I recently celebrated one of those birthdays we generally look forward to with equal measures excitement and dread. It went well. I share this only to say I’m well acquainted with the moderating and modulating effects of age. There are goods; there are bads. There are joys and wonders; there are bummers and drags. There is expansion; there is contraction. But in the end, just being able to keep plugging along is really its own reward.
Automobiles have their own generational life-cycles. And recently I had the opportunity to compare a young-whippersnapper version of a car I’d had a generation before, the older version of which I still hold as one of the most engaging and pleasing vehicles in my personal ownership canon. That older car was a 2007 Mini Cooper S, painted in vibrant Laser Blue Metallic with white roof and stripes, and shod in white OZ WRC replica wheels. It was a gas. And the newer, younger version? A 2016 Mini Cooper S John Cooper Works Edition. So can you ever go home again?
(Thanks to Baron Mini in Merriam, Kansas, for the extended test drive.)
When BMW acquired Mini (as part of the Rover acquisition in 1994) and rolled out the new Cooper, it jump started a revolution in small, fun-to-drive, “premium” cars. And in 2006 when Dreamy Wife announced she wanted to live with a Mini for a while, we gleefully spec’ed out her car for maximum attraction and enjoyment. That car had the most immediate and responsive steering of pretty much anything I’ve driven before or since, and while many of the ergonomics were on the cute side of annoying (but still annoying), the car never failed to delight. We still look back on our ownership experience fondly.
(I learned several things about my wife during our ownership of that car: That she could naturally heal-and-toe on downshifts; that she was no one’s patsy when it came to blasting through traffic; that she firmly believed winning meant getting to the red-light first. I distinctly remember following her home from an event one evening and having to use all of the juice in my V8 Audi S4 Avant to just keep up. I’d never been more proud.)
It’s with that background that I slipped behind the wheel of the new Mini and pushed the start button. Or rather, flicked the start toggle, it’s clear edges glowing with angry red LED lighting like a cockpit switch in an imaginary fighter airplane. It’s a fun touch of small drama and childlike amusement.
A friend of mine, a graphic designer whose opinion I value and who has owned two modern Minis, finds the styling of contemporary Minis a tad overwrought. While it’s hard to fault his commitment to the intrinsic goodness of Frank Stephenson’s original Mini 2.0 design, I find the evolutionary changes to the Cooper S, with its slightly lower, wider, more athletic stance, to be altogether proportional and muscular. It’s a bulldog in a track suit. This example was painted in Thunder Grey, with matte-black stripes (and red pin striping) and black 17” JCW “Track Spoke” wheels completing the look. Tough, purposeful, ready to go; it practically shouts “start me up” and has just the right amount of boy-racer.
My first observation when I settled into the driver’s seat was how refined the interior had become. Gone were many of the annoying quirks of the earlier car, along with the questionable interior materials and finish quality, replaced with what might be described as "BMW-esque" levels of finish and quality, the first of many such parental influences I’d find. Materials were upgraded across the board, controls were generally where you’d expect them (not the case on the earlier car), and acoustic isolation when the car was running was top-notch. It wouldn’t be a Mini without some ergonomic quirks, though, and the JCW exhibited one such with the parking brake that, when pulled, interfered with the arm rest. (Car designers do nothing by accident so I smiled at the thought of all the design review meetings that must have led to this choice of purposefully designed annoyance.)
I also noticed the little stubby lipstick-sized dongle hanging from a hook on the lower dash. This turned out to be a Bluetooth-enabled triggering mechanism for the baffle in the JCW performance exhaust. When pushed, the bottom on the end of the “trigger” glowed red (to match the ignition switch), but most importantly it turned the normally pedestrian exhaust into a pissed-off and petulant child, roaring on acceleration, crackling with abandon on downshifts, generally making itself known in all situations and encouraging me to goose it whenever I was in a parking structure or other enclosed space (including my own garage; sorry, sweetie). The cute little exhaust boomlet igniter was entertaining and totally amusing. For the first few times at least. Then it became annoying and I just forgot about it. The Sport mode setting with its mellow growl was enough.
On the road, the JCW immediately confirmed what I’d hoped: That it still torque-steers like a little wonder demon, with all the playful steering-wheel rowing the accompanies attempting largely unsuccessfully to quell the physics of front-to-rear weight transfer in more powerful front-wheel drive cars. (This seems a trait of the species, and I consider all those FWD-biased all-wheel-drive cars equipped with Haldex differentials cheating. I’m talking to you, Audi TT.) This is a juvenile preference, obviously, as it’s actually pretty disconcerting behavior, and at the limit only exacerbates oversteer at almost always the wrong times. But hey, it fun to feel like you’re surfing nose-up on asphalt waves; sue me.
While Minis have always seemed faster than they actually are, the JCW provides the same visceral thrill with the added benefit of actually being quite speedy. It’s 2-liter, 228hp 4-cylinder BMW engine provides plenty of motivation, hitting the 0-60 mark in 6.1 seconds, with 236lb/ft of torque doing its best to wrench the steering wheel from your hands at all times under acceleration.
My joy at the reminder of power-on torque steer was quickly tempered by the feeling that the steering wheel seemed attached to the front wheels by a worn rubber band. The culprit: The steering rack, which only vaguely approximated the immediate, telepathic go-kart handling baked in to the earlier generation car. This was my biggest disappointment with the newer car, especially when the electronics were set in “Mid” mode, where I found the disconnect in steering feel utterly odd. In “Sport” mode the steering feel firms up nicely, at least in comparison, but the default setting always feels like the car is struggling to keep up with steering inputs. In certain moments the oscillation was almost disconcerting. Weird.
The JCW’s 6-speed Getrag transmission was a more welcome participant in the driving engagement equation. The clutch take-up was a tad high but predictable, and not at all grabby. And the shifter, while a bit rubbery on my earlier car, schnicked gear-to-gear with precision and ease. It was no Honda or Porsche shifter, but was comparable to the last modern BMW manual I’ve driven (a 118i I spend a couple of weeks with in Scotland). Great stuff, and mandatory on a Mini. Why anyone, short of the infirm, would chose an automatic in this car is beyond me.
I do have a complaint about the shifting in the JCW, though, and that’s the annoying rev-matching feature on downshifts. Half the fun of a manual (the precious “feel and involvement” car guys spend days lecturing over) is practicing heel-and-toe rev-matching, searching for just that right ankle movement and pressure, the automotive equivalent of the elusive perfect golf shot. The JCW does it for you, making heel-and-toeing superfluous, and I either couldn’t figure out how to disable the function or it can’t be. Regardless, it’s a bummer and removes from the general thrill of rowing your own. Come on, Mini, at least let us turn this “feature” off.
At the end of the day, I kept thinking about this old college pal of mine, a standout runner and swimmer who developed early and had the most amazing physique, an Adonis with fluid moves and the quiet presence common to athletes comfortable in their taut skin. I ran into him a few years ago. He was still as gregarious as always, a fun guy with a nice career and a happy family, but he’d changed, of course, a fair amount of paunch stretching his golf shirt, his moves still athletic but more languorous, a man with little left to prove. His lively athletic days were past, though he was a much more fully formed personality. An adult. Like my buddy, the JCW Mini is pleasant and mature and a joy to spend time with. It’s still a great car, my choice for best compact by some margin, though it seems to be trying a bit too hard to recapture some of those glory days with a few of its affectations. It’s no longer the firecracker that was my 2007 version of itself and that’s okay. It’s neither better nor worse. Like most of us, it’s just grown up.