Review: 2023 MINI John Cooper Works 3-Door



Words: Calvin Chan

Photography: Calvin Chan

Published: September 6, 2022

 



You aren’t pressed for choices if you are in the market for a sporty hatchback or sedan. We can count a dozen off the top of our heads, like the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Hyundai Veloster N, Honda Civic Si, and even the Mercedes-AMG A 35. But the MINI Cooper has always been one of our team’s favourites with its retro-modern styling, chic interior, and plethora of customizable options.

 

 

MINI tackles the performance hatch formula better than most, especially in the JCW trim, which stands for John Cooper Works. It’s a badge stuck onto MINI’s sportiest models in the range. The one you see here is the 3-Door Hatchback loaded up with a manual gearbox - yes, three pedals - and a bold shade of Rebel Green and contrasting red accents. It’s a zippy, charming, and athletic hatchback, and you feel it the moment you climb into its snug interior.

 

 

As with all MINIs, the driving position is excellent thanks to a deep footwell and a steering wheel that telescopes a considerable distance to the driver, probably the most out of all sports cars we have driven. This makes a titanic difference for taller drivers like us who enjoy sitting far back yet desire a wheel closer to our chest, so we don’t have to hunch forward awkwardly. We can almost sit in the MINI like a GT car (not quite F1). Further compliments to the supportive sport seats that make us feel cozy and at one with the car. It also helps that the driver gauges follow the steering wheel position, so it’s always in the perfect viewing position under the rim.

 

 

The pedals and gear shifter are also at the perfect distance. The pedals have more travel than we would like, and the clutch bite point is not the easiest to palpate with your left foot - we got a better sense of it through the engine snarl and slight creep forward. It’s a manual that’s not as forgiving as a Honda or Subaru either, and you really have to be in the correct RPM for the gear transitions to be smooth. Nailing down a clean first to second shift without any lurching takes some serious practice.

 

 

But the manual does provide automatic rev-matching when Sport Mode is engaged, which might irk the brains of purists wishing to heel and toe themselves, but we found it advantageous during heavy traffic situations, where we could let our feet take a much-needed break from the three-pedal dance. And while there is no setting to defeat the auto rev-matching in Sport, selecting the Normal or Eco driving modes turns it off.

 

The tall gear lever definitely sticks out and it looks almost aftermarket - we like it. The shifter travel is long, considerably longer than the ones you find in the Toyota GR86 or Honda Civic Si - almost like you’re paddling a boat by comparison. There is some ambiguity in the gates due to their long travel, but it still feels purposeful when you’re wrangling it through the H-pattern.

 

 

Your left hand will then be on the sizable steering wheel. It’s a simple design with few buttons or distractions - it’s not a button extravaganza like in the Mercedes. Though the leather wrap and grips are terribly thick, it does feel thinner than previous models. It still might be a challenge for those with smaller hands to wrestle. But we wish they got rid of that center armrest or at least redesigned it as it always gets in the way of the handbrake. When the armrest is up, it gets in the way of our elbows when shifting, and we can’t retract it far back enough either. It’s a minor but still noteworthy ergonomic nuisance.

 

 

But once you let loose and give the JCW the full beans, it’s a tremendously enjoyable experience. The 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is good for 228 hp and 236 lb-ft, and a 0-100 km/h time of 6.1 seconds, but it feels considerably faster. Of note, the JCW 3-Door doesn’t get the same output as the Countryman JCW which uses AWD and gets 301 hp and 331 lb-ft instead. We’re not even sure if this petite FWD platform could even handle those raucous numbers without stickier tires and a more aggressive damper setup.

 

 

Its front-wheel-drive platform is obviously limited but the way MINI has tuned the dampers, traction control, and differential, makes it feel neutral and balanced. Lateral grip is stupendous, and hustling through long, sweeping, 60 km/h turns is where the JCW really shines and comes alive, delivering an initial hint of understeer before finally settling into a surprisingly stable mid-corner dance that’s easily controlled via the throttle and steering. It’s more settled under power than the Honda Civic Si, is edgier and more hardcore than a Volkswagen Golf R, but not as engaging as its RWD rivals like the Toyota GR86 and Subaru BRZ that offer a much purer drive with unfiltered steering and a more spirited rear end.

The JCW rides well despite its stiffer springs than the MINI Cooper S, and is tolerable and usable on the daily basis. It’s not as comfortable as Golf R or as compliant as a Civic Si, but the MINI absorbs bumps and pockmarked roads better than the GR86 or BRZ.

 

 

The exhaust in the JCW has been toned down over the years, and is not the boisterous and immature soundtrack we have grown accustomed to, with few pops and bangs on throttle overrun - less of an angry beehive now and more of a refined, mature, almost BMW inline-four noise. The engine revs smoothly and without any of those rough edges that used to be characteristic of MINI’s raucous engine notes, but roll down the windows and you can still hear the whistling of the turbochargers and wastegates.

 

The MINI cabin hasn’t strayed far from the formula that has led it up to the 2023 model year. The cabin is dominated by a 8.8-inch display surrounded by the signature round dial that changes colour depending on your inputs - red when turning up the heat, blue when turning it down. The screen is both touch and rotary dial operated, so you can use whichever method suits your fancy, but we found that the interface works best with the rotary dial.

 

 

The MINI Cooper may be a diminutive three-door hatchback but there are two sunroof panels for each row of seats, with only the front one operatable. This adds a considerable amount of airiness to the cramped cabin but also weight. Odd for a JCW but we guess ultimate performance wasn’t the goal - that was for the limited GP model from 2021. We do wish they kept that ethos into a halo MINI Cooper, kind of like what BMW does with their CS models.

 


The MINI JCW 3-Door starts at $36,590 but ours rang just shy of $50,000. That’s a tough pill to swallow even for MINI’s hottest hatch, especially when you can buy a quicker Volkswagen Golf R with AWD and 300 hp for $45,995, or a more playful Toyota GR86 Premium with fewer horses but also costing significantly less at $34,490. Still, be careful with options and you can lock down a JCW for $40,000 but without many of the creature comforts expected from a premium offering. There’s still plenty to enjoy and extract from this engaging hatchback, and just seeing a manual shifter already sparks joy in our hearts. But we think the regular Cooper S offers nearly the same amount of frills and enjoyment for the casual driver, at a more digestible price. The JCW is for those who want that extra two-tenths.

 


Photo Gallery:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Specifications:

Model: 2023 MINI John Cooper Works 3-Door

Paint Type: Rebel Green
Base Price: $36,590

Price as Tested: $49,640
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
Horsepower: 228 hp @ 5,200 rpm
Torque: 236 lb-ft @ 1,250 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, FWD
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 9.7

 



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