The JCW Cooper GP is the hardest of hardcore hot hatches – Mini's even tossed out the rear seats, for Pete’s sake! But, considering the horde of hot-hatch hustlers it's up against, does the newcomer have enough substance to muscle its way to the top of the list? Our international correspondent, Greg Kable, drove it in Germany to find out.
So, here it is: 2 and a half years after we first saw that extreme concept car at the Frankfurt Show, the new Mini John Cooper Works GP has finally arrived. Yes, the fastest roadgoing Mini model to date has had a rather drawn-out development cycle indeed... Heck, there were times when a lack of any official confirmation on its progress from the Oxford-based manufacturer prompted us to believe that plans for a new GP had been abandoned, but you know what they say about things that come to those who wait.
Like its distinguished predecessors, the GP will be produced in a limited run of just 3 000 examples, of which an extremely limited number will be coming to the South African market. Two versions are on offer: a full specification derivative and a more track-biased "naked" one, the latter of which goes without an infotainment system or air conditioning. The good news is that Mini has stuck to its guns and delivered a car that's not too far removed from what was originally promised for the brand's 60th anniversary: one that incorporates all the gregarious spirit and driving fun delivered by Mini's various competition cars down the years.
Performance-wise, the 3rd-generation GP raises the bar by a not-insignificant 55 kW and 132 Nm over the JCW 3-door (upon which it’s heavily based). It runs the same-spec 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbopetrol engine as the larger and heavier Clubman JCW All4 and Countryman JCW All4 – the B48, as it’s known internally within the BMW Group.
Add power, shed weight, lower centre of gravity. All things to make a faster hatchback ticked off the list.
The uprated powerplant delivers a peak power output of 225 kW, endowing this most potent Mini with a power-to-weight ratio that’s up by 50 kW per tonne over its predecessor, at 180 kW per tonne. No less influential to the driving experience is the torque, which peaks at 450 Nm between 1 750 rpm and 4 500 rpm.
Changes over the engine used by the JCW include a new twin-scroll turbocharger running higher boost pressure, a reinforced crankshaft with a larger main bearing, lighter pistons, new connecting rods, a redesigned vibration damper, a larger sump and greater cooling potential. Although it retains a front-wheel-drive configuration, the GP is sold exclusively with an automatic transmission. This seems an odd move given its positioning as a road-and-track car...
However, Mini says the 8-speed transmission, appended with steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles, is key to providing the GP with the performance to challenge rivals such as the Renault Mégane RS Trophy and Honda Civic Type R – even though it retains the same individual gear ratios and 2.96:1 final drive ratio as the JCW.
Like its predecessor, the GP is a pure 2-seater. While the front of the cabin is little changed from the JCW, apart from the inclusion of a digital instrument display and new trims, the rear bench has been removed in the interest of weight saving and body-stiffening. A transverse brace is added behind the front seats, although this is simply to stop luggage from sliding forward under hard braking and plays no part in improving the newcomer's rigidity.
Hitting the starter button unleashes a rich blare of exhaust noise that’s eminently appealing and fully befitting of the GP’s track-bred character. On the move, where it emits the odd crackle on a lifted throttle and during downshifts, the acoustic qualities are clearly more expressive and immediate than in other Minis, thanks partly to the adoption of a new stainless-steel exhaust system featuring unique ducting and purposeful-looking, 90 mm diameter tailpipes.
225 kW and 450 Nm of torque is plenty of gas for something deemed a Mini.
There’s no arguing with the effectiveness of the engine in propelling the GP’s relatively low kerb weight of 1 255 kg. There’s a hint of low-end lag, but keep it percolating above 2 000 rpm and the motor remains engagingly responsive (and nicely linear) in terms of delivery, with plenty of torque-driven urge and pleasing smoothness through the mid-range. There’s often too much torque for the mechanical differential lock and dynamic stability control (DSC) system to properly cope with on occasion, in fact. As a result, when you accelerate hard, there is some moderate corruption of the steering as the GP struggles to fully transmit its reserves to the road in lower gears.
This aside, the performance feels every bit as strong, if not stronger, as that indicated by Mini’s claimed 0-100 kph time of 5.2 sec. The engine is willing, with a fittingly muscular character to the 6 800 rpm cut-out, while the gearbox shifts wonderfully crisply – and promptly – on a loaded throttle in manual mode.
No comfort mode here
There’s no need to scroll through different driving modes to tickle the best out of the GP, either, because the uber-Mini is programmed for Sport only. It doesn’t take too long to discover that the GP operates on an altogether higher performance plane than any previous production Mini. At all points, it feels faster, more urgent and generally a good deal more fervent than even the JCW. Happily, these traits also apply to the handling, which, if anything, is even more impressive than the sheer speed generated by the motor.
There’s a terrifically agile feel to the GP, and it’s never less than incisive across a winding back road. The basis for this is a series of stiffening measures incorporated within the body structure, including a new engine mount, a beefed-up front tower strut brace and, most notably, a sturdy rectangular support for the rear suspension. The GP also runs its own unique camber rates, beefed-up anti-roll bars and, with unique 18-inch wheels featuring greater offset than those of the JCW, suitably wide tracks.
The standard 225/35-profile Hankook tyres come with S1 Evo Z tread or, as worn by our test car, TD semi-slicks. On top of this, Mini has lowered the ride height by 10 mm over the JCW, bringing a lower centre of gravity and even greater visual aggressiveness to the stance.
Despite looking quite serious the rear cross-brace is only there to stop luggage sliding forward.
It’s the immediacy of the Mini's steering that initially shines through. Turn the wheel and it delivers great on-centre response. The hefty weighting of the speed-sensitive electromechanical system can be a little disconcerting at first, but it becomes a welcome attribute once you’re dialled in, particularly at speed, where it compensates for a lack of proper road feel. It really is nicely judged, giving the GP a keenness in directional changes that’s clearly beyond that of the JCW.
The cornering ability of the GP is characterised by superb body control and a steely resistance to understeer. The real strength, though, is the grip. With all the various changes to the suspension and the huge purchase provided by its grooved race tyres, the car is capable of generating truly heady cornering speeds on smooth surfaces. However, it takes a lot of commitment to even begin scratching the surface of its lateral limits on public roads.
Semi-slick rubber is fitted the Cooper GP giving it serious traction.
We’ll need a lot more time behind the wheel and a circuit to properly explore the GP’s handling, but those in the know at Mini suggest it will see off the standard BMW M2 coupé over a single lap of the Nürburgring. What we can already vouch for is its outstanding high-speed stability. On an extended autobahn outside Munich, we briefly reached a whisker over 250 kph, at which the GP felt superbly planted and full of intent. Mini says it can hit 265 kph when given more room to roam, making it the brand’s fastest model yet. The compromise in achieving all this manifests itself in the quality of the ride – although not by as much as you might expect.
There’s a general firmness to the suspension (which is by MacPherson struts at the front and multi-link at the rear), but it’s not totally devoid of compliance. Overall, it’s a touch more reactive to surface imperfections than the JCW. However, it was far from harsh. The brakes are well up to the job, too. Once again, they’re the same spec as those used by the Clubman JCW All4 and Countryman JCW All4, with 360 mm discs grabbed by 4-piston calipers up front and 330 mm discs with single-piston floating calipers at the rear.
If looks could kill
The big wing and bodykit make this an unmistakable presence on the road.
Of course, there’s more to the new GP than its sheer speed and sweet handling... This car unapologetically signals its track-bred intent with the most radical bodykit and arguably toughest stance ever applied to a roadgoing Mini. The visual purpose apparent in the original concept remains very much ingrained in the function-led exterior. The styling differentiation over the standard JCW is quite extreme and instantly signals the added performance potential.
It starts at the front, with a deeper front bumper that houses larger cooling ducts and a more pronounced splitter element. Farther back, there are blade-like front wheel arch extensions that carry the car’s individual build number. Like those used for the rear wheel arches, they’re fashioned from the same carbon fibre that’s used within the body of the BMW i3 and are used to house the wider tracks and 8-inch-wide alloy wheels.
The most eye-catching addition, though, is the GP’s enormous rear wing. It looks as though it has been stolen straight off a TCR race car and, along with subtle lip spoilers, helps contribute to providing added downforce at speed. There’s also a subtly altered rear valance within the rear bumper, which houses those centrally mounted twin tailpipes.
The Mini JCW Cooper GP is now even faster (and, in a word, remorseless) in handling ability than ever before. It’s wonderfully focused and manages to involve you to a high degree in the right conditions. However, despite its obvious competency, the decision to make it available with an automatic transmission appears only misguided. As hardcore as it is in many areas, the GP doesn’t quite feel like the full raging race car for the road that Mini would have us believe it is.