Once upon a time, back when the Mini really was mini, having the Cooper name attached to it meant it was the serious, go-fast version.
But eventually it became essentially a trim level, a rather sad standing that was reinforced only when BMW took things over and made the Mini less mini, but also far safer, much faster and better equipped.
However, since that time a new serious, go-fast version of the Mini was born — the John Cooper Works — otherwise known as the JCW — version of the not-so-mini Mini.
The JCW was born out of a collaboration with John Cooper’s son, Mike, and was originally a range of bolt-on go-faster bits that grew into a fully developed model after BMW bought the John Cooper Works company.
So now the JCW name means serious Mini performance, with the new model pumping out a ferocious 170kW of power and a robust 320Nm of torque from its turbocharged two-litre four-cylinder petrol engine.
This places it squarely in ‘‘hot hatch’’ territory which includes the VW Golf GTi, Ford Focus ST and Renault Megane RS275.
Handily, the JCW Mini also lands at a roughly similar price as the others, retailing at $54,800 for the six-speed manual.
A six-speed auto with paddle shifters is a $3500 option.
The manual belts to 100km/h in 6.3s while the auto will do it in 6.1s.
Thanks to BMW’s eagerness to promote anything to do with the Mini’s general enjoyability while being thrown around with joyous abandon, it was decided to launch the new JCW at the formidable Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit just outside Melbourne.
Now, while a racetrack generally tells you remarkably little about how a car will behave on a normal road, it is excellent at quickly exposing any weaknesses at its limits, so launching a car on one takes considerable confidence on the part of the manufacturer. Particularly as BMW insists on banging on about the Mini’s “gokart handling” prowess.
Fortunately for everyone, the JCW proved itself to be brilliant on the wet gymkhana course and the dry and brilliantly technical Phillip Island track.
With power up 10 per cent and torque up 23 per cent over the old model, the JCW belts off the line courtesy of a turbo specifically developed for it.
The exhaust has a happily violent roar, with the obligatory-for-the-segment barrage of small explosions whenever you lift off or change gear.
While the acceleration is pleasantly angry, hammering the brakes into the first corner that demands the serious removal of speed is utterly hilarious — the JCW squirms around under heavy braking like a happy cat under a blanket.
The JCW will happily wag its tail into a corner, if you so desire, with the rear end being delightfully playful through corners.
Up the other end the JCW is fantastically sharp and precise, with the steering providing razor-sharp turn-in and excellent feel and feedback. The JCW comes standard with sports suspension and dynamic damper control, 17-inch alloy wheels and run-flat tyres which made the ride on the track’s smooth surface pleasantly planted, nicely firm and remarkably well controlled.
On the coarser roads back to Melbourne, however, things were a bit harsher, with the sport setting not being quite so much of a default choice.
The traditional range of interior styling options are available on the JCW Mini as well as a driver assist package.
Things settled down on the highway and the JCW proved itself to be a surprisingly comfortable long-distance cruiser on good road surfaces. The JCW comes standard with a remarkable amount of equipment, including some thoroughly excellent JCW sports seats, dual-zone climate control, Mini’s signature adjustable mood lighting, Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, a head-up display, satellite navigation, a newly developed Brembo brake system with impressive 17-inch discs, LED headlights and the aggressive JCW body kit.
Being a Mini, the JCW also has a thoroughly extensive range of options available, including the automatic transmission that brings launch control to the Mini for an additional $3500.
The traditional range of exterior and interior styling options are also available, as well as the $2200 driver assist package which adds active cruise control, speed limit info, high-beam assist and pedestrian recognition with autonomous braking.
On the road, the JCW proved itself to be every bit as ferocious and fun as it was on the brilliant Phillip Island circuit, and is certainly a very worthy entrant into a segment that is made up almost entirely of standout cars.
Whether it manages to be a standout among the standouts remains to be seen, as its smaller size and less practical boot space will count against it, but its savage performance and eager handling count for a hell of a lot.