The MINI John Cooper Works, affectionately known as “JCW”, is in its F56 generation. For 2021, it received a minor facelift and a couple more options, but sits largely unchanged. Is it still spicy enough to carry the JCW badge?
Out of Spec Score: C+
Distinctly MINI, yet modern. Which is an impressive feat in and of itself. The classic MINI design has been showcased in pop culture, celebrity vehicles, and British paraphernalia for decades. The F56 generation retains the roots of the modern reintroduced Cooper better than most vehicles in their successive generations, with bulbous headlight housings, short wheelbase, and hatchback above a very short rear overhang.
The headlights carry LED daytime running lights in classic round formation, and the intercooler is visible through the expansive grill. Also part of the 2021 facelift, you’ll find additional cooling ducts on the driver side in front of the wheel, but not on the passenger side. The same design element exists on both sides, but as you can see in these photos, only the driver side allows seeing into the innards of the extra cooling.
Around back, the distinct British flag F56 taillights make their appearance, with an aggressive albeit faux diffuser housing the exhaust outlets below. We also see blacked out chrome around the lights, black A and B pillars, handles, and even badges. Against the dark Rebel Green paint, with red roof, mirror caps, and JCW graphics all around, the entire car hosts a fantastic choice of color, or should I say colour?
The interior is somewhat of a departure from prior MINI models, leaning more into the BMW mindset of its parent company. It feels well-assembled, almost too much so according to some owners of previous R56 and R53 models. The driver’s display and center displays are now entirely digital, replacing prior analog tachometer and speedometer. There are some fantastic details, especially in the switches for start/stop, traction control, etc. Alcantara seats, leather steering wheel, overall a good selection of materials and feel, though you won’t find power seats.
The center display carries the classic MINI design but entirely reconfigured to the digital realm in which we live, for better or for worse. Back seats are not very compliant to adult sizing, as per usual, but they are an option in a pinch. The way most people may use the MINI is with seats down to access the full potential of the hatchback space. But overall, I love the interior. It’s quirky, well-built, yet not the least bit fancy.
JCW has always been synonymous with the ideal hot hatchback, plastering smiles on every driver’s face. To that extent, the F56 does hold a candle to its predecessors. Our specific example was fitted with the 6-speed manual transmission, with the 8-speed automatic being another option, or the only option on the convertible. Powering the JCW is the turbocharged B48 2-liter inline-4 engine with 231 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. This BMW-sourced power plant will launch the FWD Cooper to 60 mph in just over 6 seconds.
Suspension feel is solid, with adaptive dampers as an option, passive as standard. Sport mode with adaptive dampers stiffens it up nicely, and it brings the full heat of the hatchback. The standard driving mode is nicely balanced, with green mode significantly reducing throttle response. Let’s face it, if you use green mode on a daily basis, the JCW is a strange choice, but at least it does produce good gas mileage up into the low 30s.
There is also a 4-piston brake system developed with Brembo that worked very well for the size and weight. Steering feel is a bit indirect and sloppy if we’re to truly nitpick it. But overall, performance is present and actually quite enjoyable in our canyon road environments around Colorado.
To revisit the gas mileage equation, the MINI Cooper is, and always has been, relatively practical. The variables of small car and small engine play a crucial role in maintaining this. However, the capacity of the JCW’s hot hatched nature does leave room for low return on investment in the efficiency category. At full throttle with the twin-scroll turbo singing, the 11.6 gallon tank won’t last long. But under normal driving, especially in green mode, you can expect to at least match the stated 24 city, 30 highway figures.
At the other end of the practicality spectrum exists the luggage and personnel capacity metrics, indeed a mixed bag with MINI. The brand name itself suggests a lack of adult capacity, but when back seats are not in use by humans, they can hold ample luggage or fold to result in nearly 48 cubic feet. With seats up, it’s still a respectable 17.5 cubic feet of trunk space.
While advancements were made with the natural progression of car technology, I’m not sure I appreciate them as much as I do in other models. The MINI feels right in the R56 or R53 generation, being more analog and raw feeling. The F56 does still engage you, and I always appreciate a heads-up display, but the digital gauge cluster feels almost unnecessary. There is very little customization available to it, and I would have found it more engaging to have real dials. The center display takes up a relatively small portion of the area of the circle, which is expected given the lack of circular content in automotive use-cases.
The center display used to have a large speedometer, classic to the MINI Cooper, so they felt that they needed to retain the shape, albeit modernized. It’s fairly intuitive to use, though the scroll wheel feels a bit backwards to use at first, since it’s trying to mimic the curvature of the display itself. Apple CarPlay works well, though changing driving modes kicks it out every time. The heads-up display is somewhat unnecessary, though its quirky existence somewhat matches the quirky car. It doesn’t display on the windshield like many other HUDs in the world, but rather a small clear plastic piece rising from the dashboard, akin to earlier HUD styles. I did appreciate being able to glance at my speed and gear selected (when in sport mode) when driving in the canyons.
Personally, it’s hard to dislike something with three pedals. The shift throws were a bit long, the clutch was aging poorly (though we can potentially blame the myriad of journalists who had it before us), and the exhaust left a bit to be desired. But all in all, the JCW holds its own for heated hatchbacks in general as well as the famed JCW required spiciness. Perhaps it is too well built, but it still retains an intriguing mix of German engineering and British design that I would love to see more of in the future. The MINI Cooper is quirky and exciting, small yet practical, and hard to drive without smiling heavily. I’d personally love to option one with the convertible top and 6-speed manual, but since that isn’t an option, I would go with something close to this exact specification.
Priced as tested at about $40,000, it is certainly no small pence to pay, and that’s perhaps one of the biggest downsides. But the entry model at roughly $32,000 hits closer to the mark of a fun, affordable hot hatchback experience. It walks the line of offending prior MINI enthusiasts while embracing entirely new converts, but you have to appreciate how well they stuck to the original design language. Well done, old chaps.
– Exterior design 9/10
– Interior design 7/10
– Build quality 7/10
– Comfort 8/10
– Acceleration 7/10
– Handling 8.5/10
– Storage capacity 8/10
– Efficiency 8/10
– Connected services 8/10
– UI/UX 7/10
– Active Safety 8/10
Editors Influence 9/10