Did you know that Fiat could have scored the contract for providing the star car in the original The Italian Job? The automaker offered to supply its beloved Cinquecento — but as you know, it was the iconic little model from the British Motor Corporation that succeeded in the audition. Maybe it was for the best.
Because somehow, one feels the 500 would not have been as convincing as the gutsy Mini in transporting that heavy contraband. Charlie Croker would probably approve of the hauling capabilities boasted by the new JCW, launched in South Africa this week. This is officially the most powerful production Mini in the history of the marque. We had the opportunity to sample the mighty mouse over a 160km test route through the outskirts of Johannesburg. And a make- shift gymkhana, staged at Montecasino. Invoking the name of John Cooper in Mini circles always elicits reverence.
The carmaker became known for the magic he cast upon examples of the compact car bred for motorsport applications. After he died in 2000, his son Michael kept the family name alive — and the BMW Group carried the JCW moniker forward in its revival of Mini. Eyebrows were raised when the JCW iterations of the hefty Countryman and oddball Paceman saw daylight. But this newcomer promises to provide the unadulterated spirit of what a JCW Mini ought to be.
Beneath that bulbous hood sits the same 1 998cc, four-cylinder boosted engine that powers the current Cooper S and a number of offerings from the BMW stable. For this purpose it has been tuned to produce 170kW and 320Nm of torque. That output is good for a sprint time of 6.3 seconds, or 6.1 seconds if you opt for the Steptronic version. Only the latter was available at launch and buyers who prefer rowing their own will have to wait until next month.
There might be good sense in opting for the manual. Because immersion is Mini implies that you will be able to “blow the bloody doors off” your opponents at the traffic lights. The essence of a JCW Mini. And this seemed to be lacking in our two-pedal tester, we are sad to report. Now, it is certainly no slouch, with pace in plentiful supply. It makes all the right noises, too; the bass from that quartet of cylinders resounds heartily through the air. You also get those belching noises as cogs are swapped — a hot hatchback hallmark everyone loves. But when it comes to the visceral sensations and thrills, one feels a bit detached. The suspension is taut, but certainly with a more supple character than the old one.
That chunky three-spoke steering, while assuredly heavy, could offer more communication. Stopping power comes courtesy of brake specialists Brembo. We covered ground at a rather rapid rate, all while forgetting that we were in what is supposed to be the most fun family member in the Mini stable. The DNA from parent company BMW might be a little too strong here. But still, one cannot help but smile upon entering any contemporary Mini. Quirky details are everywhere. From the circular elements with exaggerated sizes to the whimsical warning chimes, it is a festival of fun. Of course, it is all sprinkled with a typically Teutonic helping of plush. And Teutonic generosity.
The Germans are known for their miserly approach to kit and buyers will have to fork out a bit more to have a JCW as desirable as the examples in the glossy brochures. The standard list price is quite likely to ensure that the halo Mini remains a niche offering. Things start at R418 000 for the manual and the Steptronic will set you back R440 000. Not an easy figure to swallow, and you could realistically enjoy similar thrills on the daily drive from the cheaper Cooper S, which starts at R370 000.
Mind you, the JCW sits squarely in the pricing territory of another German with three hallowed letters on its rump. Hard to believe, but you could have the roomier and equally quick Volkswagen Golf GTI for less. A BMW 125i is roughly the same price. There is no dearth of choices in this end of the market. And unless you are a diehard Mini fan, your money would be better spent elsewhere. The new Mini JCW is pretty fast but rather forgettable.
Power: 170kW between 5 200rpm and 6 000rpm
Torque: 320 Nm between 1 250rpm and 4 800rpm
0-100km/h: 6.1 seconds (Steptronic); 6.3 seconds (Manual)
Top speed: 246 km/h ( Both )
Fuel consumption: 5.7l/100km (Steptronic); 6.7l/100km (Manual)
CO2: 133 g/k m (Steptronic); 155g/km (Manual)
Price: R418 000 (Manual); R440 000 (Steptronic)