MINI JCW a joy to look at and drive

MINI John Cooper Works is a serious performer crafted by BMW, not the quirky tin box made by British Motor Corporation.

The MINI JCW hatch makes a bold first impression with its hexagonal mesh grille

The MINI JCW hatch makes a bold first impression with its hexagonal mesh grille

“It’s Mr. Bean’s car!” said my seven-year-old daughter as I pulled into our driveway.

Hmmph! The Italian Job, maybe, as my latest tester was the chic, new-generation MINI—and the potent John Cooper Works version at that.

Sure, the JCW model wasn’t yet available for the remake of this classic film that debuted in 2003, but my point is that it’s a serious performer, crafted by BMW, not the quirky tin box made by British Motor Corporation (BMC).

My MINI came with a turbocharged 1.6-litre engine, gorgeous black 17-inch alloy wheels over a set of big, red Brembo brakes, load of chrome bits, and in back, a roof-mounted spoiler presiding over wide-bore dual exhausts.

Mr. Bean’s little ‘76 Mini 1000 Mk III was powered by a 998 cc engine that coughed out a paltry 38 hp, and rolled on wheels that were barely bigger than Frisbees. As for bling, it did come with a door-mounted bolt-latch and padlock…

Indeed, the MINI has come a long way, thanks to the designers at BMW who have preserved not only the look, but the spirit of the original, and without being saddled with its flaws—which were legion.

When BMW bought Rover Group in 1994 it included the Mini. In 2000, BMW brought out the all-new MINI as a separate division and that included the Cooper and Cooper S, playing on the name of the Cooper family who built stunningly fast Minis between the 1960-1990s at their “works” or factory in England.

Once production was underway, a new model debuted called the John Cooper Works as the top trim level with a bevy of go-faster extras.

Today there is an ever-growing list of vehicles that bear the MINI name, including a coupe, convertible, roadster, longer-wheelbase Clubman (and commercially-fitted ‘Clubvan’), an even larger Countryman CUV, and a number of special editions.

Not all have a JCW variant, but most do, and the enhancements are significant. First the powerplant.

In the least-expensive MINI, the Cooper Classic hatchback (MSRP $21,950), its 1.6-litre DOHC four cylinder engine makes 121 hp and 114 lb/ft of torque, taking this 1,150kg vehicle from rest to 100 km/h in 9.0 seconds with the six-speed manual, and 10.3 seconds with the six-speed auto.

Same for the $23,950 Cooper model.

Step up to the Cooper S ($28,950), and the 1.6-litre engine gets a turbocharger, bumping horsepower to 181 and torque to 177 lb/ft. Acceleration improves to 7.0/7.2 seconds (manual/auto).

Topping the range is the JCW, starting at $36,900. It also gets a twin-scroll turbocharger, this time allowing its 1.6-litre mill to pump out 208 horses and 192 lb/ft of torque that can jump to 207 lb/ft for short bursts with ‘overboost’ when you really plant the pedal.

Mated to a specially modified six-speed manual, the only gearbox available, the JCW will leap from zero to 100 km/h in 6.5 seconds. And there’s next to no turbo lag, as peak torque is available from a low 1,850 rpm. Shift a bit early and you’ll still find plenty of grunt to dig you out from the lower revs.

A low-flow exhaust system is also part of the package, which as you’d expect delivers a nice, sporty exhaust note to reward your efforts.

The JCW’s sport-tuned suspension (MacPherson struts in front, independent multilink in rear) is ultra firm. Driving along Keele Street in Downsview, adjacent to the ongoing subway project and home to some of the city’s worst asphalt, I was jarred into submission by the time I reached downtown Toronto for dinner with friends.

On a more positive note, with the car’s wide track and wheels literally pushed to the corners, driving dynamics were remarkably go-kart-like. Corner hard and the MINI feels as if it’s glued to the road.

The ‘sports’ calibrated electric power steering that comes with the JCW upgrade offers plenty of feedback, particularly when in ‘sport’ mode. Enabling sport not only tightens the steering, but noticeably sharpens the throttle response. Prod the gas and this powertrain reacts almost instantly.

Inside the cabin, you’ll find several retro MINI cues, like a chrome-ringed analog tach that’s mounted to the steering column, and the dinner-plate-sized speedometer, that doubles as an infotainment system, centred in the dash.

A nifty row of chrome toggle switches along the headliner turn on map lights and open the sunroof, and along the bottom of the centre stack, a matching set manages both windows and locks. Just above, HVAC controls are set up around a chrome-ringed LED display.

Front seating is also top-drawer, and like my tester, the sculpted, well-bolstered buckets can be clad in black leather with red piping. It’s a $1,900 option, but I think well worth it in terms of look and comfort.

The 50/50 split-fold rear seats are equally stylish and could be a similar delight, but for the kneeroom. There’s a little behind a shorter driver, but basically none if you’re over six-feet tall.

The “base” JCW MINI comes with plenty of standard equipment that includes bi-xenon headlights, front and rear foglights, heated mirrors and washer nozzles, not to mention the spoiler and centre-mounted exhausts previously mentioned.

On the inside, you get pushbutton start, automatic climate control, tilt/telescopic multi-function steering wheel with cruise, multi info display and a pretty decent audio system.

My tester included a variety of upgrades that included the $1,900 Comfort Package (panoramic sunroof, heated front seats, rain sensor with auto headlamps and Media Connect).

I was surprised that heated seats and Bluetooth were not part of a base package that comes in just under 37-grand, especially when some automakers are offering this as standard at half the price.

But these minor gripes are easy to ignore, as the MINI JCW is such a joy to look at, and to drive.

Indeed, it is  one of those automotive icons, like the Volkswagen Beetle and Fiat 500, that has somehow captured the essence and ‘smile factor’ of the original, and like the others has come back light years ahead of its predecessor.

I think even Mr. Bean would agree.

MINI John Cooper Works Hatchback 2012

Body Style: subcompact 2+2 hatchback

Drive Method: front-engine, front-wheel-drive.

Engine: 1.6-litre DOHC twin scroll turbocharged inline four-cylinder (208 hp, 192 lb/ft, up to 207 lb/ft with overboost).

Fuel Economy: 7.7/5.6/6.7L/100 km city/highway/combined with premium fuel.

Cargo Capacity: 160 litres behind rear seats, 680 litres with seats folded

Tow Rating: N/A

Price: $36,900, as tested, $42,830 with Comfort Package ($1,900), Wired Package ($1,850), Championship Leather ($1,900), Black Light alloy wheels ($150), JCW bonnet ($130)

Web: www.mini.ca

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