Highlights of 2017: The taming of the MINI JCW

(Time really flies, so it’s only fitting that we look back at some noteworthy experiences of 2017; starting with the new MINI John Cooper Works at Sepang).

The Turn 11 right-hander of Sepang has a way of repaying anyone who takes liberties, especially when you carry too much speed and flirt with the boundaries. Over the years, I’ve witnessed more than a few overexuberant drivers understeer wide, bounce off the heavily serrated kerb and beach their cars in the inescapable gravel trap next to it. Suffice to say, I had always steered clear of it bar some soft ‘kisses’.

Zero to many grins in every corner: not the fastest hatch for the money, but fun comes easy with the JCW Hatch.

The MINI John Cooper Works Hatch I had climbed into was on its third consecutive tour of ‘hot laps’ over the MINI Track Days 2017 (held in July). With barely any cooling down period between driver changes, I should’ve known better than to tempt fate with worn and overheated Hankook rubber, but then again I was told they were of the semi-competition variety. Moving on from the taller and heavier all-wheel driven JCW Countryman and Clubman; no slouches at Sepang and not far off the pace from the Hatch, the zippy three-door JCW seemed like a good way to end the day.

Space with pace: wagon-esque JCW Clubman serves up 231hp and 350Nm with lots of legroom.

Maybe the line I took into the T11 right-hander wasn’t optimal as I had just snuck under a slower car on the drag up to T10, the tighter entry meant the JCW was always going to run a tad wide on exit, only this time the front end was pushing instead of tucking in, and before I could even think of a suitable expletive to mutter, we were already sailing over the gnarly-looking kerb, headed for what looked like a fairway bunker.

The MINI JCW Hatch at T11 of Sepang; note the ‘fairway bunker’ alongside it.

If this was the first-gen R53 with the JCW tuning kit (skittish and unhinged) or even the second-gen R56 JCW hatch (torque steer central), I think my talent would’ve run out at that very moment, but the current-gen F56 JCW is quite a different thing altogether. Not only did it manage to cushion the nasty rumble strips, it felt composed over them, even if both the left wheels had already gone beyond track limits and onto some tiles (partially hidden by overgrown vegetation) which I never knew existed before. Thank heavens for them.

If there was a moment to sum up the new JCW hatch, this would be it — it’s a car that begs for a good spanking, yet it won’t bite you back for being an arse. There may have been a time when John Cooper Works represented a more uncompromising, hard-edged proposition, but by taming the JCW, MINI has made the performance (that you pay a handsome premium for by the way) far more attainable for less-than-talented drivers, yours truly included.

JCW Countryman is the heaviest of the bunch but it hung on gamely around Sepang; 0-100km/h in 6.5s.

Yet the JCW is by all accounts a justifiably sharper tool over the regular Cooper S, which itself is now more of a sporty hatch in the context of exceedingly (and probably needlessly) rapid hot hatches. It’s admirable that MINI doesn’t feel compelled in keeping with the Joneses, and that it still prioritises fun over ferocity. Of course, what all of this means is that there’s plenty of room for more furious editions to come. We’d say bring them on.

MINI John Cooper Works
: RM293,888 (Hatch), RM328,888 (Clubman), RM348,888 (Countryman) Engine: 2.0-litre turbo four-cyl, FWD (Hatch), AWD (Clubman, Countryman) Output: 231hp/320Nm (Hatch), 231hp/350Nm (Clubman, Countryman) Transmission: 8-sp automatic Performance: 0-100km/h in 6.1s (Hatch), 6.3s (Clubman), 6.5s (Countryman); top speed 246km/h (Hatch), 238km/h (Clubman), 234km/h (Countryman) Wheels/tyres: 205/40 R18 (Hatch); 225/35 R19 (Clubman); 225/45 R19 (Countryman) Safety: 6 airbags, Electronic Stability Control Warranty: 4-year/unlimited, includes 4-year service package