Feisty place, the Square Mile. Especially on a week night. At chucking out time.
The sun went down four hours ago, and it’s been raining for much longer, but for a bottle-carrying hardcore, the working day isn’t over. Nor for us though, a bedraggled North Face-sponsored foursome, as conspicuous among the Bishopsgate throng as a murder of crows in a pink sea of flamingos.
The motivation for our night expedition to the City of London is simple enough: the latest Mini John Cooper Works is the newcomer to the Audi S1’s tiny speed-freaky niche, and because its brittle predecessor made about about as much sense in London as a pogo stick, we thought we’d begin in the one place where a hot supermini starts to make sense.
Four hours earlier and the cars’ combined 456bhp wouldn’t have made a fig of difference. The capital’s rush hour best suits two wheels, not four. But after dark, the traffic eventually thins to a steady trade wind of double-deckers, cabbies, delivery drivers, bin men, Uber hybrids and coppers.
All mercilessly impatient, semi-sure of where they’re going and utterly mercenary about how to get there. Now it pays to be small, agile and as swift as sin.
Both cars fit the billing. The Mini, like our Leadenhall Market backdrop, has heritage on its side. Pea-soupers were a recent memory when John Cooper set to work on Alec Issigonis’s baby. Thirty years later his name and vision weren’t forgotten when the Mini was overhauled by a new guardian.
Now in its third generation, the new Mini JCW is the most powerful production variant yet built by BMW. Its 228bhp, developed by a modified version of the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine already found in the new Cooper S, stands it directly at eye level with the four-wheel-drive S1, our Lloyds Building for the night – it being a radically over-engineered solution to a simple requirement also, although one without an 18th century dining room installed.
Static photo and wonky metaphor completed, we head out to brave the mean streets. Mini first. And bad news. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that to live with a Mini, you must first make peace with its try-hard interior.
Happily, the JCW’s footprint is restricted to a pair of very decent bucket seats and a surprisingly modest dusting of what look like low-rent stickers. Unhappily, there’s no clutch pedal in our test car, and the gearstick moves only fore and aft. There are paddle shifters, but they’re as appropriate for the Mini as hanging baskets would be on the Gherkin.
Previously, a spiked bar stool at an actuary’s leaving do would have been preferable to bouncing round night-time London in something as misaligned as an automatic JCW, but the latest iteration barely needs to round the first proper corner to announce itself as different.
As assuredly as the Cooper S did last year, the JCW – even with further uprated springs and brawnier anti-roll bars – now rides in confident style. Although the JCW is as firm and incessantly busy as it ever was, the ridiculous skittishness of its forebear has been adroitly tamed, helped along by the decoupling ofthe dampers from the body via triple-path strut mounts plus, in this case, the £240 fitment of Variable Damper Control.
By lessening the requirement to slalom around manhole covers like Chemmy Alcott, the liveability (and, in turn, likeability) of the JCW is transformed at a stroke. So much so that even the Steptronic torque-convertor gearbox comes good.
The generous step-off momentum, prudent upshifts and faultlessly smooth delivery make it a fine fiddle for the 236lb ft of single-mindedness served up practically from idle.