It's no secret that many cars, even some small ones, have put on weight in recent years. They're much safer than the tin can econoboxes of the '80s and '90s, but, in most cases, that's come at the expense of nimbleness. Even last year's MINI Cooper has swelled in size over previous models.
Not to worry, though – the slight bump in size has taken nothing away from the 2015 MINI John Cooper Works Hardtop. Go kart handling and respectable fuel economy make for a fun ride without causing remorse at the filling station. The manual transmission-equipped JCW MINI we tested came with a few touches that reinforced its reputation not only as a car that's fun to drive but also as one tinged with subtle luxury.
MINI has called the shade of green our test mule was wearing "Rebel Green" – perhaps as a nod to American customers who relate more with rebels to the English crown than with the "British Racing" green brought over by descendants of the erstwhile colonizers. Whatever it's called, though, it gave the car a dark, handsome look that was accented by a tasteful pair of black hood stripes.
The new MINI is a bit taller than the previous generation (during a tour of the MINI facility in New Jersey two summers ago, someone on the staff there said it was to improve pedestrian safety in the unfortunate event of a MINI-pedestrian encounter) but still features the same wide, low stance of its forebears. The JCW wheels are attractive but bulge out slightly, offering themselves as likely candidates for curb rash.
It's still a small car. The front seats offer adequate space for most drivers, but the rear seats, in addition to being a bit tricky to access, are best suited for children and other small people. The cargo area is predictably tiny, but the seats fold down to increase space. This is handy if you have more than two or three shopping bags full of groceries in the back, although lowering the seatbacks nixes two seating positions. The trunk floor raises up to reveal a useful storage well, but the rear seatbacks don't fold flat; anathema to any large dog wishing to stretch out for a comfortable nap as its owner motors. The panoramic roof glass opens invites the world in, offering the illusion of a larger space.
The circle theme on the dash is certainly a MINI trademark. It consists of a gaggle of "fun" rings, including round gauges and vents, circular door handles, tiny, semicircular arches separating oversized, military-style toggle switches and – to top it all off – a huge, glowing ring around the infotainment stack that changes color as the stereo volume is increased and decreased. At first, it all looks a bit silly – in particular the instrument cluster, which looks like something that could be found in a much cheaper Chevrolet Sonic. But the aesthetic grows on you. It's well-balanced and the controls are easy to use. The JCW-specific seats look dashing in black with red accents.
Where the JCW MINI shines is in its around-town driving characteristics. Aside from being incredibly surefooted and nimble, it's powerful 228-horsepower 2-liter engine can – when you push a big, goofy (but easy-to-use) dial on the shifter bezel to the "Eco" position – turn in fuel economy numbers well above 30 miles per gallon. Not bad for a car that will rocket to 60 miles per hour in just over 6 seconds (in "Sport" mode). It's enough to make you wonder why all cars don't come with twin-turbo engines.
In its annual test of performance cars, Car and Driver faulted the JCW MINI for being a little squirrelly on high speed runs around the track at Virginia International Raceway. Around town, however, the fast, diminutive car is easy to thread through traffic. The steering is light and quick, and despite gobs of power at the front wheels, there isn't too much torque steer (the tendency for the car to lurch to one side under hard acceleration). On the highway, it can feel like the small car it is, but not to the extent that timid drivers doubt its ability to maintain a straight line or sweeping curves at higher speeds.
The 6-speed manual transmission was smooth and easy to shift during normal driving. Fast first-to-second shifts, on the other hand, were tricky sometimes, and it was easy to accidentally put the shifter into reverse when trying to quickly select first gear at intersections. Learning the car's quirks would fix what was undoubtedly operator error, but the repeated occurrence was worth noting.
Although the JCW MINI is not a family car, it presents itself as a fun, more-or-less practical car for singles and couples. It's the right size for an urban environment, particularly for people who have to suffer the travails of street parking. More than anything, however, it's great to drive, tinging what could be lackluster urban driving with a measure of joy. At nearly $42,000, it costs more than the capable 2015 BMW 228I xDrive (BMW also builds Minis), but if you're looking for small size and solid performance, the JCW MINI stands as an exemplar.
BY THE NUMBERS: 2015 MINI John Cooper Works Hardtop
MSRP: $41,800 (includes $850 destination charge)
Power and drive wheels: 2-liter, 228-hp twin-turbo 4-cylinder engine, front-wheel drive
Transmission: 6-speed manual
EPA fuel economy (mpg): 23/31 city/highway
Safety: "Good" ratings in IIHS crash testing
In showrooms: Now