Finding out why JCW is a hallowed name among automotive enthusiasts!
This issue of TURBOCHARGED is about celebrating hot hatches and you cannot really have a ‘hot hatch special’ without the iconic Mini Cooper JCW, no? The icon that it is, the Mini has humble origins. It was developed as a frugal hatchback to combat the 1956 Suez Canal crisis that caused a shortage of fuel in the UK. It was a tiny car with short overhangs and the wheels pushed to the corners, making it surprisingly fun to drive. John Cooper saw potential in the humble hatchback and created performance kits under the name John Cooper Works. The rest, as they say, is history and the Mini Cooper JCW is regarded as one of the greatest hot hatches ever!
Minis have been touted as great fun to drive cars and the compact dimensions make it a fantastic getaway car, as shown in the 1969 heist film ‘The Italian Job’. In fact, my first sighting of the Mini was in the second Italian Job (2003) movie. Those were my formative years and for me, the real hero in the Hollywood flick was the Mini Cooper S (sorry, Mark!). Three hatchbacks cutting through LA traffic and squeezing through the stairwell of the subway was heroic stuff. I think I also had a crush on Charlize Theron, seeing her driving skills. The cherry on top though was the glorious whine of the supercharger on the Mini Cooper S. My young mind had decided, a Mini is what I wanted for myself.
And ten years later I had my first rendezvous with a Mini. It was a yellow Mini Cooper diesel and interestingly, the oil burner made it fun to drive! Chasing my then boss Ouseph Chacko (who was driving a JCW!) in the diesel, climbing up to Aamby Valley is etched into my mind permanently. The gokart like steering, composure and grip around corners made it an absolute hoot to drive. It was also the first time I saw a JCW being driven in anger, instantly marking itself into my bucket list of cars to drive. So when the Ed casually tossed over the keys of the Mini JCW this month, I felt a mix of elation and apprehension both!
Apprehension because having driven the new 2021 Mini Convertible and finding it sedate, I wondered if the JCW would truly live up to the halo I had for the name. They say never meet your heroes, no?
I’m glad I met the JCW though and I love the way it looks! The design boffins at Mini had the brief to retain the boy racer vibe while keeping it understated I guess. The blacked-out accents and subtle JCW badging on the grille, fenders and door sills ensure styling is not in your face, yet can turn heads.
I also like the old-school, fighter plane inspired cockpit and the toggle switches in place of buttons, the HOTAS-styled gear lever and flat-panelled instrument console. I’d like to think of it as an ode to the British Royal Air Force, the first independent Air Force in the world. The meaty Nappa leather-wrapped steering wheel is a joy to hold, while well-bolstered sports seats hold you in place as you chuck the car into bends.
Starting it up is a bit of an occasion too. Push down the red toggle in the centre and the starter whine is followed by a loud bark from the twin exhausts. In fact the car sounds like it has an angry growl even on the move. To better enjoy the aural experience, just roll the windows down, as it allows you to enjoy the burble and turbo blow-off whistle on lift-off too!
The motor is an absolute sweetheart. This is the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged petrol, B48 motor from BMW that pushes out 231PS and 320Nm in this guise. With just 1,275kg to lug around, it can sprint to 100kmph from nought in a scant 6.1 seconds and top out at 240kmph. But this is a Mini and it’s not a car you buy for the numbers. The immediacy with which the turbocharged motor reacts to throttle inputs is usually reserved for sportscar powered by naturally aspirated engines. The JCW thus forces you to rewire your brain to cope with its sharp throttle responses and modulate the loud pedal accordingly, especially in traffic. The urgency and ease with which the JCW gets to 100kmph is just astonishing. Drive it in anger and you will be surprised by the way the Mini can shorten the distance between corners, given the swell of torque that negates the need for downshifts. Oh, and the theatrics! Every time you press down on the throttle you have to grapple with the steering to compensate for torque steer. And this is kind of torque steer that you want to experience again and again! The way the car shoots forward aggressively after each upshift is a treat to the senses in fact. The eight-speed automatic is responsive and a joy to use, though downshifts could have been quicker.
I couldn’t revisit Aamby to recreate a heightened sense of Deja Vu, but did the next best thing, take the JCW to Lavasa. Incessant rains have eroded a layer of tarmac which gave me a taste of the firm suspension. In fact, with the optional 18-inch wheels and ultralow profile Pirelli tyres our test car was running, the suspension felt borderline stiff! So I had to keep a lookout for broken patches, potholes and uneven road joints. Miss any of those and you end up with a loud thud. It hurts your heart more than your bottom and it’s just a matter of time before you end up damaging the wheels and tyres on our roads. Wiser to stick to the stock, 17-inch wheels in my opinion thus.
The Mini Cooper JCW feels like a premium oversized go-kart, packed with features. The steering is sublime. It is joyously direct, with lots of feedback. The chassis is sweet as well and overall, you have loads of grip. Then there are the stupendously strong brakes that offer tremendous bite every time you press the brake pedal. For the matter I am also happy to report that positioning of the throttle and brake pedal is spot on, allowing for left foot braking with relative ease.
At Rs 47 lakh ex-showroom, with the extra accessories (panoramic sunroof and 18-inch wheels), the Mini Cooper JCW is effectively the second most expensive hatchback on sale. It is not an easy car to drive on the limit, given its razor sharp responses though and you need to bring your A-game along, each time you plan to cane it. It is uncompromising as an everyday hatch, but that’s missing the point. The JCW is a car to choose over your luxury SUV when you are either feeling low or just want that rush of adrenaline. It’s that second car in your garage you will take out on weekends or late night, to unwind and enjoy pure, unadulterated driving.