actual, physical experience of driving this Mini on steroids. And physical it certainly is.
Like dynamite with a short fuse, the Mini is best handled with some circumspection. Under acceleration, the steering wheel is a live, squirming, leather-trimmed circle that mimics the efforts of the front wheels to maintain traction.
Turn-in is razor sharp and quite uncompromising, and there’s always a sense of the rear wanting to step out of line, especially under trailing throttle.
Driving the Mini smoothly is an art that requires concentration and practice, and isn’t helped by the stiff suspension. On undulating roads, the sports-tuned chassis gleefully highlights every bump and dip, while reminding one just how short the JCW’s wheelbase is.
But the upside is the close involvement of the driver with this car. The Mini JCW is not the kind of vehicle you cruise along in, one hand casually draped over the steering wheel rim, the other holding up the roof through the open window.
No sir, this is very much a both-hands-on-the-steering-wheel kind of car, and if you’re too generous with the loud pedal, those knuckles are likely to turn white …
But thread it through a mountain pass sequence of corners (and get it right), and this Mini is grin machine. You may find yourself giggling manically as you carve from apex to apex – at cornering speeds that others may consider, well, inappropriate. It’s like a giant go-kart on serious steroids.
The Mini JCW is all about driving fast. It’s not a commuter: the ride is too harsh, the power delivery too abrupt. It champs at the bit from robot to robot, and only comes into its own where there’s space to make full use of all that performance potential.
But there’s something particularly satisfying about this Mini, maybe because the cartoon character looks obscure the truly astonishing dynamic talent the JCW harnesses. It’s the David of the hot hatch world, ready to slay the more fancied Goliaths at every traffic light Grand Prix.
Or perhaps it’s just because it thumbs its nose at the entire notion of small cars being frugal and environmentally friendly.
Either way, there can’t be much more fun to be had in a car as compact as the Mini JCW – even if the privilege will leave a rather large hole in your budget. At R332 000 before options, that hole will be big enough for a small car (like a Mini, for instance) to drive through. But in thrills-for-your-rand terms, it’s a tempting deal …
By Deon Schoeman
Mini John Cooper Works
In-line four-cylinder 1 598 cc, turbocharged
155 kW @ 6 000 rpm
260 Nm @ 1 850 rpm
6,9 l/100 km
Carbone dioxide emissions
R332 000 (before options)
The air quality from pollution on a cruise ship can at times be worse than the world's worst cities.