Back in February, Mini invited me to come try out its brand-new Paceman coupe-crossover-hatchback thing in Puerto Rico, and not long after, I spit out a Quick Spin detailing my impressions of the little-big two-door. But here's what I didn't tell you: Mini also let me loose on those fine, curvaceous, tropical roads in its hottest hatch, the John Cooper Works GP. And while that behind-the-wheel gigglefest would have no doubt made for a story laden with positive notes and warm regards, the truth is, I only drove it for 15 minutes, so I couldn't in good conscience offer much of a story to you. (European Editor Matt Davis also got a short stint behind the wheel of the GP late last year.)
So for the sake of due diligence, I buckled down and spent a full eight days with the JCW GP back home in Detroit, just as springtime was starting to stick here in southeast Michigan. But after my time with the Mini, I was wishing that I could have just been left with my GP memories from Puerto Rico, where I was pushing the little hotbox hard around smooth corners and flexing every one of its muscles to eke out the full JCW GP experience in only a short timeframe.
This was indeed a bittersweet homecoming.
There's that old saying about April showers bringing May flowers, and if that little ditty is true, next month had better be a vibrant tapestry of floral delight here in Detroit. As I said, Mini was kind enough to give me eight days with the JCW GP at home in The D, and it rained every single one of them, even turning to snow for a short while. There were very brief periods of sun and warmth during the car's time in my care (as in, it stopped raining long enough for me to hastily bang out the photos you see accompanying this text), but let's just say that if front-wheel-drive hot hatch rainstorm wrangling were a sport, you'd want me on your fantasy team.
If you like what Mini has to offer in its other models, you won't find anything to hate about the JCW GP.
So in many of these particularly wet conditions, where there wasn't much hooliganism to be had while slumming through traffic on the notoriously flood-prone stretch of the M-10 freeway on the Motor City's northwest side, all I could do was focus on the car as it stands, not as it drives. And if you like what Mini has to offer in its other models, you won't find anything to hate about the John Cooper Works GP.
Outside, it's like a red-over-gray bulldog, all aggressively stanced and ready to go. The JCW GP sits 20 millimeters lower to the ground thanks to its fully adjustable coilover suspension (there's a wrench in the glovebox, kids) and it rides on lightweight 17-inch four-spoke wheels – a design that pays homage to the first-generation GP kit from 2006. Those rollers are wrapped in ultra-sticky Kumho Ecsta V400 215/40R17 tires (not-as-hardcore 205/45-series rubbers are also available), which proved to be a highly integral part of the overall GP experience – but more on that later.
Folks who own that first-gen GP can reserve their same number should they choose to order the new model.
Other visual changes for the GP include the unique Thunder Gray paint with red accents on the more aggressive front fascia, not to mention those cute little red mirrors, as well as red/black/white GP decals on the hood and doors. Around back, a big ol' wing has been bolted to the C-pillar, and there's a larger rear diffuser with dual center exhaust that sounds, well, amazing. Of course, lots of aero bits are found along the lower front fascia and side sills, and it's all there to make this car nothing short of excellent on the road. Those of you who remember the old GP Kit will recall the serialized number just above the driver's door, and Mini tells us that this can be done on the new model, as well. In fact, folks who own that first-gen GP can even reserve their same number should they choose to order the new model.
A huge factor in the Mini's excellence is its overall weight reduction – some 121 pounds have been removed versus the normal John Cooper Works Hardtop, meaning at 2,558 pounds, the GP is only 23 pounds heavier than a base Cooper Hardtop. A big part of this has to do with what's inside the car, or rather, what isn't. The rear seat has been removed in favor of a red bar that spans the strut towers, but do note this piece of metal apparently has absolutely no structural significance. It doesn't make the car any stiffer, and Mini tells us it's only there to keep luggage from flying into the forward cabin during hard stops. Honestly, we like the rear seat delete setup, since – let's be honest – that rear bench isn't exactly fit for passengers anyway. Instead, you just get a fully usable cargo area that's capable of lugging 25.5 cubic feet of your precious goods. That said, we're function-over-form types at Autoblog, and it seems like an opportunity was wasted not making the crossbrace... well, an actual crossbrace.
It seems like an opportunity was wasted not making the crossbrace... well, an actual crossbrace.
Up front, new Recaro seats are standard (they're optional extras on other Hardtop models), but the whole cockpit is, basically, the same as it ever was. We're all really growing tired of the Mini's kitschy-over-function cabin, though the high-quality leather and plastics used throughout the interior remain appreciated. The dark surfaces blend nicely with red highlights on the shift knob, badges and contrast stitching, and the thicker JCW steering wheel is as joyous as ever to grab onto, free of any sort of buttonry.
The beating heart of the John Cooper Works GP is the same 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine found in every other S-and-above Mini model. Here, 211 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque are on tap. That's only three more stallions than the normal JCW Hardtop, for those taking notes, but Mini says that because of its lighter weight, this is the quickest vehicle the company has produced to date, able to hit 60 miles per hour in just a hair under six seconds. And it feels every bit as quick from behind the wheel.
So let's start with the positives: On the flat, smooth, dry pavement of Puerto Rico, I could have easily decided that this is the best-driving Mini I've ever tested. And it all has to do with how that power gets transferred to the road. The 121 pounds of reduced heft is noticeable, as the GP doesn't feel as fat as other Minis when you're really caning it, especially during hard cornering. Off the line, typical turbo Mini attributes like torque steer are still present, but it's easy to manage, and with the full torque (including small moments of overboost) coming on strong at 1,750 RPM, there's never a lack of power in any gear.
This is the quickest vehicle the company has produced to date, able to hit 60 in just a hair under six seconds.
Mini only offers the GP with the same Getrag six-speed manual transmission used in its other models, and it's once again a joy to use here in the hottest JCW. The clutch's substantial effort required can lead to a tired left leg after prolonged use, and I'll admit, the gearbox could certainly benefit from a short-shift kit (maybe one specifically for the GP), but overall, rowing your own cogs is as fun as ever.
But the real workhorses behind the GP's better handling chops are its upgraded suspension (stiffness is not only improved from front to rear, but from side to side, as well) and those super-sticky tires, which feature ever-so-slightly increased front camber for even more road-hugging prowess. Understeer simply isn't there, and while there are small amounts of body roll when you're flying hot around a corner, those Kumho Ecsta tires just claw down deep into the pavement and grip, grip, grip.
Every bit of the driving experience is just so perfectly balanced and in-tune.
Mini has fitted upgraded six-piston, fixed-caliper brakes at all four corners – 13 inches in diameter and ventilated in the front, 11 inches out back – and the stopping performance feels just as well-tuned as any other part of the car, bringing all that grunt to a halt with a quickness. During my spirited mountain runs in Puerto Rico, brake fade was never noticed, though my stint behind the wheel wasn't exactly long enough for this sort of thing to rear its ugly head. Overall, it's really hard to get the Mini to act squirrely or break loose in perfect conditions – every bit of the driving experience is just so perfectly balanced and in-tune for a car with the utmost sporting intentions.
Which brings me to my eight days with the JCW GP in Detroit, where I dodged potholes and experienced the joys of hydroplaning on soaked highways. The real problem here is that while the stiffer suspension bits make for a truly rewarding driving experience on perfect pavement, your spine will surely suffer on worn, broken surfaces.
I dodged potholes and experienced the joys of hydroplaning on soaked highways.
On top of that, because the excellent, typically go-kart-like Mini steering is so in tune with exactly what the wheels are doing, hitting a frost heave with one front wheel at speed will result in an instantaneous and unpleasant reaction from the steering wheel. So while the GP is a joy to toss around on good roads, it becomes rather more challenging when you're trying to drive quickly over blemished pavement. With other Minis, we can blame much of this phenomenon on run-flat tires, but that's not the case with these purpose-developed Kumho shoes, as they're regular high-performance radials.
But now, I need to talk about the obvious elephant in the room: pricing. Simply put, this thing ain't cheap. The John Cooper Works GP is limited to a production run of only 2,000 units, all of which sticker for $39,950, including $700 for destination, which represents a whopping increase of $8,450 over a standard JCW Hardtop model, a car that already starts at $6,800 more than my go-to choice for everyday Mini fun, the $24,000 Cooper S Hardtop. Just for the sake of comparison, I built my ideal Cooper S on Mini's online configurator, and with every option that I'd want (not necessarily need), the grand total comes to $30,000 dead, meaning I'd have to warrant spending an extra $10,000 for the added awesomeness of the GP. And I just can't do it. (At least the first-generation GP still offers impressive resale value – hopefully these will pick up the baton where it left off.)
California? The ownership picture, as well as the weather, is probably altogether sunnier.
I love Minis, and despite the ark-worthy rainy season that plagued my test in Detroit, I still maintain that the GP is the best-driving example from the brand I've ever tested. The problem, however, is that it isn't that much better than the already-enjoyable Cooper S, and you give up a lot in the way of refinement and functionality from a daily-driver standpoint if you live in an area with roads like mine. California? The ownership picture, as well as the weather, is probably altogether sunnier. Either way, as a second car, this thing is a sweetheart, and I have no doubt that Mini will sell every last one of the 2,000 it produces. Even so, it's a good thing I have those memories from Puerto Rico – that way there's at least a huge helping of sugar to salve the harsh taste left in my mouth after eight days at home.