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Fastest of Minis is a hoot to drive

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IT seems strange kicking talk of performance a little way down the road when the car under the motoring microscope is the most powerful Mini ever made for public sale. And it's proper fast. Top speed is a mighty 153mph and it accelerates with the verve (and accompanying power roar) you might hope to find in a junior Porsche at twice the price.

But that sort of fast road fury is expected in a car honed to sit at the top of the Mini performance table, a notch above the already swift Cooper S, which sacrifices some power for a gentler (minus £4,210) price tag.

Instead, and it's a phrase not often use in conjunction with a Mini, it was the comfort of this little road rocket that had me reaching for my notebook after the test drive.

Even with the optional, larger 18ins alloy wheels on board (part of a £2,470 Chilli pack) this car managed the bumps, ruts and hollows of a typical British road with the firm aplomb you simply don't expect from a car honed on smooth German roads.

Part of the reason for this unexpected comfort is the knowledge that development cars spent time on our roads as the engineers developed the suspension to cope better over here.

Their time was well spent; it makes this fastest of Minis a real hoot to drive at sane speeds on the sort of surface that has less well sorted sporty machines hopping uncomfortably from ridge to ridge.

You can do this too in the JCW edition by twisting a big rotary control at the base of the gear lever to engage more sporty settings for suspension, exhaust noise and throttle response.

On a smooth race track this would bring added precision to the way the car works, out on the road it was simply uncomfortable. There's another setting on offer – for maximum economy – and you wouldn't want that one either. It turns off the fun switch in a big way; buy the diesel instead.

No, leave the setting in the middle and relish a car that, rather surprisingly, looks and feels decent value, even with a price tag that long ago ceased to have any connection with the word 'mini'.

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That extra four grand or so over the Cooper S has been spent going quite deeply into the bits that make the JCW so much fun; from tweaking the turbocharged engine to making significant changes to the suspension and adding bigger brakes.

The automatic transmission (£1,330) fitted to the test worked like a dream, with instant changes from its paddle shift if you fancy a bit of DIY gear work, and actually produces better official acceleration and economy figures than the manual model.

Even so, I can't ever see an owner remotely approaching the near 50mpg quoted by the car's maker; my brief test recorded 37mpg and I would not expect much more in longer term use. Still, that's no mean feat with this much fun on tap.

You'll recognise a JCW from a mere Cooper S thanks to chunkier bodywork (and extra air inlets instead of front fog lights), special side sills, big twin exhaust pipes and a rear roof spoiler.

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Inside, there are body hugging front seats and a deeply black look to trim, lightened by splashes of red to stitching and cockpit plastics. As ever, there are tempting options lurking everywhere; enough for a total price of £31,260.01 on the test car. Don't forget that penny!

It is all very well put together in a way that would startle anyone who remembers the very first hot Minis of half a century ago. That's a comforting thought about a car that surprises in unusual places.

By Ian Donaldson

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