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2020 Mini John Cooper Works GP review

By Georg Kacher, 05 Jul 2020 Reviews

2020 Mini John Cooper Works GP review

Fear and excitement are two sides of the same coin in the fastest mini ever

There are only a handful of cars which can relay the precise difference between heads and tails as they run over a coin. The Mini JCW GP does not only happily oblige, it even hammers through the exact denomination and the year that particular piece of money was minted.

Although anybody can install dampers filled with lead and springs that barely spring, the BMW subdivision will in addition suggest diehards fit ambidextrous Hankook semi-slicks named Ventus TD, for Track Day. The 225/35 R18 tyres, marked by an artsy swoosh pattern, are allegedly made of rubber, but could also very well be Edwardian liquorice stored in the open since the King passed away in 1972.

If suppleness is a prerequisite for dynamic well-being, the absence thereof might explain why our Anglo-German batmobile lives in the twilight zone between trick and treat. Just leaf through the bible of absolute automotive no-gos, and the vices are all there in abundance: steering fight, torque steer, waywardness at any speed, marginal ride comfort, man eventually succumbing to machine.

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But you know what? We wouldn’t have it any other way. Because it is simply impossible not get a kick out of this doped Mini in Voldemort livery. A rather rough daily driver, the $63,900 limited-edition model is headed for Australia, 65 out of the 3000 global units reserved for the great southern land.

Introduced in 2014, the Mini III sits on an evolution of the second-generation platform which was in turn based on the first post-Rover model designed by Frank Stephensen. To prepare what began life as trendy urban runabout for such a colossal upgrade to GP specification, the body structure, chassis and driveline had to be practically reinvented. For a start, there are now four separate cooling circuits protecting the health of the engine, crankcase and transmission.

 A high-performance fan and a modular coolant storage-and-distribution system assist in coping with high loads and critical temperatures. With the exception of all-wheel drive, the Mini GP shares its powertrain with the BMW M235i. Special engine upgrades include multiple reinforcements, a bespoke intake and exhaust, larger sump and bigger rear muffler which switches from tenor to bass in sync with revs, gear and throttle aperture.

Torsional stiffness isn’t normally an issue for a run-of-the-mill three-door hatch. Add 55kW to the already brawny 170kW JCW pack, however, and you are in a different dynamic ball park altogether. Engine and transmission mounts were beefed up, rubber bushes either stiffened or replaced by metal ball joints, a rear subframe and a front strut brace also added.

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Furthermore, the engineers dialled in more uncompromising kinematics and elasto-kinematics, lowered the ride by 10mm, widened the track, reprogrammed the steering and altered the calibration of springs, dampers and anti-roll bars. By increasing camber all-round, the chassis tricksters set out to enhance handling, roadholding and steering response.

Fitted with large eye-catching wheel arch flares made from recycled matte-black carbon fibre shavings found in the i3 and i8 waste bin, forged four-spoke lightweight rims, and a rear wing inspired by the boxy turbojet housings of the supersonic Concorde aircraft, the gunmetal tarmac peeler is all muscle and zero body fat.

The single-purpose existence continues inside. Take for instance the near perfect driving position which makes you instantly feel in command. Relish the excellent seats, the generous adjustment range, the ideal distance to the pedals, the splendid visibility, the huge instruments, the unambiguous primary ergonomics. In contrast, the trademark central round display is primarily there for decoration, the wriggly control pod between the seats is best left alone, there is no air to be conditioned and no map to be displayed.

The lever operating the eight-speed torque converter automatic squats in a pod of its own and is dead simple to operate. (Even though a manual gearbox would be a more emotional alternative, right now Mini has none strong enough to cope with the ballsy momentum of the turbocharged 2.0-litre four – so it’s auto for now.)

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But when pulled to the left where the Sport and Manual modes can’t wait to take the game to the next level, your right knee will kick the joystick back into Drive through the very first left-hander taken at full speed. The only way out of this limbic dilemma is to frequently use the neat alloy shift paddles machined from a 3D printer.

In Germany where we find ourselves for this test, the B15n between Landshut and Regensburg is a brand-new dual carriageway with autobahn status – aka, no speed limit. In COVID-19 times, the north-south trunk road is a paradise for truckers playing cat and mouse with each other, which can be a hazard for season pass holders to the overtaking lane like our rigged up Mini GP.

The PR department gave us the no-frills version which lapped the Nürburgring-Nordschleife in under eight minutes. To do so, it nixed the air conditioning and the satnav which are no-cost options like heated seats, alarm and DAB radio. In contrast to the 170kW JCW which can reach a maximum speed of 235km/h, the claimed top speed of the 225kW GP is 266km/h. But governed by the laws of physics, not a computer – there’s no limiter. Which is an invitation.

Top speed is second nature to a Porsche or Ferrari, but not necessarily a Mini, even if it does have four times the power of a base version. With an extra 0.2bar in the tyres, the 40-litre tank half empty, mirrors folded, it’s time to duck and give her stick. Never mind the added weight of the photographer in the back, tailwind and descents are actively sought out, headlights on for self-protection, fan off to save power. We patiently wait in a lay-by for a gap. Then it’s go, go, go!

Full throttle take-off is a Smokey and the Bandit flashback to the ’80s – think Golf I GTi, R5 Turbo, Fiesta XR2. Although early hot hatches were not exactly torque monsters, the arm-wrestling antics triggered by the absence of power steering and traction control are suddenly back with a déjà vu performance in the Mini GP. Unchain the 450Nm, and the front wheels immediately start scrambling for traction, grip, stability and, eventually, orientation.

The standard mechanical diff lock does what it can to keep the car in a reasonably straight line, but on uneven turf the maximum locking ratio of 31 per cent yields only a mild low-gear taming effect.

The eight-speed Steptronic automatic is a swift and efficient shifter. With the throttle stapled to the floor, first, second and third come and go in seconds as the car passes 100km/h after only 5.2 seconds. The urge does not ease much in fourth and fifth while sixth and seventh are slightly longer legged to give the engine a brief breather before top gear – a proper driving gear, not a CO2 disciple – takes over at 6250rpm.

Since the torque curve plateaus from 1750 to 4500rpm, high revs are only of the essence when you’re chasing top speed which is, on this particular late spring Tuesday afternoon, an indicated 281km/h. It was very what you’d call exciting, too, working hyper-fast steering hard to follow the chosen line, briefly losing it, having to lift off momentarily before starting anew, fighting the way back before eventually rejoining it in the wake of minor but persistent deflections.

Ever wondered what intermittent understeer feels like at 240km/h? Not near as scary as a high-speed lift-off tail wriggle, but when it occurs you’d still wish for a bleeder valve to dispose of the sudden adrenalin outburst. The motion diagram of a high-speed autobahn corner addressed at the helm of the Mini GP would still resemble the seismic record of a minor earthquake.

Somewhat irrelevant (particularly in Australia) test out of the way, it’s time to review the handling – long a Mini trait. Whether or not Mini has improved the handling of the somewhat disappointing JCW depends how you define enhancement. If the goal was to further sharpen an already trenchant razor blade so that it can even cut air into thin slices, we’d call it mission accomplished. In the course of its evolution, the GP has clearly become more of a track tool than a back-road bandit.

Although COVID banned us from putting the car to the real test on a circuit like the Salzburgring, Mini had fitted the aforementioned Hankook Ventus semi-slicks which are not officially an option but can be sourced from a friendly tyre dealer.

In normal traffic, the Korean rubber takes longer than expected to reach its proper working temperature which is absolutely essential for that legendary liquorice cornering grip. Even when the sun shines and the blacktop is as dry as an Arizona river bed in August, cold tyres can still induce lift-off snap oversteer, a mid-corner lateral offset sequence and intermittent morse-style torque steer.

After three solid hours of hard driving with the knife between the teeth, gentlemanly manners are still conspicuous by their absence from Mini’s most radical breed.

The flatter the road, the more benign the hot Mini’s attitude. With DSC in the GP position, there is almost always enough second- and third-gear wheel slip for a sweeping mid-corner tyre signature. Switching DSC off altogether produces even more front end smoke along with occasional dethrottle rear end fire, but as is so often the case, wildly overdriving the car draws an edgy, slower line which distracts the flow.

The one thing they don’t teach a car at John Cooper Works is how to relax. The GP in particular is delivered ex-factory pre-loaded and wound-up; this car is a live wire that needs to be earthed. Ride comfort, too, means nothing to this sinewy animal which instinctively hits back at every pothole, kicks every ridge, snaps at every expansion joint and counts the holes of every drain cover.

The only mental drive mode the GP knows is total attack, fusing manoeuvrability and twitchiness leaving plenty of room for driver satisfaction yet no room at all for driver error. Despite the minuscule footprint and weight, exploring the GP’s many talents and overpowering vices calls for a big portion of ability and respect.

This all-or-nothing mentality appears somewhat less critical on slower, tighter roads; ideal for exploring the full spiel are roundabouts of varying diameter from tight, second-gear traffic circles to XXL, three-lane drift stadiums. Under pressure, though, the ultimate Mini tries very hard not to come across as excessively nose heavy, but eventually fails, unable to hide its vain attempts at masquerading as neutral, benign and balanced.

A firm stab at the accelerator is all it takes to make the rear axle act cocky at the limit, to mistake the near absence of roll for a guaranteed presence of cornering grip. Just as you think you are on top of it all comes the tipping point when the front tyres flare up, increasing tenfold the odds of sudden understeer chased by en suite oversteer.

So why not compromise and check out rivals like the new Toyota GR Yaris (AWD included) or even MOTOR-favourite Honda Civic Type R. Because, starting with the number of doors, they don’t really compare. They may match the Mini GP in the street cred sweepstakes and against the stopwatch, but from behind the wheel, only the car that proudly bears John Cooper’s name is pure, high-dose venom. It must be tamed, not teased. Or it will sting.

 

 SPECS

 

Body:

3-door, 2-seat hatch

Drive:

Front-wheel

Engine:

1998cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbocharger

Bore x Stroke:

82.0 x 94.6mm

Compression:

9.5:1

Power:

225kW @ 5000-6250rpm

Torque:

450Nm @ 1750-4500rpm

Power/Weight:

179kW/tonne

Transmission:

8-speed automatic

Weight:

1255kg

Suspension:

MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar (r)

L/W/H:

3879/1762/1420mm

Wheelbase:

2495mm

Tracks:

1521/1509mm (f/r)

Steering:

electrically assisted rack-and-pinion

Brakes:

360mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers (f); 330mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers (r)

Wheels:

18.0 x 8.0-inch (f/r)

Tyres:

225/35 R18 87Y (f/r); Hankook Ventus TD

Price:

$63,990

Pros:

Knife-edge excitement; grunt; tough styling; unique

Cons:

Stiff ride; snappy on the limit; auto only; pricey

 

3.5 stars out of 5

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