It's an iconic image.
Monte Carlo Rally, 1964. Paddy Hopkirk flinging a red Cooper S around a hairpin, rear wheel cocked, driver leaning nearly as much as the car. It’s the sort of photo people all over the world wanted to imitate, and because it was done in a fun, affordable car, they could. It was Mini’s first win at the event, an underdog story proving that the Cooper’s perception as a lowly commuter wasn’t quite right. The car won the event two more times, three if you count 1966’s controversial disqualification.
This story originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Road & Track.
Nearly 60 years on, Mini still crows about that triumph as if the brand has an inferiority complex. These little cars have always proven a bigger point than their size suggests. Though it’s grown appreciably since the Sixties, the Cooper remains a spot of joy capable of far more than its smiling face suggests. So it shouldn’t be shocking that in Mini’s latest, the 2021 John Cooper Works GP, we ran a blistering 1:02.7 lap at Lime Rock Park. That time is a tick behind more powerful sports cars like the new Toyota Supra 3.0 and Porsche Cayman S.
The GP trim isn’t a new idea, with two previous generations of the Cooper getting the treatment. But this one is by far the most aggressive. This is a rework of the entire car to create something so hardcore and focused that there may as well be a Z/28 or GT3 badge on the trunk. A heavily revised suspension joins increased cooling, bodywork focused on aero efficiency, and a locking differential. Also, the rear seats are missing, replaced with a beefy brace to make the entire shell stiffer and, unintentionally, make it easier to load groceries in the back. The JCW uses 18-inch, four-spoke wheels with Hankook tires developed specifically for this car.
Those bigger wheels fit under wild carbon-fiber fender flares, pieces Pep Boys would die to get their hands on. Power leaps to 301, a 73-hp increase over the regular John Cooper Works and a stratospheric jump for a tiny car. It’s the most powerful engine Mini offers, the only application where this BMW-built 2.0-liter turbo four is connected to the front wheels alone. You’d expect that to be a recipe for torque steer. You’d be right.
Not necessarily a bad thing. Powerful front-wheel drive cars have always had quirks, and Mini made its name on front-drive performance. The GP has a special locking differential that’s intended to correct for torque steer, but hints of front-drive weirdness shine through. We deride rear-wheel-drive cars that don’t behave as we expect; why should we complain when a hot hatch exhibits some front-drive trademarks?
Around Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park, the GP never lets you forget that the front wheels are doing the work. This is one of the original bullrings, a 1.5-mile ribbon cut into the Berkshires, six right-hand turns and one left. It looks simple from overhead, but there’s a flow you need to learn to get the best out of the track.
With the electronic systems set in the Mini’s permissive GP Mode, that flow is interrupted. A section of the track dubbed The Uphill runs, as you may have guessed, up a hill, and the front of the car can go light. Though GP Mode reduces traction control’s intervention, getting nearly airborne causes it to cut in, big time. This system, similar to the one in many BMWs, overreacts to minor moments and ultimately saps momentum. The only way to run a fast lap is to turn everything off.
That means you need to manage the front end. Get on the power too early and those front tires will start scrambling for grip, dragging you wide as they hunt for traction. But manage it well, and the Mini delights with how neutral it is. It doesn’t react to a light breath of throttle mid-corner to get it in line, but a big lift or a pop of the brake will send the weight onto the front end, bringing the tail around.
Corner entry at Lime Rock’s turn one, the aptly named Big Bend, is beyond entertaining. You enter the 180-degree right-hander with the wheel turned left, braking heavy and late. The weight hits the front of the car so forcefully that the rear lifts, making the car go sideways. It’s called character, and it means you need to work for your lap time. If correction isn’t applied on corner entry, you aren’t going to see corner exit. There are so many cars now that nearly make the driver irrelevant. It’s refreshing to drive one that so obviously needs your input.
While the steering makes it easy to be accurate in those situations, and has a natural weight, feel is lacking. You rely on other senses to get an idea of what the front end is doing. Even without feel, though, the front end darts quickly when you turn in, barely a hint of push unless you take big swings at the wheel or jab the brakes. Credit to the suspension, which has stiffer bushings, bigger roll bars, and a lower ride height. Body control is superb; it’s settled and predictable, encouraging aggression without being intimidating.
Where it falls behind the old GPs is its powertrain. On paper, yes, this is a clear step forward. The Aisin eight-speed automatic can snag gears far quicker than a human, and the 301 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque are impressive numbers for a hatch that weighs just about 2800 pounds. While the stats read fantastic–the GP clocked a 5.1-second run to 60 and a 13.5-second quarter mile in our testing–the visceral feeling isn’t there.
Even with that amount of power, a retuned exhaust that makes it sound feral, and other improvements, the engine disappoints. Another 2.0-liter turbo four with a relatively low 6250-rpm redline that stops making power at least 750 rpm Abefore that. A shame, because this chassis and suspension combination begs for an engine you can rev to a million. Shifting at 5500 rpm feels anticlimactic and frustrating. You want to be screaming to redline, pretending that you have a wheel off the ground, fans wildly cheering. Instead, you get shut down when the fun should just be getting started.
Same with the gearbox. The track is a theater of control. Leave it in automatic, and the software might call for a shift when you know it’s quicker to hold a gear. In manual, when you want immediate access to downshifts, sometimes the machine will ignore you. When it does listen, there’s not the same authoritative feeling of a DCT when changing gear, or even ZF’s 8HP automatic.
Mini’s engineers said they couldn’t install a manual because of cost. They’re only building 3000 of these cars worldwide, and engineering a manual that can handle the power and torque didn’t make fiscal sense. Fair enough. But the old GPs with less power and a stick shift were more rewarding when you got it right. Since the chassis is so sharp, so pointed, so characterful, you expect the same here. You don’t get it.
The combination makes more sense on public roads. There’s barely any turbo lag when the engine is above 2000 rpm, and the torque makes it tractable. Same with the gearbox, which falls right into its role, shifting quickly and cleanly in automatic and working well in manual for a spirited backroad run. It’d still be more fun with a manual gearbox.
This thing is firm, feeling like one of the stiffest factory-built cars you can buy today. If you’re only going to use it to commute to work, you’re going to hate it. If you’re willing to take the punishment of expansion joints, potholes, and other real-world situations for the reward of twisty backroads and weekend drives, it’s a great choice. The GP will let you climb challenging roads quicker than people who spent hundreds of thousands on McLarens and Ferraris with far more power.
Performance cars are exceedingly drunk on horsepower, the numbers more for bragging than anything else. Tire technology and suspension refinements also mean the limit of grip now falls on your bravery. Be too brave and you’re going to have a real problem.
The GP has the right amount of power. It’s easily as quick as anyone needs, and is truly engaging, the two keys to fun in the real world. There’s something distinctly motorsport about how it feels: supportive buckets, stripped interior, lowered ride height, aggressive exhaust note. These, combined with the ultra-stiff ride, can make you think that maybe you’re doing something just a little bit wrong, as if the GP shouldn’t be on the road at all.
That feeling gets help from the reality that you’ll probably never see another coming towards you. There will only be about 500 in the U.S., priced at $45,750. That’s big money for a little hatchback without back seats. And its natural competitors—the Veloster N, Civic Type R, and Golf R—cost thousands less and offer features like manual gearboxes, more doors, more seats, more power, and in one case, all-wheel drive.
The GP isn’t the type of car that gets cross-shopped. You buy it because you want the ultimate Mini. It’s one of the few brands left that can offer a model that appeals to superfans and collectors, one that doesn’t need to make a rational argument for its existence and isn’t there to pad the bottom line. The GP also feels more special than the cars it competes against, with the possible exception of the Veloster. Instead of world-beating numbers, these cars chase a feeling, and that should be celebrated. You don’t buy a GP for any practical reason. You buy it because you want your neighbors to remember you the way Monte Carlo fans remember Paddy Hopkirk: full send through that cul-de-sac with one rear wheel cocked in the air.
Travis is an editor at Road & Track. He was previously the Editor-in-Chief of Jalopnik.com and is a little too fond of the Mazda Miata.