Payne: Mini Cooper JCW Knights Edition is a killer rabbit
Count on the Brits for a bit of fun.
The comedy troupe Monty Python infected my family years ago with its humor. Call out a scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and we are suddenly diverted from the moment. Our accents transform, our faces contort into character, and we recite the lines from memory: The French Taunter. The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. The Knights Who Say “Ni!”
The 2019 Mini Cooper JCW Knights Edition is like that. It's a hilarious diversion from the everyday five-door sea of utes on our byways.
Mini, of course, is not so mini anymore. Now a member of the BMW family, the hatchback is based on the similar front-wheel drive platform used for small Bimmers, giving it a 98-inch wheelbase that is big stretch from the wee 80-inch shoeboxes that made the Oxford-built Mini a '60s legend.
But next to your average Ford Explorer, the Brit is a midget, and its signature bits haven’t changed: square shape, mirrors the size of bowling balls, goggle-eyed headlamps.
Add on the special JCW Knights trim and it’s like throwing the Killer Rabbit into the middle of King Arthur’s army. JCW stands for John Cooper Works, the hot-hatch edition of the Mini named after its English co-founder. He’d be proud. The JCW is stuffed with performance in the tradition of a car that has slayed many a larger competitor on track: 228 horsepower, taut suspension, Sport performance mode.
The Knights edition turns up the volume.
Its armor is as black as the suits of the Knights Who Say “Ni!”, giving it a comically sinister look. Its front bumper is smeared with red paint. It’s as if a goggle-eyed minion from the “Despicable Me” movies (another Payne favorite) threw on a black Ninja suit and tied a red bandana.
Add to the comic fierceness a body tattooed with faux performance accents like racing stripes, fake hood scoop, fake front gills, fake rear diffuser. Start it up and the Mini snorts to life through twin tailpipes.
“None shall pass!” growls the Black Knight.
Flick the drive-mode switch to Sport and the JCW swaggers down the street barking and farting obnoxiously like the French Taunter (uninitiated Pythonites can look it up on YouTube). Like the signature big peepers outside, the Mini sports a unique, Broadway kick-line of switches on the lower console. Off/on anchors the middle.
Like an airline pilot, I habitually flicked On, Sport and Stop/Start switches in sequence when jumping into the cockpit. It’s here that BMW’s stern German demeanor interrupts British levity.
Like its diesel-shamed countryman Volkswagen, BMW literature these days is full of sober sermons about a dying planet and endangered polar bears. That piety translates to the wee Brit in the form of the annoying Start/Stop button (making Mini cough at stoplights) and Green driving mode.
Yes, a Green driving mode in a JCW Knights edition. It makes as much sense as a pink bow on a Rottweiler and I suspect it will be the Cooper’s most ignored feature.
Happily, the BMW influence is felt in other, more meaningful areas. Like the drivetrain.
As an upscale front-engine hot-hatch, the JCW faces formidable competition from the VW Golf GTI, Mazda 3, Hyundai Veloster N and Honda Civic Type R. Its BMW-derived technology is worthy of the challenge.
BMW's trusty 2.0-liter turbo-4 pumps out 228 horses and a healthy 236 pound-feet of torque. The driveline puts the power down beautifully without torque-steer. Outfitted with sturdy, six-speed manual shifter (auto optional) with the stalk rising out of the console like Excalibur from the lake (“You can't expect to wield supreme power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!”), the Mini is a hoot to row through the gears.
German engineering also aids in the front-wheel driver’s rotation. Where most front-wheel drive cars struggle on turn-in, the autocross-focused Mini is outfitted with front torque-vectoring in which rotation into corners is aided by braking the inside front wheel. The result is sharp no-plow turn-in. I was tempted by vacant parking lots to do full-throttle tire-burning loops, normally something I would only try in, say, a rear-wheel drive Camaro.
But brake-induced torque-vectoring is not the same as the more sophisticated limited-slip differential found on the Golf GTI and Type-R (which will also carve a mean apex), and it begs my cloth-seat, $41,050 JCW’s value compared to these much more affordable five-door hot-hatches.
With just three doors (including the hatch), the Mini is space-challenged compared to its segment peers. Rear-seat room for giant knights like me (after I contorted myself behind the front seat) isn’t bad, but hatch cargo-space is virtually nonexistent. If you pick up four at the airport, expect to carry baggage in your lap.
Perhaps the short-wheelbase Mini doesn’t need limited-slip, but my Knight was shy on other technology as well. Like blind-spot assist. I count it as a safety essential and it's standard on compacts costing thousands of dollars below the JCW. Then again, the JCW has irresistible touches like the British flag formed by criss-crossing LEDs in the taillights. Dude, cool.
In keeping with its quirky nature, the Brit offers the best navigation system this side of a smartphone — better than the $58,000 BMW 3-series I recently tested. Where the German couldn’t understand my American accent, the Mini and I conversed like old friends.
“Navigate to Kart-2-Kart in Sterling Heights,” I barked. No problem. The directions popped up instantly — complete with quickest route in rush hour traffic. Hmmm, maybe the wee Brit wanted to take some kart laps itself.
The screen was easy to negotiate on the Mini’s dinner-plate-sized center touch screen. Don’t like touchscreens? There’s a BMW-derived remote rotary-dial just like a 3-series. This Brit-German marriage shares some interesting DNA.
For the most part, the German bits are a plus. BMW doesn’t cut corners on the interior. From round console to round dial to round speakers, this is Mini funhouse all the way. Change drive-modes and the console screen changes colors — Red! Orange! Green! — like a carnival ride.
The Mini JCW Knight is an expensive ticket to fun. But for the initiated, it’s got a cute, maniacal character all its own.
“Run away! That rabbit’s dynamite!”,as King Arthur might yell.
2019 Mini Cooper JCW Knights Edition
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger compact hatchback
Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Weight: 2,860 pounds
Price: $32,750 base JCW including $850 destination fee ($41,065 Knights Edition as tested)
Power: 228 horsepower, 236 pound-feet torque
Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.1 seconds (mfr.); top speed: 153 mph
Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/32 highway/28 combined
Highs: Mini fierce; nimble handling
Lows: Lacks standard safety-assist features; pricey
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.