To some people, John Cooper is best known for the racing cars bearing his name that showed F1 and Indianapolis that the engine should go behind the driver. He taught that lesson back in 1960, and 61 years later it remains as true as ever. But more will associate his name with little front-wheel drive Minis, which he tuned in addition to building successful single-seaters.
The Mini Cooper was a budget bijou performance car, a good 16 years before VW thought up the Golf GTI, beloved by rally drivers and celluloid bank robbers alike. These days, there’s an entire John Cooper Works lineup at Mini, with hot versions of the various vehicles that now make up the Mini range. And this is the hottest of them all, the $44,900 2021 Mini John Cooper Works GP.
Limited to just 3,000 cars, the JCW GP is the most extreme Mini you can buy that isn’t a Dakar off-road racer. Its track has been widened, pushing the wheels farther apart from each other—hence the naked carbon fiber-reinforced plastic wing arch extensions with vents that you could lose a finger inside.
Aerodynamics has obviously been a design concern—witness the bigger front lip spoiler and that massive double-element affair at the back. And up front there are extra scoops and ducts to get more fresh, cold air to the big front brakes and a 2.0L turbocharged engine that’s far more powerful than anything else in the Mini lineup, with 301hp (225kW) and 331lb-ft (450Nm) on call to your right foot.
That all gets sent to the front wheels, and only via an eight-speed automatic gearbox—there is no option for a manual transmission here. You do get a mechanical limited slip differential, though—more on this later.
Since we’re discussing stuff that Mini left out of the JPW GP, don’t make plans that involve more than one passenger. Instead of a rear seat, there’s a bright red chassis brace, making this car strictly a two-seater. Ditching the back seats to save some weight is a tried-and-true technique on track-focused sports cars like Porsche’s 911 GT3 or the current Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, as well as those crazy mid-engined hatchbacks that Renault pops out from time to time.
Mini’s diet has been so successful that the JCW GP has a curb weight of just 2,855lbs (1,295kg), which is what passes for featherweight in our NCAP Safety rating-dominated era. Obviously, being wider and lighter means a unique suspension setup, and the JCW GP is both lower than a normal Mini and stiffer—far, far stiffer. Some performance car brands, like Lotus, make their cars work by making them supple so they flow down the road. Mini has gone for the opposite approach, with stiffer bushings and even some rubber-free joints here and there.
The result is certainly intriguing. It’s still a Mini, so it fits in tiny spaces, it’s easy to park, and with no back seats, it’s quite easy to carry cargo. It’s even relatively economical for a car so crazy, getting 30mpg (7.8l/100km) on the highway and 24mpg (9.8l/100km) in town, even if you’re pushing it. But the driving experience shares quite a lot with that of a supercar—really. Because it’s so stiff and so low, bumps and potholes are your enemy. But because it’s also so light, instead of bottoming out on hitting a bump, you might find you bounce instead. Either way, your spine is in for a bit of jarring.
There are vast reserves of front grip, courtesy of some Hankook summer tires that were still doing their job admirably at an ambient temperature of 52°F (11°C). In fact, such was the grip between the sticky rubber and the limited slip differential that I never got close to the car’s limit of traction on the road. I’m not sure I saw DSC engage once, and you’d have to be going very fast indeed to provoke it to the point where you might end up in a ditch. The brakes were more than up to the job of slowing everything down.
It feels faster than a 0-62mph (0-100km/h) time of 5.2 seconds suggests, although to make the most of the engine, you’ll want the transmission in S, or just control it yourself with the 3D-printed metal paddleshifters. Be warned, though; there’s a fair amount of torque steer in the lower gears, as 300hp is still a lot to ask of the front wheels, even with 21st-century traction control and tire technology.
But no matter how fast you can corner, it just doesn’t quite thrill enough. That may be down to the steering feel, or lack thereof—you turn in and the car goes, there’s grip, but the steering doesn’t really communicate much.
I can’t help wondering if a three-pedal option might have upped the driver engagement factor. That, or a session at the track. Predictably, Mini tuned the JCW GP at the Nürburgring Nordschleife in Germany, and the confines of a race track offer the freedom and safety to explore a car’s performance envelope in a way that would be irresponsible on the road. I suspect I might be writing a more glowing report had the JCW GP and I gotten a little track time; cars like this can sometimes come alive at nine- or ten-tenths.
But I didn’t, and for just driving on the street, this one feels like overkill.
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin
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