2021 Mini John Cooper Works
In 1994 BMW AG purchased the Rover Group, which included Rover, Land Rover, and Mini. Just five years later BMW mostly exited the British car business by dumping Rover and selling Land Rover to Ford, although they elected to keep Mini. And in 2000 they launched the new Mini, a fun two door hatchback that was a modern (and much larger) reinterpretation of the original Mini, in an attempt to create a brand that would capture desirable customers who couldn’t yet afford BMWs.
Twenty years later where are we? The original two door Mini hatchback has been joined by a convertible, four door hatchback, and two small crossovers. And Mini has been thoroughly integrated into the BMW family.
My week with a 2021 two door John Cooper Works (JCW) hatchback reminded me that the company has evolved in a good way during their 20 years of BMW ownership.
For one thing, all Minis now share a platform with the BMW 1- and 2-series cars and X1 and X2 crossovers. Engines, transmissions, and most of the electronics are also shared despite the fact that Minis continue to be manufactured in the UK.
The Mini’s exterior design retains its retro vibe from twenty years ago but it’s become (slightly) more contemporary with time. While the old Mini-ish profile is retained, the headlights are smaller and sleeker, and the taillights, now larger and more square, feature British flag-esque LED lighting.
Inside, many Mini standbys such as big round gauges and numerous toggle switches remain, but otherwise things are much more BMW-ish than they were in 2001. The gear lever in automatic transmission Minis—most Minis will come equipped with a 7-speed dual clutch automatic, but thankfully a 6-speed manual is still available—looks slightly different from BMW units, but it works just like BMW’s. And as with BMW automatics, pushing the lever forward in manual mode shifts the transmission down a gear, the opposite of what happens with every other manufacturer’s gear levers.
One fun touch is the start/stop function. In most vehicles today you keep a fob in your pocket or purse, touch the door to get in, and then push a big “start” button on the dash to start the engine. In Minis there’s no button on the dash, just a red “start” toggle switch protruding from the center stack. It works the same as a button but is definitely cooler.
The infotainment system is very BMW too, with a central touch screen that accesses and controls all of the usual functions but which can also be navigated using a wheel and buttons on the center console—a set up otherwise known as iDrive in BMWs.
I have no problem with all of this BMW-ness being present in Minis. BMW makes upscale vehicles that we all like and admire, and if Mini had to develop their own systems from scratch their cars would cost a lot more. And Minis are indeed affordable—my loaded JCW model stickered for just over $40,000, but a base two door hatchback starts at just over $23,000.
Interestingly, JCW versions of all Minis are available. Much as M versions of BMWs are the performance models, so JCWs are the sporty Minis. The JCW two door hatchback makes sense to me—and would be the version I’d get if I were buying one—but a JCW Countryman seems slightly incongruous. It’s not a big crossover by any means, but neither is it a zippy hot hatch like my press car.
For the record, the front wheel drive JCW two door Mini is totally a hot hatch. Its potent 228HP turbocharged 4-cylinder engine is “the jam”, as the kids might say, and driving one on my favorite deserted back road was a delight thanks to it and fantastic suspension tuning. There’s virtually no understeer, and the combination of all that power and all that handling is really enjoyable. Honestly, there are few cars for sale today as fun as the two door JCW Mini.
Of course, all the things that make it fun detract from it being a truly practical car. Its diminutive size means that passenger and luggage space is limited, you’re safer in a big pickup or SUV, and being able to see above or around vehicles in front of you isn’t happening. In addition, those space limitations and a buzzy engine mean that long road trips in the Mini will be less pleasurable than in an F-150.
The JCW two door Mini hatchback is a seriously fun hot hatch that will entertain you every time you get behind the wheel. Just don’t expect it to carry lots of people or stuff, or be a great long distance traveler. But if you want a zippy everyday driver that’s terrific around town or on twisty back roads, this is your car.