2018 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop review: Small and sporty, but a bit too sharp
While the standard Cooper and hotter Cooper S are great fun in their own rights, the most raucous Minis wear John Cooper Works badges. You can get the go-fast JCW treatment on everything from the standard Hardtop to Mini's Convertible, Clubman and even supersized Countryman. It's the ultimate way to experience Mini motoring. But be warned: All that extra power comes with a lot more concessions in everyday drivability.
The John Cooper Works has more than a few perks over its Cooper and Cooper S siblings, starting with a healthy power increase. The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine puts out 228 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque in this JCW Hardtop, increases of 39 and 29, respectively, over the Cooper S. To keep that extra grunt in check, larger Brembo brakes handle stopping duty, a stiffer suspension offers improved poise and a larger rear spoiler improves aerodynamics.
The first thing I notice as I slip behind the wheel is a two-inch metal cylinder sitting in the cup holder. Turns out it's a Bluetooth-enabled remote for the optional Pro Valve Exhaust. Two clicks of the button opens a valve, allowing exhaust to bypass the muffler for a much louder sound. At speed, it sounds like there's a motorcycle trailing you -- it's awesome.
Flip the JCW Hardtop into Sport mode, and you get more weight to the steering, as well as improved throttle response and revised shift mapping from the six-speed automatic transmission (yes, you can get a manual, and you should). On the twisty roads of Northern California, it immediately becomes clear that this is not a car for softies. The suspension is stiff, and when paired with the no-cost-optional Pirelli P7 Cinturato run-flat, all-season tires, the overall ride quality is seriously harsh. The JCW crashes and jounces over even the smallest road imperfections, the hard sidewalls totally unforgiving. If I bought this car, I'd stick with the summer tires.
That said, on smooth roads, the JCW Hardtop reminds me how fun front-wheel-drive cars can be. The steering is crisp and accurate, with that typical Mini go-kart-like feeling. Torque comes on strong from just 1,250 rpm and remains plentiful up to 4,800 rpm, meaning there's plenty of juice in the majority of the rev range. On my favorite back roads, I can largely leave the car in third gear and know there's always plenty of power to rocket me out of a turn. Straight-line performance isn't too shabby, either, with Mini estimating a 5.9-second 0-60 time, which is the same as a Volkswagen GTI, and quicker than a Honda Civic Si.
As for driving aids? There aren't any. Blind-spot monitoring and lane-keeping assist are absent. Adaptive cruise control is an option, but my tester doesn't have it. Boo.
Cute, useful tech
Mini's infotainment system is basically a cuter version of BMW's iDrive. You can control it with the rotary knob on the center console, or simply by touching the screen. Housed in an 8.8-inch screen inside a gimmicky color-changing ring on the dash, the Mini Connected system is as intuitive as any iteration of BMW iDrive, and while it features Apple CarPlay compatibility, Android Auto is unavailable.
The onboard navigation is easy to use and has no trouble with voice commands, even when asking it to send me to the hard-to-pronounce Cahuenga Boulevard (that's "ca-wang-ah") in Los Angeles. As a bonus, there's a quick search field for when you just need to find the closest pizza joint or grocery store.
Fun cabin, and not too small
If the Mini's ultra-cute exterior doesn't make you say "Awww," then perhaps the interior will. Everything is round and colorful, with cute little graphics everywhere (like the checkered flag pattern of the redline indicator). Climate control functions are operated by traditional dials and buttons on the center stack, but things like the engine on-off switch, parking sensors, stop-start, traction control and driving modes are all controlled by toggle switches. If you're looking for the window switch toggles, they're back on the doors, where they belong.
The Mini is a small car, but at five feet, nine inches, I have no problem with headroom, even with the optional panoramic sunroof. Sure, my six-foot-five video producer has to duck his head a bit, but he has no complaints about front-seat legroom. There is, in theory, room for two adults in the back. But let's be honest, you aren't going to put real people back there. Instead, fold those seats down, and you'll find 34 cubic feet of space, which is a big improvement over the 8.7 cubic feet that's available with the seats upright.
How I'd spec it
First, spend some extra coin on the Signature or Iconic trims to get the Dynamic Damper Control. No need for that harsh ride when you're just commuting, plus that's the only way to get driver's aids like forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking. The good news is that even at the lowest Classic trim, there are so many ways to customize your Mini. Stripes, mirror caps, illuminated piano black interior details and more are all available. It can get pricey, sure, but at least you'll be unique.
The 2018 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop starts at $31,800, but with the optional automatic transmission, navigation system, premium audio and panoramic sunroof, my test car comes out to a lofty $39,850. Yeah, that's a lot.
Great car, bad value
There are lots of small, sporty cars out there, but nothing quite like the John Cooper Works Hardtop. The closest competitor, in my eyes, is the less-expensive, slightly less-powerful Volkswagen GTI. Of course, for the price of my test car, you could have a 292-horsepower Golf R with all-wheel drive.
Other alternatives include the Honda Civic Si, which offers less power but a much lower price. The Mazda MX-5 Miata, Subaru BRZ or Toyota 86 are other good options if you want naturally aspirated grunt and rear-wheel drive. You could even get into something like a Fiat 500 Abarth, which sounds killer, but is super cramped inside and significantly down on power.
In hardcore John Cooper Works form, the Mini Hardtop is a blast -- darting through traffic and zipping around town to run errands is tons of fun in this little guy. But its harsh ride quality and expensive price point makes it a tough sell alongside traditional hot hatch competitors. It's a zippy little pocket rocket with a character all its own, but it comes at a pretty high price.