MINI John Cooper Works hatchback review
"The MINI John Cooper Works is quick enough to worry larger hot hatchbacks – just be mindful of the cost of options"
- Funky interior
- Stand-out looks
- Entertaining to drive
- Cheaper Cooper S almost as fun
- Pricey compared to rivals
- Uncomfortable ride
For a long time, the MINI John Cooper Works (JCW) was the most powerful production MINI you could buy. That’s not surprising, as 228bhp is plenty in a MINI hatch but now the range includes JCW versions of the MINI Countryman and MINI Clubman with 302bhp. There was also a limited-run MINI John Cooper Works GP, with the same power output plus carbon-fibre panels and just two seats.
The 228bhp JCW ups the ante from the Cooper S and serves as the flagship of the range (the GP model is no longer available new). The other hint to its potency is that it uses the name of one of the biggest influences on this small car's history – engine tuner John Cooper.
The JCW builds on the MINI brand’s famous 'go-kart' handling with stiffer and lower suspension than other models and a more powerful version of the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine of the Cooper S.
Its dimensions are the same as the rest of the range, so rear passenger space is still cramped and the boot size is pretty poor. However, the JCW does come with unique styling additions, including a chunky bodykit, smart alloy wheels and flashes of red, including an optional red roof. A Harman Kardon stereo can be included, too.
Smaller than a Volkswagen Golf GTI, the JCW has few direct rivals, especially given you can order it as a convertible. The closest car to the hatchback is the Abarth 595 Competizione – a hot version of the chic Fiat 500 city car - although the Toyota GR Yaris is similarly focused but costs a lot more. The JCW is noticeably more expensive than the Abarth, and dearer than our favourite small hot hatches, the Ford Fiesta ST and Hyundai i20 N.
In fact, the price is probably the most contentious issue: the JCW is definitely an entertaining car, but the Cooper S costs much less and is almost as fun to drive. More comfortable too, as the JCW never settles down even on super-smooth surfaces. However, the JCW will be a rare sight on the road and that gives you serious bragging rights - even if lower-powered cars in Sport spec are now fitted with JCW badges from the factory.
Hot hatchback fans and trackday drivers alike will jump at the chance to pick up a used performance MINI, especially one with the coveted John Cooper Works badge, so values should remain high.
MPG, running costs & CO2
The rest of the MINI hatchback range has some very efficient engines and even the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol in the JCW is relatively economical – particularly considering the performance on offer.
When fitted with the six-speed manual gearbox, it’s capable of up to 41.5mpg and emits 156g/km of CO2. The automatic version is actually slightly more efficient (42.8mpg) but costs £1,700 more. Plus, the manual version is arguably more fun to drive. VED (road tax) isn’t based on CO2 emissions any more, so JCW models attract the same rate as any other MINI hatch.
Insurance premiums will be high, too, but MINI offers a very good five-year/50,000-mile TLC service package, which helps keep servicing costs to a minimum.
A high price prevents it from scoring better here. The JCW costs more than the most expensive Ford Fiesta ST and more than the Hyundai i20 N, and that gap widens further if you get carried away with optional extras. Although the MINI will retain a good percentage of its value when you come to sell, you won't see much return on your investment in those options.
Engines, drive & performance
The 2.0-litre turbocharged engine in the John Cooper Works is basically the same one used in the Cooper S, but it’s been upgraded and fettled by MINI engineers to increase power from 176 to 228bhp. The sprint from 0-62mph is dealt with in 6.1 seconds by the six-speed automatic version (6.3 with the manual) and the JCW can manage 153mph flat-out. That’s noticeably quicker than a Fiesta ST or i20 N.
Even from low engine speeds, the power increase over the Cooper S can be felt, as the car pulls well even if you're in too high a gear. The automatic gearbox is quick to change up, but hesitates a little when you want a lower gear, so we’d suggest the six-speed manual version instead for an even more involving drive.
Gearchanges are slick and rewarding, adding an extra layer of interactivity to an already-good hot hatch. The JCW is a very entertaining car and has a decent chunk of that famous MINI character, but the steering lets it down a little – it’s weighted well but it lacks overall feel.
At least the JCW sounds good; the optional sports exhaust on the Cooper S is standard on this model. But it could become tiring if you plan on taking it on frequent long motorway journeys. The run-off valve means the car makes little popping noises – fun, but not particularly sophisticated!
Interior & comfort
The JCW gets the same distinctive interior as other MINIs, with a huge LED light-decorated infotainment system dominating the dashboard, along with aircraft-style toggle switches for various functions.
Body-hugging seats trimmed in leather and Alcantara set the JCW’s cabin apart from the crowd, along with loads of red trim. There’s also a click wheel (similar to the iDrive system in BMW cars), which controls many of the on-board functions.
The famously stiff suspension found in the rest of the MINI range has been hardened further in the JCW model. However, you can use the drive model selector to fine-tune things a bit – in Sport mode, the car is firmed up enough for track driving or a B-road blast, but in Normal, it’s a bit less jittery for everyday driving. In truth, however, the JCW is too firm for British roads and it never really feels settled or comfortable.
Practicality & boot space
Rear legroom in the JCW is famously miserly and made even worse by the addition of sporty bucket seats. Headroom is acceptable, because of the car’s flat roof, but overall rear-seat passengers will feel cramped on anything other than a short journey.
Boot space remains small, too, at just 211 litres. In comparison, a Volkswagen up! city car has more boot space but is far smaller on the outside. The MINI’s rear seats can be folded down to improve that space, but the boot is still hardly class-leading for a car of this size.
The MINI’s size does count in its favour when parking, though, as its almost flat ends mean you should find it easy enough to slot into a tight space.
Reliability & safety
The MINI hatch scored reasonably well in our Driver Power 2021 customer satisfaction survey, taking 59th place out of the top 75 cars on sale. Buyers praised its driving experience, styling and infotainment. Unsurprisingly, the hatch didn't score well on practicality, thanks to its small boot. The brand secured a mid-table result of 19th in the 29-strong manufacturer rankings - above parent company BMW - with only 11% of owners reporting a fault in the first year of ownership.
The engine used in the JCW is similar to the one in the Cooper S, as well as some BMW 2 Series Active Tourer and BMW 3 Series models. The JCW also feels pretty well put together, save a few rough plastics here and there.
The MINI hatchback received four out of five stars in Euro NCAP crash-testing. It didn’t do enough to merit the maximum five-star rating, but the hatchback does come with front, side and curtain airbags and electronic stability control.