By Derek Price
When I first turned the key on the John Cooper Works MINI, I braced myself for disappointment.
It had been just a few weeks since I evaluated its cousin, the wild and unimaginably powerful MINI GP, one of the fastest and most thrilling small cars I’ve ever been fortunate enough to drive.
I was prepared for a letdown after I looked at the numbers. The John Cooper Works costs $12,000 less than the GP. It makes 228 horsepower, which is impressive in a lightweight car but not nearly as mind-blowing as the GP’s 301-horse engine.
In reality, after a week driving it, I ended up liking the John Cooper Works version even better than the GP for one reason: you can get it with a manual transmission. The GP deprives you of shift-it-yourself bliss, the only glaring downside in an otherwise spectacular car.
With the six-speed manual, the JCW feels more like a sports car than a hatchback. It sacrilegiously sends power to the front wheels, sure, as MINIs always do, but the experience of speed, connection and oneness with the road make me smile just as big in corners as I do when driving a Mazda Miata.
I usually enjoy putting a car into “sport” mode, but I didn’t find it necessary — or even desirable — in this one. The normal driving mode is so perfectly balanced, so harmoniously tuned, that the more aggressive noises and throttle response when you press the “sport” switch feel like overkill, more for showing off than for actually enjoying.
It’s even reasonably practical. The back seat is usable. The hatchback makes it easy to load groceries or cargo. The front doors swing wide for comfortable ingress and egress, despite its diminutive dimensions.
Of course, no one buys a MINI — especially this particular souped-up version of the MINI — purely for practicality. It’s first and foremost a fun car to drive, and it looks the part after a slew of styling updates for 2022.
An eye-catching red stripe garnishes its bigger, wider hexagonal grille. Gaping air intake openings at the bottom front corners help the engine and brakes breathe freely, while a rear diffuser routes air cleanly under the car at high speeds.
In fact, one of the most striking things about driving the new John Cooper Works is just how stable it feels at speed. With a whopping 228 horses in a tiny car, it’s easy to reach faster-than-intended speeds at the end of highway on ramps, yet it never exhibits the twitchiness that small cars often suffer from in those situations. It’s planted like a rock and seems only to hunker down more firmly as it gets faster.
Active cruise control is an option, including the ability to stop and go with city traffic, but I didn’t press the cruise button once during my week of driving. With a car this satisfying to drive, why would I want to relinquish control?
A much more useful option in a car like this is the adaptive suspension, which varies the damping to smooth out uneven road surfaces. It makes the car feel surprisingly silky on straight roads yet impressively sporty when cornering, a best-of-both-worlds suspension. It’s pricey, though, as part of the $7,000 Iconic trim package on my tester.
Pricing starts at $32,900 for the JCW Hardtop or $38,900 for the Convertible. The Iconic Convertible tops the lineup at $44,900.
At A Glance
What was tested? 2022 MINI John Cooper Works Hardtop 2Dr ($32,900). Options: Iconic trim ($7,000). Price as tested (including $850 destination charge): $40,750
Wheelbase: 98.2 in.
Length: 152.8 in.
Width: 68 in.
Height: 55.7 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder (228 hp, 236 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy: 22 city, 31 highway
Why buy it?
It’s as rewarding to drive as a sports car but comes with the practicality of a hatchback.