Like the new Fiat 500, there's a wealth of history behind BMW's retro-styled pocket rocket. While Fiat tapped into the cutesy appeal of its 1950s original to rejuvenate its city car, BMW set about recreating a car that was originally driven by only a handful of people. The Mini JCW is a homage to John Cooper, the British racing engineer who took standard Austin Minis and transformed them into giant-killing rally 'works' winners. Cooper's stripped-down, souped-up creations won a clutch of rally titles from 1963-67, against much heavier opposition in a host of European rallies, including three wins at Monte Carlo. With such a strong heritage and cachet attached to the Cooper name, BMW took the prudent step of acquiring independent tuner the Cooper Car Company in 2006 and establishing a dedicated tuning division for future Mini projects. Unlike the new Fiat 500, which is an exercise in deft retro-restyling, the Mini JCW is more of a 'what-if?' interpretation of how a Cooper Works car would perform technically if it were engineered today. It's exciting stuff for car boffins - but there's also still plenty of scope for the average punter to buy into this flight of fancy and pep up the commute home. The JCW is the most potent Mini created since BMW launched its update of the British classic in 2002. A ubiquitous sight on Hong Kong streets, the new Mini has enjoyed enduring appeal, despite having been given only one mild facelift since its inception. Yet the new Cooper is a very fresh proposition - and a clear notch above even the grin-inducing second-generation Cooper S, which caused a stir when it was launched. Thrills and spills come as standard, brays the Mini brochure, but the marketing hyperbole isn't far off the mark. The Cooper is still very much a giant-killer - faster than a Focus ST and a Golf GTi - and can reach 100km/h in 6.5 seconds with ease and knock through to a top speed of 238km/h. Bonnet stripes, a new grille and a giant 'John Cooper Works' badge set the tone at the front of the car, and double sport exhaust tailpipes at the rear and brash cross-spoke alloys tell you something is afoot from other angles. The JCW aerodynamic kit reinforces the sports theme, with side skirts, front and rear dams and extra fog lamps as standard. As on the Fiat, there are plenty of optional extras to say 'look at me' more emphatically, from interior chrome side lines and exterior sweeps (HK$1,500 each) right down to a full leather interior (HK$8,000) and tilt-and-slide sunroof pack (HK$12,000). Xenon headlights are probably the only extra you'll really need from a practical point of view - but pricey at HK$11,000. The sports theme continues in much the same vein inside. The bucket-shaped Recaro front seats are necessary yet a little brash, but the rest of the cabin is generally a tasteful amalgam of black cloth and plastic highlighted by aluminium flourishes - with the possible exception of the rather obvious chequered flag-design floor mats. The notchy and responsive gear stick is optimally positioned to hand and you'll be quick to appreciate the ergonomic, driver-centred design of the cabin - even if you keep checking the tiny rev counter behind the steering wheel instead of the dinner plate-sized speedometer in the centre of the dash every time you reach camera-snapping speeds. In terms of space, there's little to separate the Fiat 500 and the Mini, since both cars function as 2+2s - with the rear seats providing occasional perches for two adults. But although Hongkongers may have to wait some time for Fiat's Abarth version of the 500, the Cooper Works Mini is already on sale - and is such an engagingly potent machine you'll be hooked after your first drive. Even if the Cooper bears little resemblance to the Works model that took Monte Carlo by storm in the 60s, the essence of what made that car so good is just as apparent. Superbly quick, courtesy of twin turbos and a kerb weight of just 1,205kg, the Cooper is rock-solid on the road thanks to its heavily tweaked chassis set-up. With a spring-strut front axle and multiple control arm rear axle, the JCW's wide track and low centre of gravity lends a reassuredly planted sensation to the drive. Pickup is rapid and the pace never really lets up, all the way to law-breaking speeds; the little-car effect helps make the Mini seem quicker still. Stable, agile, and with pin-sharp cornering ability, the Cooper's superb traction offers such sure-footedness that it can deal with anything you throw at it - or throw it through - and at any speed. Even if some of the thrill in the new Cooper is mere effect - the twin-barrelled exhaust roar feels a little faux - the JCW delivers on its promise of speed, but with an agility that's as reassuring as it is welcome. The Mini is less raucous and easier to live with than a Mercedes C63 AMG (monster fun, but with a price tag to match), and it makes mincemeat of mid-range thoroughbreds such as the Alfa Spider in terms of handling finesse. With its firm ride and technical edge, the JCW may be more akin to some of its BMW cousins than any Italian sports car. The 335i, for instance, is a stunning coupe to drive, but the Mini is so much more pliant on the road that you'd be forgiven for opting for the cheaper - and more charming - Cooper. And it's by no means a dressed-up 3-Series, with character it can call its own. The BMW 1-series coupe, another contemporary of the Mini, offers similarly mesmerising performance and on-road ability, but is so ugly that the Cooper's familiar six-year-old styling seems fresh and attractive by comparison. What's more, the new Mini offers some eyebrow-raising emissions figures, and represents such a sound resale prospect (Coopers are unsurpassed at retaining their value in second-hand circles), that the JCW is practically peerless in its all-round appeal. Only time will tell if Fiat's Abarth will be any match for BMW's retro-rocket, but for now, the Mini JCW remains in a class all of its own. AT A GLANCE: Mini JCW What drives it? A 1598cc, twin-turbo, in-line four-cylinder engine (far left) producing 211bhp mated to a six-speed manual transmission. How fast is it? The Mini does 0-100kmh in 6.5 seconds and has a top speed of 238km/h. How safe is it? As safe as you like, with dynamic stability control, automatic stability and traction control, cornering brake control, and electronic brake-force distribution. Six front and side airbags are standard. How thirsty is it? It sips 6.9 litres per 100km on a combined cycle. How clean is it? It blows 165 grams of CO2 per kilometre, the equivalent of about 1.4 Smart ForTwos. Availability: HK$408,800 from Mini Hong Kong (tel: 3129 9018).