I’ve been waiting for this day since MINI unveiled the F56 John Cooper Works concept in Detroit 18 months ago. With a good amount of driving on the twisty roads of New York State, some racing and auto-crossing, this part of the JCW press event has given me a good idea of what this new car is capable of.
##We Want this MINI!##
Some of you have been wondering why it took MINI USA so long to have this press event while European journalists got to drive the JCW almost two months ago. In two words, manual transmission. When it comes to JCWs in the US, the take rate of manual transmissions is almost 70%. To be honest, I didn’t expect the number to be this high, it is quite staggering in fact. Given that, MINI USA wanted to ensure that journalists attending the event would have the opportunity to drive a stick JCW, which meant waiting until the end of June for these models to roll off the assembly line and reach our shores.
The reason I’m telling you all this, is because right after breakfast we all rushed to the fleet manager and asked to be assigned a MT JCW. And we got lucky. Our ride for the day would be a fully loaded 2015 Rebel Green John Cooper Works with a manual transmission. The price tag for this joy machine? $41,800.
To my MF/WRR colleagues’ despair, I’ve been quite the supporter of automatic transmissions lately. They just make sense when you’re stuck in traffic 80% of the time. But for the purpose of truly testing a performance oriented MINI, there’s nothing better than a good old manual tranny, and this one was quite good. With the right amount of smoothness, the perfect engagement point, and the smart rev-matching it is without a doubt the best manual transmission that has been put on a MINI to date.
For this first stage, Gabe took the role of driving assistant (yep, Gabe was my assistant) and we were off to the races.
##Fun at the Wilzig Racing Manor
MINI USA scouts carefully designed a driving route that allowed us to really push the JCW. Plenty of twisties, ups and downs gave the most powerful MINI a run for its money. Something that I regret coming out of this extended test-drive is that I waited the second part of the day to put the car through its paces. I guess that’s what happenes when you attend your first press event, and when you keep reminding yourself that even an experienced automotive journalist can crash a test car. At the first pit-stop Gabe and I took turns, and how can I say this, he is a damn good driver. I’m glad that I got to be his passenger as it showed me the way to properly drive this new MINI.
A few miles after the exchange we arrived at the [Wilzig Racing Manor](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Wilzig#Wilzig_Racing_Manor) named after its owner, [Alan Wilzig](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Wilzig). Being a successful entrepreneur and a semi-professional race car driver, Mr. Wilzig decided to build a race track in his backyard. He rarely opens it to third-parties, but as a MINI owner it made sense for him to have us use it for the the day. Our arrival at the Manor was followed by a detailed technical overview of the JCW, racing and auto-crossing. In addition to the long drive preceding/following these activities, I had all I needed to form an opinion on the car.
**Is a dealer test-drive enough to assess the JCW?** It isn’t. As a car targeted towards enthusiasts, it requires extended seat time to assess its true value, which is [almost impossible](http://www.motoringfile.com/2015/05/27/opinion-test-driving-is-broken/) given the current dealer setup. I recommend finding a MA who is willing to let you drive the car for half a day, or finding a friend who’s nice enough to lend it to you.
**Who is it for?** It’s hard to say. Based on my experience of the US and European markets, I believe that the likeliness of the US buyer being a current MINI owner is very high. That person either wants to upgrade their Cooper/Cooper S or is a faithful JCW owner. The target buyer would either use this car as their daily driver or get it to complement their stable. That may sound extreme, but I don’t think this potential owner is cross-shopping the JCW against something else (e.g. GTI, M235i). As for the European buyer, the JCW is the next logical step toward owning a M car or a Porsche. Because hot hatchbacks are so inherent to the European culture and because there are so many other alternatives to choose from over there, it won’t be easy for the JCW to win the hearts of enthusiasts.
**How does it compare to the R56 JCW?** It is better in every way. This car is more mature, more stable, and more refined. I haven’t heard a MINI engine that sounds this good since the R53 and the exhaust is to die for. The handling is direct and precise but the combo sport suspensions/non-runflat tires is a must and a rear sway bar wouldn’t hurt. The Brembo brakes are simply phenomenal, especially when you’re driving way above the speed limit on twisty roads. Going back to the engine and because of the amount of torque available across the power range, it seems to have so much more room to grow compare to the previous generation JCW. I can’t wait to see what the BMW Group will make of it in future iterations. All in all and to continue Peter Schwarzenbauer’s super-hero metaphor, if the previous John Cooper Works was the Hulk (almighty yet all over the place sometimes and lacking key ingredients), this one is Iron Man (powerful yet sharp, polished and highly sophisticated).
**Is there anything wrong with the new JCW?** Dinamica seats (cloth or leather) are not great. It is a surprising takeaway following the countless praises I gave the sport seats in the F56 after MTTS. They lack bolstering which is incovenient at high speeds. They also lack support which turns out to be an issue after a long drive. Here is my suppositions regarding the lack of bolstering. One, we had pre-production seats that were never supposed to have that much bolstering. Two, MINI heard the complaints about the excess of bolstering and decided to adjust that starting with 2015 models. In that case, they’ve given us the seats we deserve as opposed to the seats we want. My suggestion is for America to go on a much needed diet and for MINI to give us back real sport seats. Three, I am completely wrong. My other, and never ending, complaint is in regards to the front air-ducts. I’m sorry Mr. Warming, but you and your team could have done a better job (i.e. F54 Clubman S).
**Manual or Auto?** It is an endless debate that will continue many years after the inevitable death of the manual transmission. The MT on the JCW is great, no doubt. But what’s left after rev-matching if not for simply pushing a pedal and pulling a stick? Sounds very close to using a paddle-shifter to me. On the other hand, the AT is as fast as a DCT, more fuel efficient, and the ideal racing companion. What’s not to like? Here is my final take on it: if you’re going to use the JCW as a weekend-drive take the MT, but if you’re going to use it as a daily-drive, choose the AT. One thing to note. A number of enthusiasts and journalists think they can properly use a manual transmission, but they really can’t. Chances are these people learned it by themselves or from someone that learned it from someone else, that didn’t know how to use it in the first place. I’ve witnessed this many times on MTTS last year and again during the press event.
**What about options?** Here are some do’s and don’ts. You want to option the Wired Upgrade Package, the Comfort Access System, and the H/K Sound System. I would also get Rebel Green (which is in fact Connaught Green, just easier to pronounce) but since many of our readers seem reluctant to spend money on paint, it’s really up to you. Don’t get 17″ wheels, they are just out of place in the overall exterior design. Also don’t be tempted by Leather Dinamica seats. I’m not sure how MINI justifies their $1,950 price tag since they are as comfortable and more difficult to maintain than the Dinamica Cloth seats.
**Is it worth it?** It depends. If you’re a MINI enthusiast and want the ultimate MINI driving machine, go for it, you won’t regret it. I will go as far as to say that once you’ve driven this car, you will not want to own a Cooper S ever again. If you’re on the fence, you’re probably asking yourself if it make sense to spend that much money on a MINI. While the base price is $30,600, this car will cost you at least $36,000 well optioned. And at this price point, the GTI becomes very attractive. One thing to keep in mind is the MINI Service. A close friend looking to get back into MINI recently told me that he didn’t realize how much value he got out of this program until he switched to another brand. Remind yourself of that when you’re about to close the deal on a VW GTI.
##A French Evening
After an afternoon of driving fun, the trip back to New Haven was pure bliss. I got to be alone in a JCW and drove it close to its limits on the back roads of Connecticut. Along with the auto-cross session, this was the best part of the entire event and I have to thank MINI USA for this opportunity. The day ended with a nice dinner at a French restaurant where David Duncan, other journalists and myself argued about the objectivity of car reviews and the purpose of Snapchat.