Review: 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop

The MINI Cooper is a quirky, fun little machine in its base trim line. If it’s not enough to satisfy, the John Cooper Works package features a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder BMW engine with a twin-scroll turbocharger MINI calls TwinPower Turbo. The sexy little number churns out 228 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque which on our tester was sent to the rear wheels via a 6-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters if you want to do the work yourself and/or play F1.

The exterior of the MINI Cooper was at one time controversial. We suspect it is difficult for it to be too much so anymore as the basic bug-eyed look has been around since BMW took ownership of the marque over fifteen years ago. While a bit more mainstream thanks to enough exposure, the MINI’s looks are still unique among its competitors.

It is short and compact with bulges that suggest speed and 18” wheels pushed to the corners. If you squint and turn your head a bit there are even hints of the classic Mini with a boxy passenger compartment and longish (relatively) hood. The modern iteration has elliptical headlamps and a big open grille that looks ready to suck in wind while a non-functional hood scoop pretends to help out. The narrow scoop opening does help add to the appearance of sportiness even if no actual sportiness is added.

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Mini claims 10 million ways to configure your MINI and make it yours. Most of that uniqueness is manifest in the exterior options including body color, roof and mirror colors—most trim levels feature exclusive colors. If that’s not enough personalization, consider adding some bonnet stripes or graphics when you place your order. It shouldn’t be too hard to have a MINI that no one else has. We were pretty excited about the John Cooper Works exclusive Rebel Green with black bonnet stripes.

The inside of the MINI Cooper fits the quirky bill as much as the outside…maybe more so. Circles are a common theme throughout. Door handle housings are round with latches bisecting the circles. Visible speakers are round, as are some HVAC vents and the base of the shifter housing.

The instrument cluster and infotainment system area are both housed in circles. The larger of those two, the infotainment center, features what MINI calls an Interactive LED Ring. About 75% of the frame around the screen changes colors regularly and is customizable. We told you quirky was a theme.

Retro is also a theme with some chrome-like plastic giving a turn of the century feel contrasting with some surfaces that appear to be brushed aluminum. Retro continues at the bottom of the center stack with a start switch and other toggle switch controls lined up.

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Front race inspired seats pair perfectly with the go-kart handling the MINI is known for. Bolsters keep fannies in seats without being to terribly rigid. That supportive hug can be a little claustrophobic as the rest of the interior closes in. As quirky as the MINI’s interior is it is equally as small. Really small and everything inside seems really close. There are a couple of seats in the back that will do for tweens and smaller kids in a pinch. Adults can squeeze into them, but they better be on the smallish side and like you, a lot.

Fit and finish in the MINI are superb as far as all the parts fitting together goes. The materials themselves earn a solid C just because there is such a mix of premium and cheap. The leather wrapped steering wheel is lovely, as is the combination of tightly woven fabric and faux suede accents in the seats. Some trim pieces along the dash, door panels, and the center armrest however give the idea the designers ran out of money and had to make do.

There is a cargo area in the way back. It can hold a grocery haul for a couple of people. If you are buying for the family you’ll be using pretty much all the back seat real estate as well. And that just about does it for storage. There are two barely adequate cupholders in front of the shifter, and a small lidless bin nothing really fits into in front of those. More than once the words “there’s just no place to put anything” were grumbled as we sat with hands full of phone, extra water bottle, and chargers, ready to begin our journey.

Our MINI featured the marque’s infotainment system known as MINI Connected. The system’s interface is a high definition 8.8” screen mounted high in the center of the dash and has everything you expect from an infotainment system like audio controls, Bluetooth connectivity, access to apps, etc. The system is controlled via the MINI Touch Controller which is a round toggle knob and a series of buttons. The center of the knob is touch sensitive and can interpret letters you form on the surface with your fingertip to begin searching for the destination or music you want to access.

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There were two problems with the system. The easily understandable, intuitive controller was mounted on the transmission hump aft of the shifter. This location is not an issue in a normal size vehicle; however, it was in the space-is-at-a-premium MINI. The controller was directly under the center armrest which inexplicably only raised up a few inches. There was no easy access to the controller from the driver’s seat. Reaching it required visually locating the controller and then figuring out how to get your hand to it. It was difficult at best.

Operating the system itself was not exactly easy either. There were a number of menus and submenus to work through, none of which were intuitive. We would have liked a bit more time to get used to the system as MINI features some really fun sounding exclusive apps, e.g. Minimalism Analyzer, which serves a driving tutorial, and LIFE360, a family networking app.

Analog HVAC and audio controls were mounted below the infotainment screen and unexceptional except in how much we appreciated them after becoming frustrated with the menu system.

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The MINI’s instrument cluster consists of a large central speedometer bookended by a sliver of tachometer on the left and an odd fuel gauge which consisted of a vertical row of lines showing fuel quantity.

While the virtues of its exterior and interior design can be debated, it is likely most would agree with us in saying the MINI driving experience is fun. Steering is solid and precise. Handling feels every bit the go-kart MINI claims. With tires pushed to the corners, it feels as if nothing you do as a driver can upset the little fella. The MINI does suffer from the same rough ride as other stick-to-the-road-like-Velcro sports cars. Along with feeling invincible, you will also feel every imperfection in the road.

The exhaust burbles and pops from the second the Start switch is depressed and continues to belch out a satisfying roar along with every input of your right foot. The transmission was quick to respond whether in full auto mode, or if changes were made manually. The sequential shift lever and flappy paddles were equally as responsive. Responsiveness was a theme throughout our experience. Tell the MINI what to do and it eagerly followed orders.

If you aren’t used to a small vehicle, the drive can get a little bit claustrophobic just because the MINI is so small. Everything is easily within reach. While that makes for a driver-centric experience, the car can feel as if it’s closing in after a while.

One aspect of the drive we were particularly impressed with was visibility from inside. Looking around from the driver’s seat it is easy to think the pillars and small back glass would make keeping track of your surroundings difficult; however, the perfectly sized rear view mirror and the large side view mirrors work together to create an almost seamless view. We were impressed and had no trouble maintaining our hyper-vigilant view of traffic.

The Bottom Line   

This is the section where we say if we recommend the vehicle we just reviewed and why/why not. There won’t be a recommendation to purchase or not. The recommendation will instead be to do your homework before making a purchase decision. Don’t get a puppy unless you are fully aware of its bathroom proclivities and are as fully prepared to deal with them as you are the little guy’s cuteness. Don’t buy a MINI unless you are prepared to deal with a lack of practicality along with adorable quirkiness.

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To see more pictures and video from this vehicle test and future tests, follow Drive My Family on InstagramTwitterFacebook, and Vine (@DriveMyFamily).

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