Why BMW's JCW Mini is the most fun car of 2013

Hilariously fast and sharp to handle

BMW Group; Wikimedia

BMW Group; Wikimedia

Last summer I spent a week with a 2013 BMW Mini Convertible John Cooper Works edition, with metallic blue paint, black racing stripes and enough performance-insinuating fender bulges to make a discerning Japanese street-racer jealous. Piloting it home top-down, I felt mildly self-conscious. And more so parking it in front of the house, where it proclaimed itself very loudly as the only one in the neighbourhood.

It was not the only Mini—not by far. The driveways of my downtown Toronto neighbourhood are thick with them. Mini Coopers, mostly. But on the neighbouring block you’ll find a pale blue Mini Clubman, that elongated and rather awkward-looking four-door station wagon that marked the 2001 BMW Mini hatchback’s first official spinoff. Around the corner lives a brown 4WD Paceman—the big one, with the high grille and ungainly cross-eyed headlamps. A block further you’ll even find someone who fell for the Mini Coupé—wherein BMW gave the finger to all those Mini purists clamouring for an authentically tiny Mini (the BMW is about 70 centimetres longer and 30 centimetres wider than the Morris models), by shrinking the interior but keeping the same exterior dimensions.

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Indefensibly stupid as that last model may be, I have to hand it to BMW. Upon the Mini’s launch in 2000, their stated annual sales goal of 100,000 cars seemed ambitious for a design in which the world had lost interest decades previous. A decade on they are selling nearly triple that. And they are doing it exactly as they said they would: with innumerable derivatives of the original two-door hatchback.

As with the look of their new Mini hatchback, the multi-Mini idea was repeated from Mini’s past. The 1959 Morris Mini-Minor begat even more derivatives than BMW has yet dared to offer. There were swanky Minis (re-badged as Rileys and Wolseleys), utilitarian Minis (the Van and Pick-Up), stretched Minis (Countryman, Traveller), fun Minis (Cooper, Moke) and ugly Minis (Clubman, Metro).

I never thought BMW would be able to manage this part of the second act. The original Mini had an iconic shape, but its derivatives were pretty silly-looking. Replace their diminutive proportions with larger ones, and all those cars would obviously have been long forgotten. Why build them again?

Because, as it turns out, if they have BMW know-how under the skin, at least one person on every block will want one. I am not one of them. But I will say this: of all the new cars I tested this year, none was as entertaining as the JCW Mini, which put a smile on my face every time I drove it. It was hilariously fast, and easy to drive that way. The handling is direct, sharp and predictable. It’s chief problem: it costs $50,000.

Keep the hopped up JCW drivetrain (good for 0–100 kph in six seconds) and get rid of the leather seats, satellite navigation system, voice-recognition software, wind deflectors and other silliness, and it should cost something in the high thirties instead. That’s a Mini I would buy—if only BMW made it.

Which Mini will BMW revive next?

Mini Van (1960 to 1982)

Four inches longer than the Morris Minor, with barn-style double doors in the back.

Odds 25:1

Mini Moke (1964 to 1989)

Intended for the British Army, it lacked enough ground clearance for official use. “Moke” is slang for donkey.

Odds 4:1

Mini Metro (1980 to 1997)

Built by the Austin Rover Group of British Leyland. It was intended as the Mini’s “big brother”

Odds 50:1

Cars on film

The other Mini movie

The Italian Job (original and remake) was largely a dull story that featured some funny fast cars. But 1964’s A Shot in the Dark, Blake Edwards’s riotously funny sequel to The Pink Panther, featured a rather distinctive Mini: Peter Sellers’s own lavishly trimmed Hooper Mini Cooper. Hooper Motor Services, which traditionally did coach work for Rolls-Royce and Bentley, fitted Sellers’s 1963 Mini Cooper with a hand-painted wicker body. Sellers loved it so much, he had it cloned for the film.