SAN DIEGO — I’ve driven a lot of fun, affordable sports cars over the years.
“It’s better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow” is a famous adage on amateur track days, and it’s 100 percent true. I’d rather drive a Mazda MX-5 or Toyota 86 around a race track than a Lamborghini Huracan.
A high-performance rocket ship like the Lamborghini allows less talented drivers to cover their mistakes with raw power. If you mess up your braking point in a track-focused supercar, it’s not as big a deal as if you make a tiny error in my test car this week, the 228-horsepower Mini John Cooper Works hardtop.
Here’s a provocative statement: This little Mini JCW is the best affordable sports car you can buy today.
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With a turbocharged two-liter engine making 228 hp and 235 ft-lbs of torque, the JCW skips from 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds with the 8-speed automatic fitted. There’s also a six-speed manual available, making for a good time but a slightly slower run to 60 mph.
Minis have always been fun little go karts — or at least the small, three-door variants are. The bigger Clubman stretches the definition of Mini, but this three-door hardtop is quintessential Mini fun.
This car is like an excited puppy, scrabbling hard to put down the power and get going down the road. It’s front-wheel drive, a fun challenge, but with sticky tires and an excellent adaptive suspension, the JCW is only too happy to rip into corners at whoop-inducing speeds.
Four-piston brakes, developed with Brembo, help get things under control if you get a little too excited. But it’s the excellent steering that makes the Mini JCW so much fun. With the wheels pushed way out to the corners, the car turns on a dime, and zipping through traffic is consistently grin-inducing.
The beer can-shaped dual exhaust makes a delightful burble, particularly in Sport mode, and it’s a friendly reminder that you’re sitting in something special.
John Cooper Works is the racing division of MINI, roughly equivalent to parent company BMW’s M division, and JCW badges are everywhere: the wheels, brakes, fenders, and the boot are all emblazoned with the logo. The JCW gets a fun rear spoiler above the tailgate, and the British flag taillights are a fun tongue-in-cheek nod to Mini’s home country.
The Mini’s interior is very love-it-or-hate-it, with an enormous circular dial in the middle acting as a throwback to the classic Mini’s centrally mounted speedometer. Sadly that’s gone, replaced with a modern navigation screen.
The best affordable sports car you can buy.
It is, however, surrounded by a color-changing dial that can alternatively act as a tachometer, volume indicator, or climate control temperature display. It’s a wildly unnecessary but charming add-on, and there’s a lot of that in this car.
The glowing, bright red start/stop switch is in the center of a row of old-style toggle switches at the bottom of the central control stack. The steering wheel is small, lovely to grip, and eager to send the car off in exciting new directions with the slightest twitch.
The oval-shaped digital instrument cluster behind the steering wheel is a nice change from the rectangular screens that adorn every other vehicle.
Just about the only thing I dislike about the MINI John Cooper Works is the annoying BMW shifter that protrudes between the front seats like a tall stick stuck in the ground. It feels out of place with the automatic transmission affixed, though it’s the perfect position for a manual shifter (which is why it’s there, of course).
The seats are comfortable, at least up front – don’t plan to bring many friends along, especially if they have any stuff with them. Folding down the rear seats gives you ample cargo space, but with the rear seats up, you’ve barely got room for a backpack or overnight bag.
This is a city car for folks without children or a commuter or weekend toy for families. I can’t tell you how much joy this fantastic Mini brought me in the week I had it. It put a smile on my face every time I zipped away from a red light, hearing the exhaust burble and crackle when I put it in Sport mode (which is where it should always live).
The toggle switches in the ceiling to control the sunroof and the color of the ambient interior lighting make you feel like you’re piloting a WWII fighter plane, and the entire car feels solidly built.
It’s not cheap, but it is affordable for everything it gives you. This is a small, luxury car and, in some ways, is the entry point for the BMW performance lineup. My Mini JCW started at $32,900, but that rose quickly with the addition of the $7,000 lux- and convenience-focused Iconic trim, ending up at $41,350.
There are less-expensive trims available, but this is a fair price for what can reasonably be considered a luxury sports car. It might not look the part of a traditional sports car like the MX-5 or a BR-Z, but the Mini Cooper back in the ’60s didn’t look like anything else on the road either.
The Mini is its own thing and embraces that role with gusto.