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MINI John Cooper Works Hatchback

Click to view picture gallery“More ‘snap, crackle and pop
  from MINI as
the John Cooper Works
 
Hatchback  the fastest-ever
  production MINI
is launched at
  the British International Motor Show.
  And it
s not just for Men Only
...”

ON THE FACE OF IT, THE FASTEST-EVER PRODUCTION MINI is also the most expensive at a fiver under 21,000 for the Hatchback version, which goes on sale from 22 July following its debut at the British International Motor Show.

Ninety-five per cent of the initial advance orders (accounting for all of the first three months production) for the new JCW model are from male customers — but that doesn't mean that only men will be driving or using the cars on a regular basis. In the UK, MINI customers range in age from 17 to 80 years, and across the range the female to male sales split is 50:50. The new JCW Hatch is also receiving significant interest from current owners of powerful sports cars, saloons and even premium 4x4s who are now actively down-sizing due to road congestion, parking issues, high taxation and rising fuel prices — but they still want a high-performance quality car.

And the JCW could be just the car to accommodate them. Not only do the new 208bhp John Cooper Works Hatchback and the forthcoming JCW Clubman version deliver the distinctive 'snap, crackle and pop' high-performance characteristics desired by enthusiasts, but the new versions have loads of extra equipment and technical enhancements. If priced individually — or indeed if they were even available as aftermarket items — the enhancements would cost significantly more than the new model's 20,995. For the record, the 173bhp MINI Cooper S Hatch is currently priced at 16,245; the Cooper S Clubman costs 17,210.

Because the MINI is marketed by BMW Group as a 'premium' brand small car, it is solidly built and has loads of specification and equipment fitted. All this, unfortunately, adds weight — and weight dulls performance and, worse still, it has compromised the kart-like agility that made performance icons of the original British Minis.

The German-owned company has responded to that by giving the JCW models edgier, snappier performance, more power and torque and a return to the distinctive exhaust note with its signature 'crackle and pop'.

So exactly what are we talking about in terms of performance? Well, the JCW specification extracts 208bhp from the 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine and, just as importantly, 192lb ft of torque (increases to 206lb ft in overboost mode from 1,850 to 5,600rpm). This gives the new models a top speed of 148mph, 0-62mph acceleration in 6.5 seconds and a combined official fuel consumption of 40.9mpg with CO2 emissions of 165g/km. A year's road tax costs 145 although from next April this will go up to 175.

Not only is this fastest production MINI built to date, it also offers the most torque and it is the most costly to buy and to run. Real-life fuel consumption during a hard test driving session over A and B roads saw my JCW Hatchback return 24.4mpg. More sympathetic driving will improve on this figure but even more enthusiastic driving on roads or a race track will see consumption fall to around 20mpg.

But you cannot put a price on pure driving pleasure, and the smiles on the faces of the motoring scribes after the world-first pre-launch test session last week were priceless.

Delving deeper into what a John Cooper Works model is reveals the 1.6-litre turbocharged direct injection petrol unit (as used with the 'standard' Cooper S) to have been substantially modified. The basic structure of the die-cast aluminium four-pot engine has not changed, nor has the forged crankshaft and conrods. But the intake valves and valve seats have been upgraded with more durable materials to cope with the increased operating temperature; the pistons have reinforced sidewalls and a new crown design; and the compression ratio is reduced to 10:1. The cylinder head now has wider diameter water channels and the walls are thicker to overcome increased stress and hotspots. Finally, the engine mapping has changed, as has the air mass sensor, and induction is speeded up with a larger air intake.

Central to the performance improvements is a larger and stronger twin-scroll turbocharger and exhaust manifold. A completely new exhaust system, available only for the JCW models, has a larger bore and catalytic converter to speed up gas flow and, of course, to return to the MINI its long-missed exhaust note. Large polished stainless steel twin tailpipes enhance the signature burble, crackle and pop sounds.

The six-speed manual transmission and clutch have been strengthened to cope with the extra power and driving stresses. Without getting too technical, the John Cooper Works models also have as standard ABS anti-lock braking operating four-pot Brembo brakes with larger discs, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, Cornering Brake Control, a new Electronic Differential Control (which improves cornering traction by 20 per cent), Traction Control and Dynamic Stability Control.

There are also various controls — including a Sport setting — which, depending on how the customer wants to drive their car, will either switch on or off or sharpen still further these various handling packages. The suspension is beefed up to handle the extra power and improve handling over the Cooper S version, but for an additional 140 owners can specify a JCW sports suspension.

Other standard equipment includes a host of airbags, John Cooper interior styling details, air conditioning, electric windows and door mirrors, distinctive cloth upholstery and front sports seats.

Externally, the JCW MINIs have exclusive lightweight 17-inch alloy wheels shod with run-flat tyres, a bespoke factory-fitted body styling kit which includes the usual side sill, front and rear bumper extensions, rear roof spoiler, honeycomb grille and various airflow vents.

With the added visual specification that sets this MINI apart from any other, the unseen modifications to the engine, gearbox, suspension and brakes — and not to mention the very real increase in performance — the extra cost of the John Cooper Works Hatchback over the 'ordinary' Cooper S will be worth it for many customers even though 21,000 for a MINI will leave some people unconvinced.

The doubters need only to book a test drive just to see how great this car really is. The plentiful supply of power and torque is seamless and the responsive delivery is superb throughout the rev range. It is at home being driven in top gear at low speeds, or in stop-start traffic, as it is being thrashed on the open roads or around a race track.

Yes, I agree that it sounds expensive and that you can expect high fuel costs if you're addicted to, and enjoy, really fast driving. Major plusses for this fastest-ever MINI hatch include the 'real fun' driving experience, performance, handling, image and smile-making ability in a currently glum motoring world. MINI will be also offering their well liked five-year/50,000 tlc 150 inflation-proof servicing package for all the new John Cooper Works models — Hatchback, Clubman (first quarter of 2009) and the new Convertible (Spring 2009).

Yes, there is lots of torque-steer despite the 'trick' traction control and electronic differential; yes, you do need to keep a firm grip on the steering wheel under hard acceleration and cornering due to the grip available and it being front-wheel drive. That said, the JCW is totally predictable; the kart-like handling has returned and the brakes are strong. And yes, some road surfaces — deep potholes and oddly-cambered corners — will unsettle the car and the ride comfort when being driven at full tilt due to the short wheelbase, but the car deserves your attention.

Drive one and I guarantee your smile will be as big as mine was when I'd finished my test drive. To paraphrase the Americans: It's been real and it's been fun. But more than that, it's been real fun. Enjoy! — David Miles

MINI John Cooper Works Hatchback
| 20,995
Maximum speed: 148mph | 0-62mph: 6.5 seconds
Overall test MPG: 24.4mpg | Power: 208bhp | Torque: 192-206lb ft
CO2 165g/km | VED Band D 145 | Insurance group 17E