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The once simple formula of the hot hatch has greatly evolved over the years. Evolved and, it must be said, matured. Buyers of the original Mini Cooper had little in the way of creature comforts, and "refinement" isn't a word many would apply to that little thing, but that certainly didn't prevent it from becoming an icon.
Fifty-odd years on, the formula has also fragmented, and today's Mini fits within a very competitive landscape of hatchback cars that offer some degree of sporting pretensions and more power than is strictly necessary. How to differentiate? Why, add even greater power, bigger brakes, better handling and a big wing on the back.
Meet the 2016 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop, the most powerful Mini yet. The 2.0-liter inline-four with its TwinPower turbo, has been dialed up to 228 horsepower and a very healthy 236 foot-pounds of torque. That's enough to bring the 2,885-pound car from zero to 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds -- 6.1 if you opt for the six-speed manual transmission.
As in previous peppy Minis, all that power finds its way to the ground through the front tires, now routed through a differential that can be electronically locked. This prevents the nefarious one-wheel, peg-leg burnout that is the bane of many a fast-hatch driver.
The other typical problem for fast FWD cars is torque steer, and Mini has tackled that by getting smart with the electronic power steering. Step on the gas and the car automatically compensates, preventing any unwanted steering forces from getting through to the wheel.
It all sounds like a bunch of marketing optimism, but after spending a few hours behind the wheel of the thing on road, track and autocross, I'm here to say it works. Torque steer is not a problem, even when accelerating like a loon at extreme steering angles. The steering feel does get rather vague when unwinding the wheel while keeping your foot planted, but that's about all you'll detect.
Additionally, that differential does a commendable job of keeping both wheels in sync. On the short autocross course Mini devised, a series of cones full of incredibly tight turns, the JCW was more than happy to light the tires on fire -- once the traction control was disabled. But, it's worth noting that both tires were spinning, not just the inside one.
Indeed, wheelspin is a problem with the traction control off, and the car will gladly understeer itself straight into the ditch if you lack discipline with wheel and throttle. But, drive the car with nuance, set up the turns correctly, use restraint with the gas and you'll find yourself piloting a car that flows beautifully from one corner to the next with no unpleasant handling tendencies. It is a very nicely balanced machine. Nicely balanced but, it must be said, not hugely engaging.
The car offers three drive settings: Green, Mid and Sport. With each change the throttle gets progressively sharper, the steering more firm and, in Sport, baffles in the exhaust open to create the sort of burbling and popping that has become de rigueur. Opt for the $500 Dynamic Damper Control, which I recommend you do, the suspension gets stiffer in Sport, too.
However, even in its sportiest configuration, even with the exhaust barking loud enough to make the neighbors peek through their blinds, the car never really comes alive. That engine delivers plenty of power, but there's just enough turbo lag on the bottom to keep it from feeling like a proper stump-puller. On the top end, it seems to run out of breath too soon. I found myself bouncing off the rev limiter on multiple occasions.
There is, at least, a proper six-speed manual here, which shifts cleanly but is partially corrupted by an auto-rev-match feature. I found it quite annoying and there's no way to permanently disable it, but it does switch off in Sport mode. The answer, then, is to always drive in Sport mode -- though then you're stuck with unnecessarily firm steering.
The interior is a heady mix of fine materials and garish graphics, the worst offender being the decals applied around the central infotainment center. Lights around the edge of the ring turn into a Technicolor rev counter that looks very out of place on a car positioned as high in the market as this.
The seats, though, are nearly without fault. They're heavily bolstered and sporty without being uncomfortably tight. They squeeze you down low but leave your shoulders open and are adjustable in every way you'd like. Their one fault? None of those adjustments are power-assisted, so if you're sharing this car with someone else you'd better make sure that person fits within the same dimensions as you.
Another thing missing is any hint of driver assistance. No adaptive cruise, no lane departure warning and not even blind spot monitoring. That's unfortunate for a car with a starting MSRP of $30,600 -- an MSRP a new buyer is likely to hit thanks to the plethora of options available. You'll pay $1,950 for leather interior, $1,500 for the automatic transmission and $1,000 for the Rebel Green color see here. An $1,800 Premium Package brings keyless entry, the panoramic moonroof, and a very tasty upgraded Harman Kardon system. The HUD and rear-view camera are part of an $850 Wired package and even satellite radio is a $300 option. (UK buyers will look to pay £23,050 and up, while Australian pricing is not yet available.)
The car will at least save you money on maintenance, with everything included for free for three years. But, it'll be very easy to nudge the out-the-door price of this one up toward the $40,000 mark. And you can do that right now, if you like. The Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop is available for order, and while it may not be the most thrilling or value-oriented hot hatch on the market, it is certainly one of the most polished.