2022 Mini John Cooper Works Review: This Disappointing Hot Hatch Needs More Heat
The John Cooper Works is pretty capable, just not very fun.
The 2022 Mini John Cooper Works is the highest performance Mini Cooper you can buy short of the fender-flared and wing-adorned "GP" trim. It's relatively small, it has a short wheelbase. In fact, thanks to the engineering prowess of its German parent company, BMW, it has all of the makings of a great hot hatch.
But it's not.
Before I get ahead of myself, let me just say the JCW isn't a bad car overall. (There are very few bad cars on sale today.) It's still pretty practical despite its sporty nature and compact size. The problem is that a Mini is not just any compact car, it's the compact car. And if any car can, a high-performance Mini Cooper should be able to resist the strong currents of an auto industry that's making cars that look the same, drive the same, and, for all intents and purposes, are the same—now more than ever. A sporty version of said Mini should be everything you've ever wanted from a small hatchback. There are big shoes to fill here, and unfortunately, the JCW just doesn't do it.
2022 Mini John Cooper Works Specs
- Base price (as tested): $33,750 ($40,750)
- Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder | 8-speed automatic | front-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 228 hp @ 5,200 rpm
- Torque: 235 lb-ft @ 1,450 rpm
- Curb weight: 2,951 lbs
- Seating capacity: 4
- Fuel economy: 25 mpg city | 34 highway | 29 combined
- Quick take: Objectively fine, but this car should really be a lot more fun than it is.
- Score: 6/10
The John Cooper Works is like the BMW M of Mini. These are the high-performance machines, the top of the heap. Forget the Cooper S, this is a Mini on a serious mission. John Cooper Works is available as a trim on the Countryman, the two-door convertible, the Clubman, and the two-door coupe, which is what I got to test. Man, since when were there so many Minis? I had to look all those up and I do this as a job. Jesus.
On the outside, the things everyone talks about are the taillights that look like the Union Jack. Is it a bit cheesy? Yeah, sure. But the entire Mini brand kind of reflects that energy at this point, doesn't it? Small, cute cars (some of which aren't really that small), coupes with roofs that are supposed to look like backward baseball caps, it's just something you have to get used to. If the taillights are just a bit too much, the front end is more classic Mini, with big, round headlights and a slightly squared-off jaw framing large inlets to cool the brakes. Overall, it still has the classic Mini shape, which is a pleasant little blob.
If you've never been inside a Mini before, things are equally silly here. All of the switchgear is, well, literally switchgear. Many of the car's functions are controlled by metallic switches reminiscent of a machine more suited to the 20th century, including the engine start switch, which I actually liked. A lot of designers go on about the "handshake" you have with a piece of technology or product when you use it—basically an interaction or series of interactions that define the way you feel about it. A unique starting procedure is definitely something I like, and this car has it.
It's also hard to ignore the car's massive round digital cluster. It has LEDs integrated into the unusually textured ring around the 8.8-inch display. These seemed to change when I adjusted the HVAC, which sort of made me think they're a problem searching for a solution. They're cool, but not great accent lighting—they aren't really bright or noticeable enough to really affect the mood inside the car. One thing that I did enjoy, similar to the start switch, is the flip-up HUD. When the car starts, it folds into place and displays your current speed and the speed limit right in your peripheral vision.
The interior of the Mini is one of the parts of it I liked the most. The powertrain—a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder—is really where things fell apart.
Driving the Mini
That 2.0-liter is from BMW, and in this case, seemed to me like the automaker was trying to hide the fact that it's turbocharged. There was no sensation of boost to play around with, no torque steer to give the car character, and no turbo noise. Why Mini chose to do that in a hot hatchback like this I'm not sure. This was likely a purposeful tuning decision, something that could definitely be changed without hacking any hardware. The thing is, I know BMW (and therefore Mini) is capable of making a fun, turbocharged engine. It does it in all of its M-branded products. This engine, in combination with the slightly-too-slow eight-speed automatic transmission, just wasn't fun.
I know, it should've been a stick, right? Well, I don't really think a stick would've saved this car. I've driven a previous-generation Cooper S, and if this car had a transmission anything like that, it wouldn't have made a difference. Maybe the entire experience would have been slightly more involved, but not necessarily more pleasant. The engine is just doesn't have teeth. You never wrestle with this thing, one of the most powerful Mini Coopers you can buy.
Driving it hard was sort of like wearing a pair of wet socks; specifically, ones that get wet while you're wearing them. You don't notice anything is immediately amiss, but when you get into a fresh pair you realize how moist everything was. In this case, thinking back to cars like the Kia K5 GTor even the Hyundai Kona N—both turbocharged four-cylinder cars with automatic transmissions that definitely have attitude—made me realize what I was missing and made driving the Mini that much more disappointing. Again, this is just in terms of the car's performance ambitions, though.
The brakes and throttle were also touchy and sensitive, and the transmission never quite did what I wanted it to. When you're trying to drive fast as a result, the inputs feel all over the place and twitchy, but the end result was very predictable in an unpleasant way. Seem like an odd combination? Yeah, I thought so, too.
When it's not being driven hard and you expect it to be a normal car, it's mostly fine. Mostly. I'll touch on that in a minute, but before I do, I gotta make a quick note. I like big wheels, but the JCW goes a bit too far. The tires fitted to this Mini's 18-inch multi-spokes look thin enough to be inflated and stretched into a lion at a kid's birthday party. I'm not joking. Look at them:
I wouldn't bring this up if the Mini rode fine despite it, but it really doesn't. It wasn't so much harsh over potholes and speedbumps as it was bouncy and lurchy. And there's another practical concern for big wheels, small sidewalls, and low clearance: Smack a pothole hard enough and you could loosen any recent fillings or damage something on the car.
And the shame here is that you can tell how good the JCW could be. The bones are there. The car is compact, has a short wheelbase, and great visibility. There's decent power. It's a good city car! It gets good fuel economy around town while having more than adequate performance for merging or passing. With folding rear seats, room for children, and nice-to-have creature comforts like heated seats, a heated steering wheel, and Apple CarPlay, it could easily be your only car. It's not that doomed to fail based on its hardware. It's just tuned wrong.
The Bottom Line
Then there's the price. I'm gesticulating at the monitor as I'm about to write this: the car starts at $33,750. That's reasonable for a 240-horsepower hatchback with acceptable practicality and, as I found out, room for four adults in a real pinch. The problem is the test car was optioned up to $40,750 with a lot of fluffy stuff that was part of the "Iconic Trim." Additions like an anthracite headliner, a premium sound system that didn't sound very good, and power-folding mirrors.
The Iconic Trim was $7,000, and it certainly didn't make the car $7,000 better. But the real problem isn't just the Iconic Package, though. I optioned up a few Minis online and I just couldn't quite get what I wanted at a reasonable price, which should be about $33,000 to $35,000, the same as its competition. The JCW to get—a green one with the white roof on smaller wheels with a stick shift and heated seats—doesn't cost what it should; it's still around $37,000. You can get a lot more car for that money elsewhere.
Take, for example, the Hyundai Veloster N. It has more power and is a ton of fun regardless of whichever transmission you choose. Although it does lack the luxury options of the Mini, like heated seats and a heated steering wheel, it starts at $33,545. You can get some of that on the very good Elantra N, though, which starts at just $32,945 and has the same fun engine/transmission as the Veloster, plus heated seats.
There's also the new Volkswagen Golf GTI which, for $30,540 offers roughly the same power, also comes in a stick, and has both a heated steering wheel and seats. Yes, all of that for right around $30k. Why even consider the Mini at that point? That's the problem. The JCW has all the tools to make a case for itself but just struggles to with the poorly tuned engine and too-high asking price.
What is nice about this car is the fact that it's at least somewhat sustainable as compared to getting something bigger. Yes, a regular Mini gets better fuel economy, but for a sport-focused car, lightweight is still good. Keep in mind, the weight of a car's body structure contributes considerably to its carbon footprint. According to Polestar's data, bodyweight is actually comparable to the impact of the battery if we're talking about EVs. It's why Mini's parent company, BMW, is investing in cleaner sources of steel for its cars. All of this is to say, at less than 3,000 pounds, the JCW's environmental impact is minimized. It would be nice if it wasn't shipped across the Atlantic to get here on a huge ship that spews emissions like Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings, but I digress.
Overall, this Mini leaves me conflicted. There's a lot to like here from a day-to-day car perspective. It's cheesy and quirky and I like it for that. A lot of it is worthy of praise: I like that it's good on gas, that it's shockingly big inside, it's really easy to see out of, and the engine and transmission are good if you're going to treat driving the car like a normal car.
But these nice things just aren't enough to make up for the fact that it's not great to drive for the performance car it sets out to be. It's not a great value and there are better cars out there for less. If you're stuck on a Mini, buy a regular Cooper or Cooper S. Not this. It's bouncy and you'll worry about destroying the 18-inch wheels. It's tough for me to recommend it in good faith.
Stick or not, this thing just needs work.
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