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| Mini John Cooper Works GP review |
The original, supercharged Mini GP broke new ground. Can the pioneer still cut it, or has it been left behind by those it inspired?
By Craig Toone | Photography by Ben Midlane
hat whine. I’ve consumed too much and now I’m driving under the influence of the supercharger, hanging onto the throttle a little bit longer and braking later, pushing the boundaries of mischief in the greatest of hot hatch traditions. The hyperactive chassis tucks into another apex, the diff gently
tugs at the wheel and the tyres squeal in duress but all that matters to me is topping up my glass with another dose of vintage Eaton M45. Another straight, another opportunity, the dinner plate speedo fades into my peripheral vision and the sole rev counter mounted behind the wheel is where I take aim. It might as well be a dart board with a giant bullseye at the redline. Super, smashing, great.
The Mini GP could be considered a bit of a landmark car. Not necessarily in terms of iconic status, but because it drew a new line in the sand - given the current plethora of stripped out, track focused hot hatchbacks hopping and skipping their way around the Green Hell, it's hard to believe it arguably all started here. Sure, there had been fasting French hatches beforehand in the form of a Peugeot Rallye or Clio Cup, crucially none had gone to such extreme lengths as sacrificing the back seats in the pursuit of speed, and none of the Mini’s size possessed anything close to 218bhp. It opened the door for other manufacturers to take the basic recipe and throw in some chillies - without the GP, there might not have been the Megane R26.R or Golf GTI Clubsport S, everyman cars that can take the fight to low slung supercars around any racetrack.
Yet despite the JCW badge adorning the rump of this spicy little Mini, Mr. Cooper & Co had little to do with the GP. It would be romantic to think the car was the product of a dedicated, after hours skunkworks team, but the reality is BMW had pulled the plug on its oddball C1 roofed scooter manufactured by Bertone, leaving a contractual obligation to fulfil. A halo Mini was thrust into the void.
When the GP was introduced in 2006, the regular JCW was an optional extra, dealer fit conversion, but the GP was purchased as a complete car because for the first time its development had been completed in-house by parent company BMW. A donor car was taken off the Cowley production line and sent to the Italian coachbuilders for the conversion. Still, despite the smoke and mirrors badging the engineering team didn’t mince its words, talking up the GP as ‘a baby M car, maybe even a CSL’ at launch. A bold claim, with a bold CSL style hike in price – the GP was yours for £22,000, or the equivalent of £32,000 accounting for inflation. Even so, it didn’t stop all 492 examples offered to the UK market from finding homes. Today you can pick up a tidy, 40,000 mile GP for around £14,000, and prices are on the rise.
Given the lack of rear seats, did the GP follow the now commonplace practice of less is more, for more? The modest hike in power of 8bhp, courtesy of a larger and faster acting top mount intercooler suggests this is the case. Mind you, nobody ever complained about the way a standard 210bhp John Cooper Works ever got down a straight in 2006. The intercooler sat on top of existing JCW package, which used good old fashioned tuning to make its numbers – a new air intake, revised supercharger with Teflon rotors and a smaller, faster spinning pulley for more boost, larger 380cc injectors, a ported and polished cylinder head and finally a cat back, stainless steel exhaust.
If the increase in power was modest, the bodykit certainly wasn't - there's little chance of you mistaking the GP for a cooking Cooper. At the time the in your face attitude of the GP attracted its fair share of detractors, but in the age of the Banzai turbocharged Civic Type R, those opinions have mellowed - on the way over to the Peak District the GP is attracting its fair share of thumbs ups and knowing nods. Yet the attention seeking front splitter, side skirts and rear wing only added similar, marginal gains in downforce, whilst the red mirror caps look like an afterthought without matching lipstick around the snout intake and fog lamps. The signature 18” four spoke alloys would have looked better with an extra pair of braces to these eyes, but at least they save 2kg a corner over the regular Cooper S or JCW offerings. Delve a little deeper and there are further weight saving measures in important places. More unsprung mass has been shaved from the suspension courtesy of bespoke, aluminium rear control arms with conical washers – an impressive 7.5kg per side lighter than those found on the production line and a serious & expensive trick usually reserved for the M division. These are mated to new springs which cut 10mm from the ride height and firmer dampers, although the standard anti-roll bars remained in situ.
Inside there’s a bit of an identity crisis going on. Yes the rear seats no longer exist and the rear window wiper, mechanism, speakers and air con have all been jettisoned, but the Recaro bucket seats are trimmed in leather, at odds with the track aesthetic. There are no slots for harnesses either, and can I spy plush carpets down in the footwell? The dashboard has received a lift in this car courtesy of the JCW carbon panels, which really should have been standard fit, but where is the paddock worthy alcantara clad steering wheel? Only the dials have changed into nomex, their dark grey background and unique font are a welcome addition. Otherwise, the ‘baby CSL’ schtick looks more like marketing stardust at this point.
That said, the GP is an undeniably fun place to spend time. The driving position is excellent - the seat is mounted on the floor and the scuttle is high meaning there's a definite feeling of sitting within the car. Throw in the funky toggle switches, rotary air vents, goodyear blimp indicator stalks and frameless windows and you could almost convince yourself you’re sat in a coupe. It’s unapologetically retro, but penned by the Jetsons. Its a quality reflected in the tightness of the cabin build, which lacks any of the slack Franco-Italian hatches are so fond of.
Despite such solidarity, at 1180kg the GP remains a featherweight car by present standards, resulting in a competitive 182bhp/tonne and a traction limited 0-60 sprint of 6.3 seconds - enough to make a current Fiesta ST owner think twice at the traffic lights. Its 184 lb-ft. of torque at 4,600rpm is certainly down on modern metal, and whilst the SOHC 1.6 litre Tritec motor was already Jurassic technology when adopted by the Cooper in 2001, it keeps pulling right until the 7,150rpm limiter, underscored by that distinctive supercharger whine and unburnt fuel igniting down the exhaust like popping candy on the overrun. The GP simply doesn't care for driver modes, it’s already in a high state of alert. One charge through the gears is enough to know the GP is the complete antidote to the modern copy & paste hot hatch formula, it positively drips with character and purpose, and your grin will be as wide as the powerband.
The steering has that trademark Mini keenness and lightness - simply flick your wrists and you’re turned in, but there is precious little feedback from the chunky rim due to electro-hydraulic assistance. Aside from that, there’s a real feeling of piloting a mechanical device to the GP that belies its retro-cute image. The gearbox in particular has a satisfying heft to its action that can’t be rushed, whilst the throttle and clutch pedals both offer levels of unexpected resistance. It’s quite the workout. Sadly, the achilles heel of the GP is the brakes, which despite being a four piston Brembo upgrade lack the aggression and pedal feel needed for B-road omnipotence. The GP does have a limited slip differential, however the linear delivery of the belt driven Eaton ‘charger means it acts more like a guiding hand than the pint in one hand and arm wrestling challenge to the other of something like a Focus RS. Its action works much better with the DSC deactivated - stability control coding was in its early days and this one unfortunately acts upon the whim of an overbearing conscience.
You can also detect the compromise of adopting early run-flat technology for the OEM tyres in the suspension calibration. Why BMW chose to persist with granite reinforced sidewalls in such a focused machine when its M cars were free to equip as they pleased is a mystery, and something the company rectified in the second generation GP. Whilst owner Imran has long since ditched the Dunlops, you can still feel the trade off in the damping, particularly in the choppy low speed ride quality. It’s much less boisterous than a standard JCW however. In fact, the GP starts displaying a level of poise that’s most unexpected the harder you push, the benefits of the reduced unsprung mass and being lighter on its feet coming to the fore. The low seating position and lack of body roll adds to the feeling of agility, although despite the compact wheel at each extremity set-up, it's in the solid state, high speed turns where the chassis truly excels. The sophisticated rear multi-link Z axle prioritises grip over slip - the GP remains glued to the surface no matter what - there isn’t the instant, up on its tiptoes adjustability of a Renaultsport Clio or EP3 Civic Type-R, but neither of them would see which way this Mini went.
It's not perfect however. Whilst you wouldn’t exactly call it turbo lag, the supercharger exerts a certain amount of drag loading onto the engine and throttle response in the lower rpm, whilst the heavy flywheel is reluctant to shed its hard earned momentum between gear changes. A lack of packaging space, a combination of iron block with an aluminium cylinder head, forced induction and a pre-cat in close proximity to the exhaust ports means the Chrysler sourced engine tends to run hot. BMW compensated by over endowing the injector system and running a rich map – the additional fuel soothing the cylinder temps. But the side effect is the GP likes a drink and is in possession of a demon thirst that would convince Charlie Sheen to get back on the wagon. You’ll be hard pressed to average better than 26mpg driving with baby gloves. Driven hard you’ll be lucky to better fifteen to the gallon.
Get enough spin in the compressor though and you’ll happily indulge the Mini’s appetite. The GP does its best work in third, which stretches just shy of 100mph despite the six ratio’s. The ram air effect of the bonnet scoop seems to endow the engine with extra horsepower once into three point territory. It becomes difficult to imagine the car in the original brief – the Cooper S was set to get the 1.8L naturally aspirated Rover VVC. The Prospect of a VHPD John Cooper Works is food for thought, but the supercharger has already gotten under my skin and won me over. The Tritec does possess at least one similarity to the K-series however – its ability to get through head gaskets. That being said, you’re unlikely to find a more reliable first gen BMW-Mini than a GP, last off the line status means all the niggles that plagued early cars have been eradicated. The bonus sixth ratio also puts a sock in the supercharger as I retrace my steps home, but any thoughts of distracting Imran and hot footing it to the Nurburgring are sadly stymied - the thirsty consumption and miserable 40 litre tank means he’d catch me before I even boarded the ferry.
In the end, there’s a slight feeling of unfulfilled potential with the GP that’s hard to shake off. I can’t help but imagine the car with a tight ratio gearbox, sticky rubber, adjustable suspension, buttock clenching buckets and a half cage. Putting all the glamour of the unique look to one side, in pure handling terms I’m not convinced the GP offers something you can’t get from a regular JCW with a set of trick coilovers fitted for a third of the price. If a manufacturer is going to rip out the rear seats to shave tenths around Silverstone then they are committing the car down a certain path, a fate that’s sealed when the heavily debated rear strut brace is revealed to be purely cosmetic. Its non load bearing, not serving any purpose. It appears Mini themselves reached a similar conclusion too, because the GP2 that followed was far more focused, faster and much raw-er, if less characterful. So it fails the track brief, but thankfully we are left with a very sweet little road car to come out to play on a sunny weekend, and I can’t help but plant the throttle one last time for another tasting of whine.