Mini John Cooper Works

It's good to drive a sporty version of the great British favourite, except when the suspension is as poor as the price is high

Price £20,995. On sale now

Engine 1,5988cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbocharged, 211bhp at 6,000rpm, 192lb ft at 1,850-5,600rpm

Transmission six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance 148mph, 0-62 in 6.8sec, 40.4mpg official average, CO2 167g/km

At what point in the life history of the current, BMW-created Mini do we let go of the original, 10ft one? This week’s road test subject may just mark that point. Its name, however, might not, at first, lead you to that conclusion. This is the Mini John Cooper Works, the ultimate road-going Mini that’s based on a Cooper S but has another 36bhp at its disposal, making 211 in total. That is a lot of power for a 1.6-litre engine.

We’ve had a JCW before, based on the first-generation BMWMini, and it was a delight. That one was indeed developed inpart by John Cooper Garages, the company set up by the late John Cooper who used to run a Formula One team and invented the original Mini Cooper.

For a small firm to develop a manufacturer-approved tuning kit in the modern world ofregulation and liability was a heart-warming ember of past fast-car freedoms, but it couldn’t last. This new JCW is one in name only: it’s an entirely BMW-engineered, German developed creation.

It is, however, still Minishaped. But it weighs 1205kg, which is twice the weight of an original Mini Cooper, and it’s not really small at all. (Nor is the price, a startling £20,995 which is £4,995 more than a Cooper S.) Even next to my Peugeot 205 GTI, a larger-than average supermini in its day, the JCW looks enormous despite having a boot approximately half as capacious. Crash-safety regulations have ruined today’s cars, and for those who make a point of driving in a way which avoids crashes, that’s a great shame.

Still, 211bhp should still be plenty, especially as up to 207lb ft of pulling ability is available during the engine’s short spurts of turbocharged overboost. To help the front wheels handle all this energy there’s an electronic version of a limited-slip differential, which works by gently braking a wheel which would otherwise be spinning power uselessly away, typically the inside wheelwhen accelerating out of a corner.

Other changes from the Cooper S are a smattering of JCW badges and a new wheel design, and the front brakes are bigger.

Under the bonnet, though, is where the main changes lie. In essence, air is forced into the engine more effectively and the exhaust extracted more efficiently, thanks to enlargements to the intake pipework, the turbocharger and the exhaust system’s diameter. Maximum turbo boost pressure has also been significantly increased, up from 0.9 to 1.3bar, and engine and transmission components have been strengthened accordingly. That’s where the money goes, on these special, strengthened, limited production parts.

I like small, fast cars - “small” being a relative term here. They’re more nimble than hefty, gas-slurping GTs and supercars, less profligate, more usable and ultimately more fun on real roads. They also represent the future of driving pleasure, using minimum resources for maximum enjoyment. Official figures here state a “combined cycle” averagefuel consumption of 40.4mpg, although no one is likely to drive aJCW in the gentle way that cars are driven for the test.

SoI fire up this Mini with some eagerness. This is going to be fun. The exhaust makes a healthy bark and off I sprint up the hill.

I’ve heard reports that the abundance of motive energy causes the nose to be pulled this way and that as grip levels vary, making the steering wheel tug in your hands, but what tugging I’m feeling is hardly a worry. It’s simply a reminder of which wheels are doing the work, and I’ve driven powerful front-wheel drive cars in which this “torque steer” is a much bigger problem.

This is one of those engines that makes a car go faster than you initially think it does, mainly because its power delivery is veryeven across the speed range. Apart from a moment of torpor when accelerating from low speeds, because the bigger turbocharger takes longer to spool up to speed thanks to its turbine’s greater inertia, the engine simply delivers lots and lots of easy, controllable thrust. So overtaking becomes the simple matter of an ankle flex. It’s like the regular Cooper S with a little added urgency.

And each time I decelerate or change gear, there’s a little bang from the exhaust pipe like a racing car’s. It’s not loud enough to frighten the horses but it sounds great, as does the edgy blare under load. This direct-injection BMW engine, also used by Peugeot, hasn’t sounded particularly interesting in its incarnations to date, but here it finds its voice.

Let’s press the Sport button. Now the accelerator s response is yet sharper but something horrible has happened to the steering. As with too many modern, electrically powered systems, it felt oddly rubbery and artificial to begin with.

Sport mode adds a heavy, glutinous quality which further masks feedback even though the idea of the extra weight is to give the impression of a moreintimate connection with the road. It fails. Don’t bother.

But the JCW has a far bigger problem than that, one it shares with the regular Cooper S. Someone in Germany has the notion that a “sporty” car should allow its suspension to move in relation to the car’s body as little as possible.

The tautness this gives is fine on a smooth road or racetrack, but on a normal road, especially a British one with a crumbling surface and a disintegrating substructure, it’s entirely wrong-headed. We need suppleness combined with well judged damping, as Lotus and Jaguar do so well and Peugeot used to do.

The Mini JCW is intolerable onmany British back roads and its suspension settings should never have been signed off.

You can, if you must, have a yet-firmer Sports suspension, or aspecial JCW system for a “hardcore”( so says BMW) experience. But you’d be off your head.

Mini JCW. Great idea, too expensive, ruined by its suspension. What a shame.