Ride and handling
The JCW’s suspension hasn’t been dramatically changed compared to that of the Cooper S. It retains the same MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear axle. However, the springs and dampers have been retuned to help improve agility, the anti-roll bars have been replaced with hollow items to save weight and all JCWs have the option of adding adaptive dampers at a cost of £600.
Most of the frustrations we had on first acquaintance with the new Mini John Cooper Works were linked to the Pirelli Cinturato tyres. To be clear, it’s not a bad tyre as such, it just isn’t geared towards high-performance driving in the way that a Pirelli P Zero or Michelin Pilot
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Super Sport is. This relatively low-grip compound made the JCW feel as though it skated across the road surface when cornering rather than digging into it. Pushed to their limit they also let out a high-pitched squeal.
The good news for the JCW is that the facelifted models come as standard with Pirelli P Zeros, which are a big improvement. There’s more purchase in the dry and it doesn’t wail annoyingly through corners, so you can lean on the chassis a little harder and trust the front axle a little more. There’s also less deflection in the tyre sidewall under hard cornering, which gives the front end much more precision and the driver more confidence.
While there’s far more grip than before, the JCW’s centre of gravity feels unusually high – especially compared to Minis of old – and the car does roll more than you might expect when cornering, yet the suspension can be pretty firm when travelling in a straight line, especially over rougher roads. You could also find yourself fighting the steering wheel as the JCW struggles to deploy all its power, with the front end sniffing out surface imperfections and tugging on the steering wheel.
The optional adaptive dampers do add an extra layer of refinement to the JCW, significantly improving the ride in everyday driving where the standard set-up could become wearisome on longer journeys. In Sport mode they’re appreciably stiffer, helping the JCW to a flatter, more neutral cornering stance. Overall the JCW feels less wayward with the adaptive dampers and it would seem like £600 well spent from the options list.
The manual gearbox, meanwhile, adds the missing layer of interaction that blights the automatic-equipped JCW. Shifting up through the gears and working your way back down the ’box under braking is such an innate part of the small hot hatch experience – a manual shift makes the quickest Mini a much more enjoyable, engaging car. The shift quality is good, too, with a tightly defined gate.
Braking is taken care of by a set of 330mm discs on the front axle, clamped by four-piston Brembo calipers that are so big they almost brush the inside of the wheels. They aren’t just for looks, though. They provide strong, effective braking even on track.
The JCW Convertible has a lot of the same hardware as the hatch – brakes, engine, suspension – and, at medium speeds at least, behaves in much the same way. It turns in with the same verve but the lack of roof, and the loss of rigidity that comes with that, means there’s a constant and unpleasant shuddering from the body on UK roads. The extra slack in the body also detracts from the JCW’s mid-corner adjustability, as it doesn’t react to a lift of the throttle in the same immediate manner.