The 2020 MINI Cooper JCW is one pedal away from perfection
If you hate understeer, then you will love the 2020 Mini Cooper Clubman John Cooper Works All4—let’s call it “Clubman JCW,” for short. While it’s true that a sufficiently skilled driver can drive around the natural tendencies of anything smaller than a Prevost coach, it’s also true that the typical front-engine, front-wheel-drive economy car has a strong tendency to grind the outside tire early, and often, on the racetrack.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I gave the Clubman JCW just about a Fiesta ST’s worth of trail-braking on the entrance to a 70-mph corner and found myself watching the car ahead of me through the passenger-side window. It wasn’t a one-time thing, either. Over the course of 15 laps of BMW’s Spartanburg Performance Center road course, chasing a company-provided pro who raced in the same KONI Challenge series as I once did, both of us repeatedly got sideways enough to make a Tokyo drifter a bit jealous. So although there are a few valid criticisms to be made about this surprisingly large Mini, lack of inbuilt enthusiasm isn’t one of them.
This isn’t the Mini Cooper Countryman—that’s a different, and much larger, proposition, kind of a cross-Channel take on a $45,000 Honda CR-V. This Clubman is the traditional three-door Cooper stretched slightly and given a total of six doors (two on each side, and two in the back—Econoline-van-style). Last year’s JCW offered 228 horsepower; this one has 301, the same kind of motivation you’ll get in the top-spec transverse-engine M235i, a pre-production example of which we evaluated at the same time.
As with Ford’s Focus RS, the combination of over 300 hp and a “hot hatch” makes for a thrilling combination. Like the RS, the JCW comes with all-wheel-drive standard. While I’m sure it is a great help on snow or ice, the “All4” doesn’t have much impact on the racetrack. This is first and foremost a FWD car, which means you trail-brake to slide it and apply throttle to straighten it. When you do so, the inside front wheel will produce visible smoke, even at low triple-digit speeds. Eventually the rear axles join in on the fun, but by then you’re out of the corner and down the next straight. It’s much more fun than what you get in the “Drift Mode” Focus RS, even though I’m pretty sure the aforementioned fast Ford would cheerfully dust the Clubman JCW around almost any track you could name.
Unfortunately for prospective Clubman purchasers, the fun stops when it’s time to choose gear. The stout 332 lb-ft output of this boosted BMW four means that the six-speed manual that was standard equipment on previous Minis has been replaced by an Aisin-sourced eight-speed automatic. It’s competent enough, but oh boy is it sluggish to respond when you ask for a gear change in the heat of (noncompetitive) track battle. Sometimes you get your change right now, other times it happens once the computer is confident that the stars have properly aligned. If you are already on the ragged edge of the tires, this can be rather exciting; the closest I came to pitching any of BMW’s cars off the track at their annual testing event was when the JCW decided it would give me second gear instead of third going into an off-camber corner, causing an all-hands-on-deck rotation of the rear bumper.
Make this Mini a stick-shift three-door with no rear driveshaft, and the firm would have a serious candidate for Most Thrilling Hot Hatch of the 21st Century. It would be worth every penny of the admittedly daunting $39,500 base price, and it would make the various AWD rally-reps from Ford and Subaru look a bit silly in their seriousness. The good news is that the upcoming JCW Works GP (I know, the names keep getting longer) will offer a slightly tuned-up version of this engine in an even more aggressively-suspended package, without the all-wheel drive. But it will still be an automatic.
If you want to shift for yourself, then you’d better get to your local dealership before the last of the previous models are gone. Simple as that. If you can get over that lack of a third pedal, or if you never cared to begin with, the Clubman JCW has all the right moves, plenty of appealing options, and enough room for three claustrophobia-free friends. In a world of “good enough,” the Clubman JCW is better than that—particularly in a fast corner.