The 2021 MINI Cooper S comes in two flavours. Ishan wonders if the merely fast Cooper S is enough, or do you really need the full-fat JCW?
The MINI has long been one of my favourite cars in the world. An iconic design that became a classic the minute it was launched – over 50 years ago! – it is characterized by a few traits that have become its calling card. For instance, it’s blisteringly fast (for its size), great fun to drive, has a gorgeous design that has stood the test of time, and is yet relatively compact. Sure, if you park the classic and the current MINI together, you might think the current versions are humongous; however, park it anywhere near an SUV, and the MINI is still, well, mini. And this contributes a lot to the way it drives and, more importantly, the way it feels to drive it.
Now, a few weeks ago, MINI India called me to ask if I’d like to test the Cooper S and Cooper S JCW versions of the 2021 MINI. At first, I wondered why would anyone want to buy the JCW, given that the Cooper S is plenty quick. But then it led to all sorts of questions that became the basis of this story. For instance, is the bog-standard Cooper S more than enough, or do you need the extra spark that the JCW provides? So, I said yes and spent a couple of days with both cars to find out the answers.
Now, the MINI as a vehicle has evolved drastically over the past couple of decades, and the current line-up varies widely from the basic ethos of what a MINI was in the past. Today, you can buy the MINI in all kinds of flavours – 3-door, 5-door, pseudo-SUV, convertible, and more. But, for the MINI fan in me, the only MINI worth considering is the old-school 3-door hot hatch. For it offers a combination of unbeatable style, imposing road presence, and power (more than the size demands), which, along with its evergreen cool factor, makes it quite a desirable proposition.
In the Cooper S avatar, the MINI also makes a serious case for itself. It’s fantastic looking – the cosmetic tweaks of the 2021 version have given it a more assertive design language, but it still is a quintessential MINI. The biggest change is the new front grille and the optional piano-black exterior package, which removes all the chrome for the shiny black finish of the exterior.
Run rabbit run
Even in the ‘standard’ Cooper S form, the MINI is no slouch – with 189bhp available on tap from the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine and peak torque arriving at just 1,250rpm, the MINI takes off like a scalded cat as you squeeze the throttle – regardless of whether it’s a straight road or a tight bend. To give you an idea of how fast it is, the Cooper S does the 0 – 100km/h sprint in just 6.7 seconds.
Now, there are a few things that you realise about the MINI on the road. The MINI is not a display object – start the car, give it some aggressive throttle input, and the MINI catapults forward with great urgency. The engine response is immediate, and the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox functions well. Together, they make the MINI a hoot to drive. Sure, the suspension and the body structure are stiff, and they are not a very great ally on bad roads. But take it on good roads or drive it on twisty sections, and you’ll find out why journalists and owners rave about its driving experience – there is no body roll whatsoever, and the car responds sharply to steering inputs while keeping the driver involved the whole time.
Additionally, the MINI comes with three driving modes – Green, Mid, and Sport – and it’s here that it differs from most cars. Now, in most cars, the Sport mode makes the gearbox and engine a little bit sharper, but in the MINI, the Sport mode completely changes the character of the car. Suddenly, even the smallest throttle input makes the car lunge for the nearest gap, and it starts to gain pace at an unbelievable rate. The gearbox’s response gets sharper, and the engine always remains in the peak powerband. That said, there is a drawback of the Sport mode – it makes the steering a bit heavier. Now, on open roads, the heavy steering can be managed, but to try and park the MINI in the Sport mode can be very tiring.
If you were to ask me, the biggest problem that I have with the MINI Cooper S also happens to be the best aspect of the car – I simply can’t drive the Cooper S in a gentlemanly fashion. Let me explain. It’s not the problem with the car per se, but the response it evokes in me. The immediacy of the throttle response, the feel of the steering, and the stiff chassis mean that it’s impossible to control your desire to drive it like a hooligan. And to be honest, it’s the best way to drive the MINI.
Coming back to the original question, with the level of performance that the Cooper S provides, does one really need a JCW version?
Turning it up
Irrespective of your liking of the Cooper S, you can’t help but admit that things change drastically the moment you get into the JCW. And it seems a bit difficult to believe, especially on paper – after all, the JCW is just a few percentage points above the Cooper S in terms of price and performance figures – in fact, I like to call the JCW the ‘20% extra version of the Cooper S’. The JCW costs roughly 20% more, has 20% more power and torque, and makes for an interesting offering with the 228bhp and 320Nm it produces.
The minute you hit the road in the JCW, you know that you’re in a car that’s measurably faster than the Cooper S, given the extra torque and power, especially during in-gear acceleration. And then, you start questioning if you really need this level of performance in such a small car. But then again, the best part about the MINI is that the rest of the package – chassis, brakes, suspension – is more than enough to deal with all this power. The MINI, therefore, doesn’t feel like a one-trick pony that can only go fast in a straight line. In fact, it is when you push the MINI around corners that you really start appreciating what a fun-to-drive car it is, with its involvement and communication to the driver.
Moment of reckoning
Of course, my problem with the Cooper S – i.e. of not being able to control myself from driving it like a hooligan – transforms into a concern with the JCW. Its extra performance – 0 – 100km/h in 6.1 seconds – makes it even more addictive. And to be honest, I prefer the 8-speed automatic gearbox in the JCW over the Cooper S’ dual-clutch unit. In Sport mode, or even in Mid, the JCW is stupendously fast, and its diminutive size means that you can use it to thread through traffic with ease – in fact with a bit too much ease. And this is what endears it to me even more – its ability to be fast even in urban traffic. With its immediate throttle response and the fact that peak torque is available from just above idle, there is no gap in traffic that the MINI can’t rush through. The moment you spot a gap, the MINI lunges for it, and before you realise what you’ve done, you are there.
Sure, if we’re talking sensibly, the MINI doesn’t make much sense in India. It’s small – the rear seats are a joke for anyone other than young kids – the suspension is stiff, the ride is choppy on bad roads, and the level of road noise can be quite high inside the cabin. Plus, for a small hatch, it costs a lot of money too.
But then again, buying a MINI is never a rational decision, and there is hardly anything better as an impulse buy than a hot MINI. And yes, with its extra performance, the JCW is totally worth the 20% extra that it costs over the Cooper S. I mean, if you’re going to buy something to soothe your impulse, you might as well buy its fastest version, right? I would like mine in Chilli Red with a black roof, white bonnet stripes, and 18-inch two-tone wheels, please.
- 2021 MINI Cooper JCW
- 2021 MINI Cooper S
Engine: 1,998cc / Inline-Four / Turbocharged / DOHC
Transmission: 8-Speed Automatic / Front-Wheel Drive
Power: 228bhp @ 5,200 – 6,200rpm
Torque: 320Nm @ 1,450 – 4,800rpm
Price: ₹45.5 Lakh (Ex-Showroom)
X-Factor: If you’re going to live with the impracticality of a MINI, why not go for the fastest one available?
• Redefines a hot hatch’s performance
• Impossible to drive it slowly
Engine: 1,998cc / Inline-Four / Turbocharged / DOHC
Transmission: 7-Speed Dual-Clutch Automatic / Front-Wheel Drive
Power: 189bhp @ 5,000 – 6,000rpm
Torque: 280Nm @ 1,250 – 4,600rpm
Price: ₹38 Lakh (Ex-Showroom)
X-Factor: The MINI still defines the term hot hatch – what a hoot to drive!
• Brings out the hooligan in you
• Brings out the hooligan in you