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Falling in Love With Wales Behind the Wheel of a JCW Mini

The Welsh countryside is a lovely place to be and a delightful place to drive. But even a two-door Mini feels big on the nation’s backroads.

byAndrew P. Collins|
Mini Cooper photo
Andrew P. Collins
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Blithely following Google Maps around Wales got my wife and me into some tight spots. “Is this a road or a walking trail?” we kept asking each other, as hedges closed in on our borrowed Mini. That Mini was a two-door Cooper, so, one of the only modern Minis that could actually be considered small. I’m still amazed that we were able to return it with both side mirrors intact, but the main memory I came home with is a profound appreciation for Welsh roads and landscapes.

Sure hope we don't hit oncoming traffic! Andrew P. Collins

Wales is part of the United Kingdom and its own nation, attached to the west of England with which it shares the island of Great Britain. Scotland is the island’s northern area. And Wales is indeed a country, not a state or a province. Apologies to my European readers who are now twitching saying “no shit” to themselves, but not everyone on my side of the Atlantic has this context. And for anyone feeling compelled to double-check, the Encyclopedia Brittanica has a nice annotated map.

Misty landscapes, sheep, and literary references are probably what Wales is best known for, at least to those of us here in North America. My lady pitched it to me as a vacation destination, having read some books set in its foreboding moors.

A romantic getaway on cold, wet, spooky hills? Whatever you say, babe.

The Bear Hotel has been hosting guests in Crickhowell for over 500 years. Incredible to think how many feet and tires and hooves and wagon wheels might have passed through that arch. The Mini barely fit. Andrew P. Collins

I was picturing a week of wandering a hopelessly grey, hostile environment through piercing wind and driving rain, but of course, I was way off. Wales is lovely, and the roads are very engaging for the right car.

The Mini Cooper JCW is the right car in some significant ways. I did enjoy driving it; it’s got good practical-pace acceleration and a feeling of rigidity at sporty, sub-extreme speeds. But like many modern machines, it relies heavily on design to create its personality.

We spent a lot of time looking at sheep. Andrew P. Collins

Mini leaned hard into whimsy when it came back to the U.S. market around 20 years ago, and that ethos of “I’m not just a car, I’m a quirky car” is still visible in its unusual shapes (circles everywhere) and retro switch-style controls. It’s executed very well; a ride in a Mini JCW feels fun as soon as you flick the odd ignition toggle simply because you’re surrounded by characterful design.

Andrew P. Collins

The head-up display, projected onto its own little cheater screen that rises up from the dash (the windshield must have been too steep) is one of the only HUDs I’ve liked. It’s legible, and the extra framing makes it less distracting while adding a splash of theatre to the car-starting sequence.

The main gauge cluster is kind of motorcycle-like; it almost looks like an aftermarket part affixed to the steering column. This is another design win that, I’m guessing, was a product of necessity—the gauges move with the steering column, which must have been done to save space. But it helps make the cockpit feel hot-roddy.

Same story for the central HVAC controls that look like old-school chrome switches; a nice touch of fun. I’m not crazy about the enormous circular infotainment hub, but it does fit with the rest of the interior design and of course, calls back to the moon-face speedometer of OG Minis.

The front seats are very comfortable and cool-looking. The waffle patterning is interesting enough without being too silly, and the side bolsterings look good and feel good. Yeah, the back area would be cramped for an adult. But back seats are for kids and dogs and luggage anyway, right? My wife and I are both light packers, but we still dropped the rear seat to haul our one-week suitcases. This would be a tough car for a family road trip.

Fortunately, we left the rest of the family (our dog) home for this one, so we got to let the turbocharger breathe deeply a little bit and heat up the tires on Wales’ windy country roads. As a car that looks good, is comfortable, and kind of fun to drive, the Mini JCW is solid. Those expecting the visceral and buzzy experience of a 1960s Mini are going to be disappointed. But even as an old-car enthusiast, I think this car does a pretty good job of making driving fun while largely focusing on comfort.

A common complaint against modern mild-performance cars, especially light-luxe ones like this, is that they feel numb compared to the cars they’re meant to remind us of. It’s true, old cars from the past could make 60 horsepower feel like rocket propulsion and every pebble in the road was communicated to your fingertips before electronic power steering and throttle management got in the way.

I didn't take too many urban photographs, but this corner of a Cardiff parking garage felt right out of a racing game car-selection screen. Andrew P. Collins

But a tamer driving experience has its upshots, too. Wifey and I could spend hours and hours zooming around little roads without getting weary, coffee cup in hand, and simply open the windows for a bigger taste of old-school motoring excitement.

The Mini JCW is not a hardcore performance machine like a Honda Civic Type R, Subaru WRX STI, or a BMW M model. But it does shine in driving situations where you want comfort with just a little zoomy zest; some satisfaction when you go to make a pass on a two-lane road, good grip when you link some turns together while running just a little hot.

Welsh roads don’t really have room for super sports cars. Getting a low and wide vehicle through some of the stone wall funnels we found would be challenging enough. But even when you get away from road traffic, you’ve got sheep and villages popping up around blind corners. Major speed might be possible, but it would not be responsible.

The Mini JCW gave us the power to do a smidge of vigorous driving, and then just enjoy its comfort and the view from its upright windows when we couldn’t go fast. And like I said earlier, the interior design makes driving feel fun even when you’re not hustling. A ‘60s Mini is infinitely cooler. But for a car you’re going to live with on a long ride, the soft modern execution is pretty nice.

As for Wales, I admittedly would not have chosen to go there on my own, but I’m now very grateful to have been. While its roads are tiny, the scenery is rich and the settlements are fascinating. Towns were built on top of and around centuries-old ruins—you can find the vestiges of an actual castle in a shopping center parking lot or town playground. Once again, the Europeans in the audience are rolling their eyes. But having recently lived in Los Angeles where anything that pre-dates television seems ancient, encountering remains of a structure built before the year 1200 still casually occupying a public space was pretty mind-blowing.

The Mini JCW's fuel economy varies a lot depending on how you drive it. Andrew P. Collins

It’s not that Wales feels frozen in time—all the connectivity and black mirrors of modern life are as pervasive there as they are in America. It’s just that the distant past is … more present. The hotel we stayed at in the village of Crickhowell has been hosting guests for over 500 years; we parked our Mini on some of the same cobblestones that’d probably been trodden on by horses when horses were the finest vehicles available.

The Mini Cooper JCW, meanwhile, may not be The Finest Vehicle In The Land, but it is a fun car. Even with an automatic gearbox, there’s enough agility here to make a winding road genuinely fun and enough personality to make every journey that bit more joyful. But it also does not have the bone-rattling intensity of its predecessors. Much like the country of Wales itself, it’s comfortable and charming with some nice nods to the past.

They may not be microcars anymore, but I still think Mini's design does well. Andrew P. Collins
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