- Superb exhaust crackles!
- Fun, go-kart-style handling
- Liveable and stylish interior
- Ride still pretty firm
- Fiddly front cupholders
- Advanced safety is optional
MINI was once a brand that sold just a single, simple model: the Cooper. The modern MINI, though, is a thoroughly diverse operation. Though the basic theme remains – MINI builds compact and cute urban runabouts – they'll make you something with two, three, or five doors; with diesel or petrol power; a roof or no roof; slow or fast. And it's at that fast end of the spectrum where we think MINIs are at their most joyful – and the 2017 MINI John Cooper Works Convertible, equipped with a fast-dropping soft top, a powerful 170kW turbo engine and an awesome exhaust note, is the most fun MINI you can buy today.
That's because the JCW convertible is close to the perfect MINI mix. You get the things that make every MINI loveable: the instantly recognisable shape, the go-kart steering and the sharp dimensions that make it so easy to drive in the city.
Then, MINI's John Cooper Works skunkworks add in another layer of verve – the stuff that makes the JCW editions feel like proper performance cars. The 170kW, 320Nm turbo four is genuinely punchy; the crackling, popping exhaust note beats many sports cars four times the price; and with extra stiffness, a JCW MINI attacks corners with real viciousness.
Sure, a hardtop MINI is stiffer still, and without a convertible's weight penalty, the handling remains a degree better, but when it comes to simple, go-kart-like driving – the entire MINI mission – the wind-in-your-hair thrills of a convertible top are hard to beat. The MINI JCW convertible is just so easy to love – and at just under $55,000 with either manual or auto, and with no real need to touch the options list – it's pretty good value, too.
John Cooper Works is MINI's in-house tuner, like BMW's M or Mercedes-AMG. They take a stock vehicle and provide it with significantly beefed-up go, stop and steering setups – and in the case of the latest JCWs, you're getting a vehicle that has about twenty per cent more power under the bonnet, and significantly more sprightly performance across a variety of terrains.
It's essentially a $10,000 upgrade to a JCW MINI, with a 170kW and 320Nm two-litre, over the next rung down – the Cooper S. The Cooper S makes 141kW and 280Nm from the same basic engine, with different tuning – but where the JCW will do the 0–100km/h dash officially in 6.6 seconds, the Cooper S is some way behind at 7.2 seconds.
Add in beefier brakes, tighter steering and additional stiffness aplenty, and the JCW is the special one, the sports car of the group – where the more common Cooper S is something of a regular MINI with additional spice. Still, the Cooper is very, very good – and a back-to-back test drive will show you which model is more to your taste.
The JCW is the most powerful stock MINI ever built and it shows – both and in a straight line, and in the MINI's spiritual home, the challenging road – but the JCW's charm doesn't actually come from sheer speed alone.
Instead, this is a car that's about feel. The way the turbo is tuned feels downright old-school – peak torque officially arrives early at 1,250rpm but to the driver's bum, you feel a huge whack of twist arrive around 3,000rpm as the turbo really comes on song.
That's accompanied by one of the best engine notes in the business – full stop. The twin-pipe sports exhaust is standard on the JCW, and in normal mode it's quite entertaining without being obtrusive. Flick the MINI into Sports mode, however, and the exhaust really ups the volume, injecting incredible rasp during acceleration and then the kind of pops, crackles and bangs that make you giggle with excitement as you let off the throttle.
Our team loved the six-speed-manual, too. The comically long throw through the chrome lever is, too, a little old-fashioned but the stick snicks into place with ease and the clutch is light. Plus, rev-matched downshifting is available which helps in city traffic. The alternative – a paddle-shifting double-clutch automatic – is the same price and also highly competent.
The ride on the MINI's run-flat tyres is firm but not crashy – we weren't uncomfortable in this car, though it's not for those with a bad back. You feel the road, as you should – and the stiffness makes for the kind of enthusiastic cornering power MINIs are known for. The chunky wheel is a good shape and size, and the electric power steering feels more natural than before, with predictability and ease of placement through a pattern of corners.
The JCW's cabin successfully pulls off what modern MINI interiors try to do: a blend of visual nods to classic MINIs past with the kind of modern technology that buyers expect from a premium vehicle in 2017.
Those visual cues are the rounded shapes that are dotted everywhere throughout this idiosyncratic interior: there's a circular LED strip around the widescreen navigation display, for example, that by default lights up brighter the harder you accelerate.
The driver works aluminium surfboard-style pedals, sits in rounded seats, and even the door handles are a sixties-retro style circle shape.
Worked into all the classic MINI forms, though, is high-end technology shared with many current BMWs – and the best news is that almost all of it is standard kit. Navigation and audio, for example, is provided through BMW's iDrive Professional system, with an 8.8-inch widescreen controlled through the rotary iDrive dial that will be familiar to anyone that's owned a BMW.
It is the outgoing iDrive 5 system, though – which means it's not a touchscreen like the latest BMWs. My friends kept touching the MINI's screen throughout the week, assuming you could use it that way, so it's a good idea that BMW – and MINI, we assume – are going in that direction in future.
A Harmon Kardon stereo is standard fit, too, and the twelve speakers offer good brightness and punch: this is a system that sounds really good. And it sounds good with the roof up or down, which is always impressive in a drop-top.
A variety of seating options are available. Our test car was fitted with the standard striped cloth seats, which will be comfortable enough for most people. They're well-bolstered on the sides and have a manual thigh extender, but people with really long legs like myself (editor Tom) will miss having thigh angle adjustment in the seat, which is available with the optional leather seats.
Surprisingly, the MINI convertible isn't too noisy – at least for front-seat passengers. With the top down, the near upright windshield protects those up front from wind and noise buffetting, though putting two people in the blustery back seat makes life difficult for them, as we found out on a trip to the races.
That said, you won't want to stuff friends in the back too often. We like that the MINI drop-top has the practicality of back seats for occasional use, but they're really for tots – adults will find the space very cramped back there.
I mean, nobody buys this sort of car for lugging loads, do they – so we don't expect the JCW convertible to be a practicality superstar. What you'd expect from a car like this is space for a small suitcase, or the groceries, or a couple of school bags if for if you've got younger kids.
That's exactly what the MINI convertible delivers. Open up the unconventional boot 'deck' and you'll find that with the roof down, the JCW offers 165 litres of capacity – that was enough for two soft weekender bags, or a small shop at the grocer. If you can commit to keeping the roof up, you can eke out 210 litres – not bad when you consider the hatch only has 211 litres on offer.
The back seats do fold down as well if you need to squeeze a longer item in – but the best use of those back seats is as an extra boot per se – I found myself tossing my bags into the back when I got back to the car after work. Easy as.
The cabin itself is relatively practical. MINI have dotted cupholders and storage trays in as many spots as they can. There are two medium-sized cupholders up the front – though don't use them to store a smartphone, because a strange cut-out meant my phone was always falling out. Instead, phones can be safely stored inside the central armrest.
In the back there are two further cupholders and space for two small humans, as well – though headroom with the roof up is a challenge. Naturally, with the roof down, the headroom is limitless!
RELIABILITY & RUNNING COSTS
There are four main running costs to any vehicle – maintenance, fuel, insurance, and depreciation. The data in this section is based on the six-speed manual version of the 2017 John Cooper Works convertible.
Servicing and maintaining the John Cooper Works convertible
MINI offers a five-year servicing plan on all models that you purchase up-front. You can either buy the pack at the time of purchase, or up to 12 months after the fact. The service plans are transferrable to new owners. The warranty lasts three years, and three years of roadside assistance is also complementary.
The plan, called Service Inclusive, lasts the first five years or 80,000 kilometres, though MINI do not publish specific service intervals. Instead, there's an on-board computer that alerts you to future service timing based on how hard you drive the car. MINI has informed buyers privately that annual services, or every 15,000 kilometres, are the norm, but your experience may vary.
The plan, which includes general maintenance but not brake pads, worn clutch replacement or wiper blades, costs $1,240, or about $248 per year, which is very inexpensive for a premium vehicle.
The first three years (our standard for assessing maintenance value) works out at $744.
Fuelling the John Cooper Works convertible
Performance cars with turbo engines can use vastly different levels of fuel depending on how you drive. If you drive the JCW very gently, you can expect the official combined fuel figure of 6.8L/100km. Based on that figure, the JCW would use up about $1,121 per year in 95RON petrol.
However, if you drive it properly – and it likes to be driven quite quickly – you'll use more like 8L/100km combined, which is the score we saw – and that's not too bad. At that level, the JCW will cost about $1,319 per year in fuel, or realistically about $3,957 over three years of ownership.
Insuring the John Cooper Works Convertible
We seek insurance quotes from mainstream insurers based on a 30 year old living in Chatswood, NSW, with a good driving history who parks the vehicle in the driveway.
The John Cooper Works loses some value ground in insurance coverage – as you'd expect a peppy, bright red convertible to do. On average, the JCW costs $1,417 per year to insure, or $4,251 over three years.
How the John Cooper Works Convertible depreciates
Every year, a car loses some of its value. Many people keep a new car for about three years, so we calculate what we expect you will lose in depreciation over three years of ownership of the JCW based on respected Glass's Guide data.
Based on three years of ownership and 14,000km of driving per year, Glass's indicates that the JCW is only average in how it holds its value. If you sold in three years, you could expect to get back about $29,600 from the initial $54,990 cost.
The John Cooper Works has very reasonable running costs.
Buying a fast car naturally means higher running costs – they use more fuel, their complexity means they cost more to maintain and insurance companies are aware that these are riskier cars to cover.
With all of that in mind, though, this JCW remains reasonably cost-effective as an ownership proposition.
Over three years, a John Cooper Works convertible will cost you about $8,952 to maintain, fuel up and insure – or about $2,984. For a fast car, that falls into below-average territory – and it is about a quarter more than an average regular vehicle.
VALUE FOR MONEY
It wasn't too long ago that premium vehicles generally offered pretty poor value: you'd buy a badge for the advertised price, but in order to make the car feel really special, you would be forced to tick plenty of pricey options.
Impressively, that's not the case whatsoever on the $54,990 John Cooper Works MINI of 2017. Almost everything you'd want is already included, with the options list mainly limited to customisation features that are a matter of taste.
Standard kit includes the 12-speaker Harmon Kardon stereo, dual-zone climate control, navigation, automatic LED headlights and wipers, automated parking, and digital radio, a reversing camera and sensors at the front and back, plus the cloth sports seats and the sports exhaust.
The most glaring item on the options list is the advanced safety 'Control' package, which bundles autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, active cruise control, automatic high beam and a tyre pressure monitor. However, at $1,500, it is not prohibitively expensive.
Our car's Chilli Red paintwork is a no-cost-option and a red MINI is what it's all about – and those black bonnet stripes are just $200, and I'd definitely get those.
Other non-essential boxes to consider ticking include the leather seats, which are about $1,700 depending on the style, different interior colours are $250 and some exterior paints command between $800 and $1,200.
All in all, it's plenty of kit and performance for just fifty-five grand.
As a very compact, quick convertible that also offers four seats, the John Cooper Works convertible is fairly unique. The obvious competition at this level generally offer two seats, but if you can do without the back pair, you have quite a bit of choice.
Of course, it's worth considering the MINI Cooper S convertible ($45,400). Though it's down on power, the handling characteristics are similar.
A really simple, pure option is the Mazda MX-5 RF GT ($45,890), which offers even better steering and handling dynamics, though the two-litre naturally aspirated four is some way off the MINI's turbo in terms of sheer performance.
If you have more coin to spare, an Audi S3 convertible ($72,000) is a similar idea and even more powerful again – with 213kW and four-wheel-drive, it's a potent machine and more upmarket than the MINI, but it's a different concept again: it's a more luxurious car.
|Power||170kW at 6,000rpm|
|Torque||320Nm between 1,250rpm–4,800rpm|
|Power to weight ratio||132kW / tonne|
|Fuel consumption (combined)||6.8L/100km|
Transmission and Drivetrain
|Drivetrain||Front wheel drive|
Dimensions and Weights
|Unoccupied weight||1284 kilograms|
|Cargo space (seats up)||165 litres|
|Cargo space (seats down)||210 litres|