Review of: 2016 MINI Cooper Hardtop 3dr HB John Cooper Works
2016 Mini John Cooper Works: Fun is automatic
By Chris Chase
Jun. 3, 2016
Years ago, if you wanted a sports car, a manual transmission was your only option in many models. If you didn’t drive stick, you either learned or settled for a less entertaining car.
Part of the reason for that was probably that the automatics of the time lacked the sophistication to show off a sporty car’s performance. That’s all changed now: traditional automatics are light-years ahead of their ancestors, with more ratios and better shifting helping to improve both performance and fuel economy.
That might explain why automatic sports cars were once less common, but their wider availability now can be attributed to a simple increase in demand: fewer people are interested in driving stick, and automakers are happy to oblige if it helps them sell cars.
Pros & Cons
- + Sharp handling
- + Acceleration
- + Well-matched engine/transmission
- - Ride comfort
- - Value for money
- - A few cheap interior touches
I’ll admit I was initially disappointed to discover my Mini John Cooper Works (JCW) tester was fitted with the optional six-speed automatic transmission. That made this test a milestone of sorts: in more than a decade of writing about cars, I had never driven a Cooper with an automatic; the closest I’d come was a Countryman crossover with a self-shifter I tested in 2015.
The JCW offers few visual clues that it boasts bonuses of 39 hp and 29 lb-ft of torque over the already-quick Cooper S. My JCW test car showed up in slick, dark-green paint that looked black in any light other than direct sun, with a fun red roof and mirror caps.
Just like the outside, the JCW’s interior doesn’t suggest much difference from a Cooper S, or even the three-cylinder, entry-level Cooper. That is, at least, until you sit down: the JCW package includes sport seats with adjustable thigh supports and aggressive side bolsters, your first clue that this car is something more than the usual Cooper.
Those seats were upgraded to classy cloth-and-leather upholstery that both looked good and helped keep butts in place in enthusiastic cornering.
The round binnacle centred in the dash that housed the speedometer in previous-generation Coopers now houses an infotainment display controlled by a dial behind the shifter. My favourite — if superfluous — interior touch are the LEDs ringing the display, which serve as a tachometer and light up in sequence as the engine revs toward its redline.
Mini packed a fair amount of optional tech into this little car, including navigation, a head-up display, intelligent keyless entry, auto-dimming rearview mirror and rear park assist.
A head-up display is always a welcome feature for helping to keep a driver’s eyes on the road. Like others, this one is height-adjustable, but didn’t go as high as I would have liked; it also washed out when viewed through polarized sunglasses. Coopers with navigation get a touch-sensitive controller borrowed from BMW that allows you to “write” letters and numbers in an address with a fingertip; it sounds gimmicky, but works very well.
Predictably, the most pleasant surprise about my tester was how well-suited the automatic transmission is to the rest of this car, pulling off rapid-fire shifts that mimic those of a more complicated dual-clutch gearbox.
Flipping the little tab on the shifter bezel toggles the car between its normal, eco, sport’ and sport-plus modes, which work on the drivetrain and, in cars so equipped, tighten up the dynamic damper suspension in sport mode (which, unfortunately, renders the ride pretty much unbearable on winter-ravaged Ottawa roads). The drive mode selector’s neatest trick is how, in sport-plus, it triggers fun backfires from the exhaust every time the transmission upshifts.
Naturally, the Mini JCW is best enjoyed on a twisty back road, but it’s nearly as fun to throw into an empty freeway on-ramp, where the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine requires little time to get the car up to highway speeds, not to mention velocities more likely to attract the attention of law enforcement.
Fuel consumption is estimated at 9.4/7.5 L/100 km (city/highway); my tester averaged a less-impressive 11.1 L/100 km.
In my view, the Mini JCW’s performance is justifiable at its $33,240 opening price, but is notably less attractive at the $42,000 price tag our tester wore.
A Ford Fiesta ST is less potent, but still plenty of fun, at $25,649 to start, and in the middle, price and power-wise, is the Nissan Juke NISMO RS. The Fiesta is stickshift-only, and the Juke can only be optioned with an automatic in tandem with Nissan’s nifty torque-vectoring AWD system.
Part of Mini’s allure is its association with BMW, and the German automaker is happy to acknowledge that via the Cooper’s prices, which are significantly higher than those for those of other subcompact cars, performance-oriented or not.
We’re happy to admit we’re okay with that, because the Cooper, and especially this JCW version, is still a riot to drive — no matter which transmission you choose.