2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop first drive review: My speed

, the most powerful Mini yet

, the most powerful Mini yet

There we were, stuck in Friday afternoon gridlock on Interstate 84 just west of Danbury, Connecticut. Neither my driving partner nor I was pleased with our situation, nor that we couldn’t agree on the radio station. She liked XM’s 1stWave, while The Bridge was more my speed…though speed was only a memory.

But not distant. We had spent the day driving the 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop on the public road in Connecticut, then on an autocross course, followed by lapping a private racecourse—everyone should have one—and then driving back to our hotel, which led to us to I-8, as a shortcut. Did that ever work out poorly.

The 2016 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop, however, works well. It is the most powerful, fastest production Mini ever made. Did you know that, if you hit the gas at the right time, a 2015 Mini Hardtop JCW, someone in the passenger seat can’t lean forward to change the radio station?

2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop engine

The 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop engine sits snugly under the hood. (click to enlarge)

The two-liter turbocharged engine of the 2015 Mini JCW makes 228 bhp and a maximum torque of 236 lb-ft, the most ever for a production Mini, and according the folks at Mini, will accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds for the automatic we’re driving. The manual, because you can’t shift as fast as the automatic, takes 6.1 seconds.

As with all Minis, the engine is mounted transversely, but extensive changes have created a 25 percent increase in output. It’s a new engine, not an update, with a turbocharger integrated in the exhaust manifold, direct injection with injectors arranged centrally between the valves, fully variable valve lift “Valvetronic” combined with variable camshaft control on both the intake and exhaust side, Double VANOS in BMW speak.

The close set-turbocharger of the 2.0-liter turbo engine uses BMW’s TwinPower technology. The turbocharger has two smaller inlets for quicker spool-up, and the torque curve has been tuned to produce max torque of 236 lb-ft at just 1250 rpm and stay at that level to 4, 800 rpm. Peak horsepower comes at a relatively low 5200 rpm to 6000 rpm. The result is the ability to keep people from changing radio stations and launch harder than a Mini has a right to, spinning its tires on takeoff with a solid chirp shifting into second and third gear. Mini points out that the output of the new JCW Hardtop is 39 percent higher than a Mini Cooper S.

So roll on the throttle in first gear and hang on. The Mini doesn’t torque steer but there’s enough straight ahead torque to break a tire loose until the Electronic Differential Lock Control takes hold, aided by Torque Steer Compensation, which uses the electric power steering to help keep the front wheels pointed in the right direction. Power steering assist varies by vehicle speed.

2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop interior

The 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop interior features cloth seats with large bolsters and oval pedals. (click to enlarge)

In the autocross set up by Mini, the JCW Hardtop not only scrabbled for grip in the typically short autocross straights but was quick to respond to the steering wheel. And shifting? It was a tight track, but with the extremely low torque curve, it was a matter of leaving it in second. The Mini pulled off the bottom and not only eliminated the need to shift but also eliminated any penalty for not downshifting.

On the race track particularly, though also on the autocross and highway, the 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop was easy to place a wheel where needed with accurate steering and strut front/multilink rear suspension. The front axle is fitted with aluminum swivel bearings and axle supports and wishbones made of high-strength steel. At the rear, what Mini calls “highly rigid steel” provides rigidity and stiffness.

The 2015 JCW Hardtop will not run out of brakes. Period. Brakes with were developed with Brembo, and are rigid mounted calipers with 13.2 diameter disc up fronts, fit inside 17-inch wheels specific to the JCW Hardtop (or the optional 18-inch wheels as on our test Mini JCW). With a curb weight under 2,900 pounds, the brakes are up to the task. The red paint with “Mini” raised and machined off is there because, well, red paint.

Our test Mini JCW was equipped with the optional Dynamic Damper Control, which can firm up the suspension for “sporty” driving or softer for, as Mini puts it, more comfort-oriented driving situations. The mode selector is located on a ring around the shift lever.

2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop

The 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop has large center-mounted tailpipes. (click to enlarge)

Vehicle mode selection also alters steering weight, throttle response, and also changes the ECU to change the exhaust note, particularly on shifts, richening the mixture just enough for pop and crackle on shifts. Or in other words, reason enough to put it in sport mode anytime the engine is running. That’s of course on top of the changes made to the JCW’s exhaust, including a larger diameter center pipe and as Mini puts it, unique internal geometry. If that’s not enough, an available exhaust system with a closeable—or openable, depending whether you think a glass is half open or half closed—flap in one pipe of the dual outlet muffler. Opened, of course, it’s louder. Whichever way, the 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop sounds good…or better.

The 2014 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop will be easy to spot. Unlike many other cars which block off parts of largely—and large—cosmetic grilles, all the grille and ducting on the car’s front are required to keep the engine and the brakes cool at racing speeds. The only non-functional element on the front end is the right lower side, which unlike the left side which is needed for additional engine cooling, has a phony grille.