The hot hatch market has really taken off in recent times, thanks to headline grabbing models from Mercedes-Benz and BMW. So, what about traditional hot hatches—small, modestly powered front-wheel drives—can they still put a smile on your dial in this era of 350hp+ hatchbacks?
Under BMW’s stewardship for over 10 years, MINI has carved an enviable niche in the hot hatch segment. The factory-built John Cooper Works model has been around for more than five years as well. Upping the ante for MINI in 2012 was the arrival of the John Cooper Works GP. Just 2000 will be made worldwide and 55 have found their way to Australia.
And it just so happens that AUSmotive has driven the two MINI hot hatches back to back. For the purposes of this review let’s refer to them simply as the JCW and the GP. The former is a regular everyday hot hatch, the latter has been stripped out, beefed up and attempts to tread the fine line between track day weapon and daily driver. It’s also the reigning Motor Magazine ‘Bang for your bucks’ champ.
I first tested the JCW back in 2008 and while the car didn’t blow my socks off, I had no real cause for complaint either. It was impressive, very competent and, befitting of a MINI, a fun place to be.
Fast forward to this year and I was behind the wheel of a JCW once again. That test happened a few weeks back, but when the opportunity to drive a GP presented itself, it made sense to hold off on that review and pitch the two MINIs against each other.
First, it’s worth making mention of that drive a few weeks ago. When I returned from AUSmotive’s customary mountain pass my feelings towards the JCW were much more enthusiastic than five years prior. The car seemed quicker than I remembered, it gripped like crazy and its change of direction was razor sharp.
Clearly, MINI has made improvements in this “Life Cycle Impulse” (facelift) version of the JCW and as far as I could tell all were for the better.
Now, to the more recent test: MINI against MINI.
A quick recap of what the GP brings to the table before we begin. Essentially the GP is a more focused version of the JCW. To save weight MINI chucked out the back seat and the rear window wiper, only to add it all back through powerful six-pot front brakes; both cars weigh 1235kg.
Handling has been enhanced by model-specific coilover suspension, strut braces and 17” Kumho semi-slick tyres wrapped around lightweight four-spoke alloys. Aerodynamics have been improved thanks to an aggressive rear diffuser, a race-inspired rear wing and, perhaps most importantly, more streamlined underbody panelling.
The GP engine, on paper, looks like the same 1.6 litre twin scroll turbo unit from the JCW that’s found an extra 5kW over the 155kW from the standard car. As ever with MINI, there’s much more in the detail. The GP’s engine has a reinforced cylinder head and pistons, a lightweight crankshaft and a slightly different turbo, among other features. Its engine map has been tuned for greater performance as well. Although, peak torque is the same at 260Nm, with a 20Nm overboost function.
The GP is finished off with hip hugging Recaro front seats, a chunkier steering wheel, leather topped dash and a unique Thunder Grey metallic and red colour scheme.
List pricing for the GP starts and ends at $56,900, which is to say there’s no options available. You get what you’re given. JCW pricing starts at $50,400, but with the freedom to indulge in MINI’s extensive options list driveway pricing can easily extend beyond the GP’s asking price.
So if you’re shopping for a hot hatch and have decided on a MINI, which one should you buy: a JCW built to your specification or the sharper GP that has no back seat and no options?
Well, let’s find out shall we!
Driving through suburban roads en route to our well worn test route the GP rode surprisingly well. I was expecting it to be quite harsh, but it was firm without being uncomfortable. Also pleasing was the fact the semi-slick tyres didn’t exhibit any noticeable roar.
In the context of using the GP as a daily driver these observations are worth remembering.
On the first pass through the mountains the GP didn’t feel that different to the JCW drive a few weeks prior. Turn-in was sharp, direction changes were quick and direct and it hung on through corners with excellent composure. The brakes also exhibited a confident initial bite.
It’s fair to say I was hoping there would be more difference between the two cars. I applaud MINI for making this niche model, but for it to have any credibility it needs to have its own character. Moreover, the performance enhancements need to earn their stripes; otherwise this GP would end up a compromised package not worth its place on the roster.
So it was with relish I jumped into the JCW to retrace my path down the tarmac ribbon at hand.
Flying into the first corner, dab the brakes. Ooh, there’s not as much bite there anymore. Note to self, brake earlier into the next corner!
That corner was a long radius right-hander, leading into a series of esses; it’s a great test of understeer and a car’s directness. Through the long corner, with roughly the same entry speed as the GP, the JCW pushed wide, not a lot, but it was noticeable. Into the esses it was not as sharp and even small undulations in the road surface were enough to show the standard suspension softens the experience somewhat.
The road ahead now begins to climb, nothing too steep, but enough to see that the extra 5kW and tailored engine mapping in the GP provides a tangible benefit. The JCW just feels that little bit slower to respond and the GP also has a bit more mid-range punch.
After returning to our makeshift MINI parking lot to reflect on the two cars I had to go back and question my notes from the JCW test a few weeks back. The GP was ticking all the boxes from those earlier notes leaving me to think this JCW was some sort of imposter. But it was the same car I drove before, so there can be no tricks there.
I hasten to add that the JCW is a very capable car and as a daily driver it would have few compromises, well, for a MINI that is. It has good throttle response, well weighted steering, which is actually enhanced in Sport mode, and the crackle and pop from the exhaust is a wonderful MINI trait that puts a smile on my face every time.
It’s just that the GP does all that and then some.
To reconfirm my thoughts I took both cars out again. One of the great characteristics of MINIs is their willingness to be thrown into corners and the confidence they provide. Those feelings were all still there in the JCW; in isolation it is a heap of fun. Yet, in an undeniable nod of approval to MINI’s engineers, the GP ruthlessly exposed the flaws of the JCW, as small as they may be. I expect the gap between the two would be amplified on a track as well.
To that end I my expectations for the GP were met and probably exceeded a little. The last thing I wanted was for this car to be little more than a few fancy stickers and flashes of red paint. Thankfully, it has substance and every one of its modifications over the standard car can be appreciated behind the wheel.
Back to the original question, then, which one of these should you buy?
If you do track days regularly, or at the very least, indulge in the great driving roads near where you live, the GP offers clear advantages. Indeed, the GP is a much more compelling proposition than I thought it would be.
Although, the lack of a rear wiper cannot be ignored. It seems like a minor thing, but MINIs are notorious for suffering from poor rear visibility in wet or dusty conditions. So, if you’re considering a GP and expect to cover a lot of miles that small matter could soon become rather annoying.
Which means, if you like creature comforts, such as satellite navigation, sunroofs and the small matter of a back seat, you’re left with no option but to buy a JCW and have it built to your liking. And that would be a perfectly acceptable decision to make too.
However, if you’re fortunate enough to look at buying a MINI that needs to do little else than entertain you on weekends then the GP is a definite stand out. In that context its compromises can be easily justified in return for the greater rewards on offer. There’s still a few GPs lurking around the country, so let your fingers do the walking and buy one while you can.
So that’s settled then? Well, not so fast, because there is a third option.
We were joined on our test by a 2009 JCW fitted with KW V1 coilover suspension.
The lower ride height and more purposeful suspension tune did a very good job at bridging the gap between the two OEM products. Although, the aftermarket suspension was not as compliant as the GP’s. That said, when you consider the KWs could be bought and fitted for a bit over two grand it’s an option not to be discounted. Clearly, there are more modifications that could be done to edge one’s JCW closer to the GP experience as well.
In an attempt to quantify the differences I’ll rank these three cars solely on their twisty road prowess and in the context of all three being driven back to back.
You won’t be surprised to see the GP has done enough to earn itself five stars. In contrast, and to mark it harshly, the JCW gets three and a half stars. The JCW with coilovers slots in between the two at four stars, maybe even four and a half.
To close, then, the GP was comfortably the most enjoyable car on the day. I was pleased about that. Pleased that the GP was not a silly gimmick. But remembering the JCW is a pretty damn good package in its own right, I was also pleased to learn that those not wanting to go the whole nine yards with the GP can heighten their MINI enjoyment with a few simple modifications.
Most importantly, three MINIs, on a well-known and well-loved stretch of road. Well, that’s what driving enjoyment is all about. Long live the front-wheel drive hot hatch.
Thank you to Rolfe Classic MINI Garage and Robbo for their assistance. As a side note the GP is about to start life as a tarmac rally car.