The JCW is certainly fast and relatively sophisticated for a hot hatch but it’s doesn’t quite have the fun factor of its chief rival

Operating an ‘If it ain’t broke’ philosophy with the latest generation of Mini JCW, the changes for its mid-life refresh have been small, but that doesn’t mean that the hottest (for the time being) of Minis isn’t still a hoot to drive. Power and torque – at 170kW and 320Nm – remain unchanged, but under the skin there have been some subtle WLTP-related changes. Despite retaining the same engine, the JCW is still blisteringly quick and beats its rivals in Top Trump bragging rights.

Joining the hatch and convertible later this year will be the JCW versions of the Clubman and Countryman and these will be even quicker still, featuring a 225kW version of the 2-litre turbocharged engine plus all-wheel drive and will be capable of sub-five second 0-100kmh times. There’s also a limited edition new version of the Works GP hatch in the pipeline set to debut in 2020.

For the time being though the JCW hatch is the top dog in the Mini range and its performance goes some way to justifying its £25,950 price tag. Now equipped with more suitable Pirelli P Zero tyres, the JCW delivers an engaging drive, although with its increased girth it’s perhaps not quite as engaging as its latest rival, the Ford Fiesta ST. Even in top spec ST-3 guise the Ford easily undercuts the Mini in terms of price yet provides a more thrilling drive.

Previous generations of Mini have always been energetic, agile and adjustable. The latest model, including the JCW, feels bigger and more ponderous than before, but despite this there is still some fun to be had. The engine provides excellent straight-line grunt while the uprated JCW chassis is grippy and involving. With the optional adaptive dampers it’s even better, with a less choppy ride when not exploring its handling potential, yet a tauter drive when pushing hard.

While Mini offers a convertible take on the JCW theme there’s not really enough to recommend it. It’s heavy, rattly and the flex in the chassis seriously reduces the car’s adjustability. At a whisker under £30k it’s also unpalatably expensive.

Performance and 0-100kmh time

The John Cooper Works hatch and convertible are both powered by the same 2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine that produces 170kW and 320Nm of torque. And until the JCW Countryman and Clubman hit the roads, that makes them the most powerful production Minis ever.

The JCW hatch goes from 0 to 100kmh in 6.1sec for the eight-speed automatic and 6.3sec for the manual. That puts the JCW ahead of most of its competition; the manual JCW hatch is 0.2sec faster than the Ford Fiesta ST. Both the manual and automatic JCWs have an impressive top speed of 246kmh.

The Convertible is 100kg more than the hatchback and, as such, its performance figures aren’t quite as impressive. The manual reaches 100kmh from a standstill in 6.6sec, with a maximum speed of 240kmh. The automatic soft-top is 0.1sec quicker to 100kmh, but it has a 2kmh slower top speed.

The latest JCW feels a significant step up in performance terms over the last generation. The 23 per cent rise in torque is most noticeable, although the electronic limited-slip diff can’t always distribute power across the axle effectively with the increased grunt. For the most part though, the new JCW never feels anything other than rapid.

Ride and handling

The JCW’s suspension hasn’t been dramatically changed compared to that of the Cooper S. It retains the same MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear axle. However, the springs and dampers have been retuned to help improve agility, the anti-roll bars have been replaced with hollow items to save weight and all JCWs have the option of adding adaptive dampers at a cost of £600.

Most of the frustrations we had on first acquaintance with the new Mini John Cooper Works were linked to the Pirelli Cinturato tyres. To be clear, it’s not a bad tyre as such, it just isn’t geared towards high-performance driving in the way that a Pirelli P Zero or Michelin Pilot Super Sport is. This relatively low-grip compound made the JCW feel as though it skated across the road surface when cornering rather than digging into it. Pushed to their limit they also let out a high-pitched squeal.

The good news for the JCW is that the facelifted models come as standard with Pirelli P Zeros, which are a big improvement. There’s more purchase in the dry and it doesn’t wail annoyingly through corners, so you can lean on the chassis a little harder and trust the front axle a little more. There’s also less deflection in the tyre sidewall under hard cornering, which gives the front end much more precision and the driver more confidence.

While there’s far more grip than before, the JCW’s centre of gravity feels unusually high – especially compared to Minis of old – and the car does roll more than you might expect when cornering, yet the suspension can be pretty firm when travelling in a straight line, especially over rougher roads. You could also find yourself fighting the steering wheel as the JCW struggles to deploy all its power, with the front end sniffing out surface imperfections and tugging on the steering wheel.

The optional adaptive dampers do add an extra layer of refinement to the JCW, significantly improving the ride in everyday driving where the standard set-up could become wearisome on longer journeys. In Sport mode they’re appreciably stiffer, helping the JCW to a flatter, more neutral cornering stance. Overall the JCW feels less wayward with the adaptive dampers and it would seem like £600 well spent from the options list.

The manual gearbox, meanwhile, adds the missing layer of interaction that blights the automatic-equipped JCW. Shifting up through the gears and working your way back down the ’box under braking is such an innate part of the small hot hatch experience – a manual shift makes the quickest Mini a much more enjoyable, engaging car. The shift quality is good, too, with a tightly defined gate.

Braking is taken care of by a set of 330mm discs on the front axle, clamped by four-piston Brembo calipers that are so big they almost brush the inside of the wheels. They aren’t just for looks, though. They provide strong, effective braking even on track.

The JCW Convertible has a lot of the same hardware as the hatch – brakes, engine, suspension – and, at medium speeds at least, behaves in much the same way. It turns in with the same verve but the lack of roof, and the loss of rigidity that comes with that, means there’s a constant and unpleasant shuddering from the body on UK roads. The extra slack in the body also detracts from the JCW’s mid-corner adjustability, as it doesn’t react to a lift of the throttle in the same immediate manner. BOB HARPER