I’ve driven street cars that are also race cars: Ferraris, Cadillacs, even the beloved Mazda Miata MX-5. While all were thrilling, I can’t say that any were out-and-out terrifying.
And then I buckled myself into a 2015 John Cooper Works MINI. Don’t let he adorable looks of MINI’s family coupe fool you. This savage little beast, I’m certain, was trying to do me in.
You just don’t get to feel this anymore with high-performance cars. The Lamborghini Hurácan, for example, is a Lamborghini and therefore supposed to be threatening. But it isn’t. It’s as easy to live with as a Honda Accord. That’s because carmakers like Lamborghini don’t want customers to think they need some kind of special certification for dangerous activity before parting with a down payment.
My frame of mind when the JCW MINI — the third generation of the vehicle — landed in the driveway of BI Transportation’s suburban New Jersey satellite HQ was that the car would be fun. Which it was. But it was also many, many other things. And some of those things made me think that I should have been wearing a helmet and a fireproof suit.
Out test car tipped the price scales at a superbly equipped $37,000 -- that's $7,000 above the MSRP and included goodies such as a rear-view camera, high-performance wheels, heated front seats, and satellite radio.
The colour was 'Chilli Red,' and this little sucker was hot as hell, to say the least. It was bolted together in Oxford, England before being shipped to the Garden State to commence its joyful reign of vehicular terror.
The street-legal JCW MINI coupé is derived from the MINI Challenge Series car that turns hot laps on the track.
This means that the JCW has a race car personality -- fierce, aggressive, unyielding, precise -- and race cars manners -- jittery, stiff, high-strung, revved up. It's extremely important to know what you're getting in for, because although plenty of 'homologated' track cars are perfectly docile in commuter traffic, the JCW is not.
In fact, of the numerous high-performance cars I've sampled of late, the JDW feels the least altered by the transition from race course to roadway.
This is of course cool, but the car also reminds me of a Jack Russell terrier that's gotten into the Red Bull: 'Gimme track! Gimme track! Gimme track!' is its yapping demand.
I saw it at the New York auto show this year. Yes, it looks pretty sweet. But if you're seeking a race car that's barely adjusted itself to the highway, you might want to stick with the coupé and its more rigid framework.
The again, sawing the top off probably cools this angry little guy's temper somewhat.
Some history: John Cooper was a British race-car designer and engineer who got his start after World War II. Alec Issigonis famously designed the original Mini, which was produced by the British Motor Corporation in the late 1950s and became an automotive legend in the 1960s, thanks in part to its innovative front-wheel-drive layout.
Cooper created a zipper version of the car, the Mini Cooper.
So when the new MINI, owned by BMW, wanted to roll out zipper versions of the new car, it made sense to label them as 'John Cooper Works' models.
The JCW has a touch of burliness, but it isn't a major departure from the familiar MINI design that has been around for over a decade. In fact, you could say that distinctive MINI look is remarkably unchanged. There are few cars on the road partaking of effectively the same design vocabulary that was employed when they debuted. The only one that I think comes close is the Porsche 911.
The JCW's visual vibe, because it's so reassuring, lulls you into a false sense of calm. It's only slightly buffed up from its core of cuteness. You are ill-prepared for what waits in store.
There's nothing obnoxious or defiant about the exterior details, either. No, they're not subtle, but they don't advertise the race car within, or the 228-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder engine and its claimed 0-60 time of about 6 seconds.
True, there are much faster sports cars out there -- cars that can saw the MINI's acceleration in half. But in the JCW you just feel every single one of the those 6 seconds fly by in joyous flashback of you life, as you balance on a sword-edge of raw terror. A sword edge that's been heated in a small yet quite angry blast furnace.
Of course they will never change the headlights. But they will update them: these are LEDs, and MINI doesn't charge extra for them.
The interior layout is familiar, as well. The contemporary stuff includes a head-up display (for $500), Bluetooth connectivity, a USB port, and a parking sensor. You also get some performance enhancements over a Cooper S, the jazzier version of the base MINI Cooper hatchback coupé.
The large, round center console is home to the rectangular infotainment screen. It makes use of MINI owner BMW's unloved -- but improving -- iDrive system, but it manages the tasks and needs of most drivers adequately.
The leather-wrapped and perforated steering wheel gets some sassy topstitching. The usual controls are located on the wheel or the stalks.
The gauges are straightforward: speedometer, tachometer, fuel. I thought the tach could have been more prominent, but it's legible enough.
You don't push a button to fire up this little badass. You flip a switch. It's a cool feeling. And one that doesn't get old at all.
The 6-speed Getrag manual is fantastic. It's adeptly directs the JCW's 228 horses to the front wheels, with a crisp, positive action that makes the car feel that you have excellent control over the power. And that's important because this isn't a heavy ride, tipping the scales at a share under 2,500 lbs.
I personally love the old-school stick-and-ball design of the shifter, a departure from the more pistol-handled manuals you more often experience these days. You feel like you're making something happen, mechanically.
The JCW has three driving modes are its disposal: Green, Mid, and Sport. Green is for what it sounds like -- fuel economy, although at 23 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, 26 mph combined, the JCW isn't a gas hog by any stretch.
Mid is for the kind of driving a normal person would enjoy.
Sport is where it gets interesting. Real interesting. 'Let's Motor Hard!' Um ... OK ... if you insist ...
MINI describes the JCW as having 'Go-kart' handling, and I concur -- if the go-kart in question is propelled by a contingent of enraged jackals with flaming fur.
What they mean is that the JCW has a viciously tactile connection to the road. Honestly, I think the handling goes beyond go-kart. For the most part, high-performance cars don't want to hang out at the legal speed limit, but you can have some fun thrashing their engines and making them generate all sort of merciless sound effects.
The JCW, on the other hand, thinks any speed limit is fodder for contempt. It basically wants to do 80 all the time (in other words, it wants to be on a race track), but if you're tooling along at 30, it reminds you of what every single MPH of 30 is like, in fiercely granular detail. The exhaust note is vigorous and engaging, a feisty volcano of sonic lava. The brake, clutch, and accelerator pedals all have an urgent vibe that suggest purposeful driving is the way to go and that commuting would be tiring for the left leg.
The specially crafted and shaped seats hug your haunches in the corners, the Brembo brakes up front inspire terrific confidence with the throttle, and the suspension utilises a BMW technology called 'Dynamic Damper Control' that continually tweaks what's going on with the shocks to transmit an outrageous amount of asphalt sensitivity to you as you sit behind the wheel, your brow knitted into a near rictus of concentration.
When you complete an afternoon of zipping around the highways and byways of northern New Jersey in the JCW, you believe that it has waaayyy more to give. You, on the other hand, have been ridden hard and put up wet. You might need a hug and cup of warm milk.
You can handle the JCW like a cheerful everyday driver, but that's not its mojo.
This is a car that wants to make your cherish the life force. As such, it takes you far, far, far back in automotive history, to a time when the 'faster horse' proved just how much faster it was than its equine predecessor.
Speed was born, and with it a modern sensibility. But the speed that was brought forth in the early 20th century wasn't a modest bump in velocity -- it was consciousness-altering shift in existence. The species would never go slow again.
However, we would feel the speed. Over the past 100 years, we've been progressively isolated from it, but the JCW does whatever it can to restore the jarring integrity of that original relationship. Man go fast.
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