Like M cars are to BMW, John Cooper Works (or JCW for short) is MINI’s in-house tuning firebrand, taking ordinary cars and making them into thrill-inducing machines. Okay, maybe that’s a little over the top in terms of what JCW does, but you get the idea. We’re talking about substantive changes in looks, power and handling over the standard version of the vehicle.
A little history lesson before we proceed: John Cooper was the man who created the original Mini Cooper in 1959. The last original Mini rolled off the line in October of 2000. BMW had acquired the company in 1994 as part of a larger acquisition and in 2000 rebranded it as the new MINI (spelt using all caps to distinguish it from the old Mini).
Shortly thereafter, John Cooper’s son, Michael Cooper, founded a company called John Cooper Works which produced performance parts and accessories for the new MINI. BMW took notice and in 2008 ended up acquiring the company altogether with the goal of incorporating it into the product line in an official capacity.
Now, almost every MINI has a JCW edition which can be had for a reasonable premium over the standard models. If we compare the 2017 MINI John Cooper Works Convertible to the Cooper S Convertible, we find MINI has upped the output of the 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder from 189 to 228 horsepower, coupled with 258 lb.-ft. of torque.
It’s a nice amount of a power for a small car—and the thing moves. Unfortunately, this press vehicle came with an automatic transmission which removes a good portion of the driving pleasure. The automatic just isn’t as much fun, even with the paddle shifters. Fuel economy wasn’t stellar, coming in at around 10 L/100km for city driving. I’m sure my lead foot didn’t help, but nevertheless, it was higher than I anticipated.
MINIs are known for their handling and as you can imagine, the JCW versions are even more firmly planted to the ground. The suspension has been stiffened and lowered by about a half-inch. Coupled with the larger 18-inch wheels and high-performance JCW brakes, we have a real go-kart on our hands. In fact, this is likely the best handling front-wheel-drive vehicle on the market. The ride is definitely firm, but no so much that is becomes uncomfortable. The MINI uses electronically assisted power steering, yet a surprising amount of road feel is transferred to the driver.
I liked the fact that it doesn’t seem like you’re driving a small vehicle when you’re behind the wheel. The driver is at essentially the same height as the other vehicles on the road. Hats off to the MINI engineers for building a small car that doesn’t feel like one when you drive it.
MINI cockpits are unique in that they look like actual airplane cockpits with toggle-switch controls on the dash and above the rearview mirror. The main infotainment display is huge and circular with coloured lighting that changes as you turn up the sound system volume or adjust other settings. The system mimics BMW’s iDrive functionality with a rotary dial located near the handbrake for ease of use. Everything feels tight and well made. The interior is adorned with material that gives it a very “racing” character, including race-style bucket seats which hold you firmly in place and a beautiful, red-stitched leather steering wheel complete with John Cooper Works badging.
Having a drop-top means it’s perfect for the type of extended summer we’re experiencing at the moment. Top operation is smooth and quick, and can be done at speeds of up to 29 km/h. I will point out that rear visibility with the top down is significantly construed. Unfortunately, I could barely see over the trunk. With the top up, I found that exterior noise was more audible than I expected, but wind noise on the highway was negligible.
The 2017 MINI John Cooper Works Convertible starts at $40,590, not including freight, PDI and taxes. With a few options such as navigation, the 8.8-inch screen, the Style package and Essentials package, the 18-inch wheels and the automatic tranny with paddle shifters, you’re easily above $50,000. It’s quite a price to pay for a small convertible. However, BMW views the MINI as a premium brand just like itself, so you have to pay to play. You’ll definitely want to check out the MINI Convertible’s main competitors, the Mazda MX-5 and the Fiat 124 Spider. Both can be had nicely equipped in the low $40,000 range and, more importantly, are rear-wheel drive—a major point for enthusiasts.
Even at the higher price point, the JCW MINI still makes a case for itself. MINIs in general sell well and have somewhat of a cult following. They may not be the best deal in town, but with ample power and go-kart like performance, you can’t afford not to check one out.