The steering wheel is the single most used interface of a car and it’s the most important input device for both the track and the road. Generally speaking, thicker wheels with softer, grippier surfaces are preferred by performance oriented drivers. And since the E28 M5, BMW has been installing just that in it’s M line of performance oriented cars. So it makes sense that MINI would offer something similar from the JCW brand.

With the current generation MINI, BMW has decided to sell much of the components typically standard on M cars as a la carte options. Because of this, the JCW steering is a stand-alone accessories that can only be ordered at MINI service counters. It’s a beneficial strategy for those who don’t want or need the full JCW package, not as beneficial for the owners who just shelled out $30,000+ for a car with a standard steering wheel.

The JCW wheel comes in two flavors, full leather and alcantara/leather. Both retail in the US for $585 and are available worldwide (and for cheaper if you shop around). My alcantara and leather wheel came from in the UK.

One thing that seems to have confused many of those looking at purchasing the new wheel are the carbon fiber inserts that were shown in the original press pics. Most seemed to assume that meant the wheel was only available with those inserts and only available without the multi-function controls. Both of these assumptions are incorrect. The carbon fiber inserts are purely optional. And for those with a MFSW, you can easily move over your existing controls to the JCW wheel. In fact that’s exactly what I did when I installed mine.

And speaking of installation, it’s a very straightforward procedure. Not counting the disconnecting of the battery (a must when working around the airbag) the total time it took to swap wheel was around 20 minutes. The one tricky portion of the install is carefully cutting two small slits in the back of the airbag cover (exacto knife preferred) and releasing the clips that hold the airbag. However once you get the feel for it, it becomes a quick procedure.

One of the biggest improvements the wheel makes is in grip. Behind the leather and alcantara is a layer of what must be some kind rather resilient foam padding. This allows for both more grip in spirited driving and greater comfort on long trips. The leather (on both versions) is also softer and of a seemingly higher quality of that found on the stock three-spoke steering wheel. It feels indentical to the leather found on the M3 and Z4 M Coupe wheels.

Unlike the full alcantara wheels found in some BMWs, the alcantara JCW wheel uses leather on the portion of the wheel that would see the most wear. This addresses the wear concern that many have with the suede-like alcantara. It also gives a defined tactile point that subtly reminds a driver where they’re at in the turn to lock ratio while in tight corners.

The palm rests are also a bit more pronounced on the JCW wheel while being slightly shorter. This, combined with the thicker of the wheel, has worked very well with my larger hands. The end result is a wheel that feels as if it has been tailored to fit me like a glove.

On the face of it, a $500 steering wheel seems like a ridiculous luxury considering the stock MINI wheel is more than adequate. However I will say this, once you feel this wheel, you’ll have a hard time not wanting it. So if you’re on a MINI related budget, don’t even look at it, don’t pick it up, and for the love of God, don’t sit down in a car with one. In fact, if the MSRP was closer to what NewMINIStuff charges for the wheel in the UK (under $400) this could have been our second perfect score review. It’s that good.

There’s this intangible feeling you get with a thick, soft wheel covered in something like alcantara (or even soft leather). It gives you the impression of something substantial and sure-footed. Perhaps the greatest gift the JCW wheel gives to the performance minded driver is confidence. That, combined with greater comfort on longer trips and an subtly improved look, make the JCW steering wheel a must have for the MINI owner looking for that final touch. It would also be a great first first modification or a GP owner.

MotoringFile Rating: 4.5 (out of five)

Where to Buy: The JCW Leather or Alcantara/Leather Steering wheel retails for $580 and is available at all MINI dealers worldwide. However you can find it from several MotoringFile sponsors for much less:

NewMINIStuff: $380 + shipping from the UK
Morristown MINI: $468 + shipping
Knauz MINI (MF discount available)
Patrick MINI
MINI of Manhattan

DIY: Official MINI Installation Instructions PDF (thanks Dave)

Installation Note: The JCW Steering wheel only works as an upgrade to the three-spoke wheel available from 2005 onward.

Photos 2 & 3 taken by Brian Lalor.