by Karl Furlong
Up until now, the Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop has been the top dog within the Mini hatchback range. That has all changed for the 2021 model year because the far more powerful - but limited production - Mini John Cooper Works GP has arrived, a derivative that we review separately. Does this mean that the regular John Cooper Works has slipped on the desirability scale? Not at all. While the GP is stupidly quick, its relentless focus on speed has reduced some of its fun factor relative to the normal JCW, which packs a solid but not overbearing 228 horsepower from its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. In more good news, Mini has brought back the manual transmission for 2021, something that should never have exited the range in the first place. Although not nearly as practical as the Honda Civic Type R, the JCW Hardtop is a spicy hot hatch that mostly stays true to the original Mini ethos of rewarding its driver and taking up as little space in the garage as possible.
Enthusiasts in the USA will love the fact that a six-speed manual gearbox is once again the standard gearbox, with an eight-speed automatic available as an option. A few small trim and package updates also apply, as the Signature sub-trim can now be equipped with the brand's 6.5-inch touchscreen navigation system that adds eCall, ConnectedDrive, and more. This same sub-trim also avails a digital instrument cluster. This upgrade adds to the standard 6.5-inch display. Finally, Emerald Grey metallic and Melting Silver metallic have been removed from the color palette.
The Mini John Cooper Works price is likely to raise more than a few eyebrows, with a starting MSRP in the US of $32,400 for the Classic sub-trim with the manual gearbox. Next is the Signature sub-trim at $34,900 followed by the Iconic sub-trim at $39,900. Every Mini JCW price here excludes tax, licensing, registration, and a destination/handling charge of $850. It may be cheaper than the JCW open-top, but the hatch is not really what you'd call affordable.
On all the Classic sub-trim, the automatic transmission will add $1,500 to the base price, but it won't cost extra on the remaining sub-trims. It's possible to spend just under $50,000 on a fully loaded JCW Hardtop Iconic with all the options, but that's way more than anyone should be spending on a Mini hatchback.
See trim levels and configurations:
|John Cooper Works||
2.0L Turbo Inline-4 Gas
In the finest Mini tradition, the JCW is an absolute blast to drive, especially if the road isn't a straight one. As far as front-wheel-drive cars go, this is one of the best. The steering is sharp, direct, and eagerly adheres to the driver's wishes. However, the firm suspension setup can pick up on scarred surfaces quite easily, which results in some yanking through the steering wheel. This can either be seen as a mild annoyance or adding to the JCW's dynamic character. In most cases, though, cornering is neutral and there is more than enough grip on offer. While the rather stiff suspension makes sense in a sporty hatch like this, the ride can prove tiresome on rough surfaces, a sensation that is worsened with the larger wheels. To improve this, dynamic dampers can be equipped. Braking feel is good and without much weight to bring to a halt, the Mini can be slowed down quickly and controllably.
It may no longer be the most powerful Mini hatchback you can buy, but the JCW Hardtop remains an enormously fun car to drive. The combination of 228 horsepower, compact dimensions compared to almost any other new vehicle, and a well-balanced chassis contributes to a brilliant driver's car. The return of the manual gearbox is another reason to consider this 2021 model over the version it replaces. Inside, the same charismatic cabin with its smart materials impresses as it did before. On the downside, the JCW has a cramped rear seat and a puny trunk. Its firm suspension isn't the best at filtering out the bumps, either. Then there is the matter of the price which, at over $30,000, places it up against the faster and more practical Honda Civic Type R. We haven't even mentioned the imminent VW Golf GTI, which will offer a lot more space for the price. But for a young couple or a single person who relishes the trip home from the office, the 2021 Mini JCW Hardtop fits the bill.
As great as it is to drive, the JCW Hardtop starts off at a high price point for such a small car. For this reason, we'd skip the top-spec Iconic and go for the mid-range Signature. It adds niceties like dual-zone climate control, a panoramic moonroof, heated front seats, and access to some desirable features. Of these, we'd add the $1,000 Touchscreen Navigation Package to get the digital instrument cluster, wireless charging, navigation, and Apple CarPlay. Being a Mini, there's no shortage of fun exterior accessories, so we'd spend $100 extra to get those sporty hood stripes.
At $26,400, the Cooper S starts at $6,000 less than the base JCW Hardtop. For that more affordable price, the alloy wheels are one size smaller at 16 inches (although this does improve the ride slightly), power drops to 189 hp, and it's six tenths slower to 60 mph. However, the Cooper S is still plenty of fun to thrash around a twisty mountain pass, and, at the cheaper price, there's more room to play with when it comes to options. Without the stiffer suspension tuning, the Cooper S may not be as capable at the limit, but it's a friendlier daily driver than the JCW. There is the option of the Cooper S four-door as well, which adds a little extra practicality to the mix. Although that JCW badge holds plenty of appeal, the more palatable price of the Cooper S and the only minor drop in performance makes it our choice.
Although we don't know exactly when the all-new, 2021 Golf GTI will go on sale in the US, the Mini JCW is more than likely to face the same uphill battle against this new foe as it did with the outgoing GTI. Not only is the Golf far more spacious, but it could undercut the cheapest JCW on price. The Golf has a much more mature demeanor both inside and out, and although not as playful as the Mini, it has the edge in terms of technology. The 245-hp 2.0-liter turbo-four in the Golf is more powerful than the JCW's engine and, considering that the Golf 7 GTI with its double-clutch gearbox was just as quick as the Mini, the new Golf 8 could have the edge here, too. As lovable as the Mini is, the new Golf is likely to prove too much of a mountain to overcome when it lands in the US.
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