Automatic For What People? MINI’s JCW Gamble

2015 MINI Cooper John Cooper Works

I recently had the chance to sample the redesigned-for-2015 MINI Cooper John Cooper Works, which is the hottest version of the automaker’s hatchback money can buy. With 228 horsepower available from its turbocharged four-cylinder engine, combined with a relatively lightweight chassis and a stiff suspension system, the JCW is a compelling – if somewhat expensive – range-topper for the Cooper line-up.

As soon as I picked up the keys, I went out to the car, sat down in the driver’s seat, and pushed my left foot down to…activate the non-existent clutch pedal. It was then that my gaze turned to center console, where to my horror I discovered an automatic shifter in place of the six-speed knob that until 2013 had been the only available gearbox for the John Cooper Works model.

It turns out that the automatic isn’t terrible – it shifts relatively quickly, blips the throttle when it needs to, and my only real complaint is that it often locks out downshifts far more conservatively than it should. What does it say about brand positioning, however, when my first instinct upon getting into the John Cooper Works is to hit the clutch and then push the start button? The auto has been around since 2013, but not many customers are into paying so much more for the MINI JCW and then opting for a transmission that will significantly reduce driver engagement: three out of four buyers select the shift-it-yourself unit. It seems like an unusual decision for MINI to make, and I’d be curious to see the take rate at the end of the current model year, which has seen the JCW gain a wider range of creature comforts to go with its automatic transmission.

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