I write stuff. A lot of it is about cars and motorcycles.

Doctor Hoon

2013 Mini John Cooper Works GP

At about the same time that Britain was giving us Doctor Who, they also gave us the original Mini. Badly underpowered by today’s standards, it was so responsive and fun that it quickly became the original hot hatch, and began tearing up rally and racing tracks all over Europe. The years have been more or less kind to both British cultural icons. Doctor Who is in its tenth or eleventh incarnation on TV, and Minis are being built again in Old Blighty. Happily, rather than being built by British Leyland communists in the Midlands, the Mini is now built by Germans in Oxfordshire, which means when you go out to start it in the morning…it will.

2013 Mini John Cooper Works GPNor is it seriously underpowered anymore. In fact, if you really want the full on, hot hatch Mini experience, you now have a slight chance to own a fully-stocked, 211 horsepower hoon machine in the Mini John Cooper Works GP. I say “slight chance” because only 2,000 are being produced, and only 500 will come to America. There’s a little plaque on the dashboard that tells you what number you have, and my number was 19. Like today’s Doctor Who TV show, it had some pretty good special effects as well, applied by Mini’s in-house performance team, the John Cooper Works.

How it looks

The sporting pretensions of the GP are obvious from the outside. Red six-piston Brembo brakes and large disks peek out from the wheels. The body is adorned with red striping and obvious GP badging, along with a spoiler mounted on the rear hatch, and a JCW badge on the front grill.

The tires are also a dead giveaway that something’s up. They’re low-profile tires, with a wide, flat contact patch and what must be the absolute minimum legal amount of tread possible on a street tire. Everything about them screams, “We will provide phenomenal levels of grip!” Also, they scream, “We will wear out quickly! We will bankrupt you when you replace us! You will be forced to sell your loved ones into slavery!”

Or, if you are a clearer thinker, you’ll just sell the car.

What really confirms that this is a bit of an unusual vehicle is something you don’t see until you look inside.

Not a chassis stiffening barWhere the rear seat would usually be is just an open space with a brightly red-painted steel bar running from one side to another in the exact middle of the rear cargo area, right below the windows. “Oh, ho!” one thinks to oneself, “This is a chassis stiffening bar. This should be interesting.”

Except that it isn’t. The less-than-completely knowledgeable Mini rep told me it was a stiffening bar, but Mini says it’s merely a restraining bar to keep cargo from sliding forward and crashing into the front seats under braking. Presumably it accomplishes this by being too inconveniently placed to allow you to carry any significant cargo, thus preventing you from being hurt by it.

2013 Mini John Cooper Works GP InteriorThe interior has the standard rounded and swoopy mini styling, with the huge analog speedometer in the middle of the dash. The leather-covered dash and beefy steering wheel are stitched with bright red thread, as are the bolstered leather and faux-suede Recaro seats. The steering wheel is fully adjustable and telescopes, and the driver’s instrument panel, which consists mainly of a tach and small digital speedo, is mounted on the steering column and adjusts with it. The seats are bit firm, but it’s pretty roomy in front, which it should be, as the front is the only place to sit.

Overall, it’s pretty pleasant inside, which you should expect in a $40,000 hatchback.

How it Drives

Oh, it’s track ready. The GP has a stiff chassis, and more or less undetectable body roll in corners. At around 2,500 lbs., the turbocharged I-4 powerplant’s 211 HP pushes the GP from 0-60 in under 6 seconds, which is quick, if not blindingly so,but the handling is the real star here, not the speed.

The steering is an electric system with the usual road-feel numbness that implies, but steering itself is marvelously progressive, with more resistance, and more response to smaller wheel movements, as the speed increases. There’s a nice little neutral area in the wheel, but any movement beyond that and the GP responds instantly. This is a car that was made for corners.

The transmission is a joy, too, a short-throw, 6-speed manual that snicks effortlessly from gear to gear. Clutch engagement, oddly, is well off the floor, and seems more set up for quick heel-and-toe work at the track than for street driving. So, basically, it’s great.

Turn off the traction control—and you can turn it off—and the Mini is even greater. In the Ford Focus ST, turning off the traction control and putting all 252 horses to the front wheels results in complete insanity. The near-race tires, and the relatively low 211 HP of the Mini make it merely crazy without traction control rather than completely full-goose loony. It’s still a front-wheel drive car with 60% of the weight above the front axle, so it’ll still understeer like nobody’s business. But you can also slap the rear-end out with the wheel and some lift-off oversteer, and slide it pretty easily, too, shedding blue smoke and large wads of cash from the tires.

You really do need to know what you’re doing driving the Mini full-on without traction control, but, unlike the fantastically fun Focus ST, the mini won’t actively try to kill you as punishment for a little mistake. I mean, it’ll still punish you, it just won’t try quite as hard.

And you’ll probably survive if you slide off and hit something, as there are airbags everywhere.

But, maybe you won’t hit anything, because the big 6-pot ABS Brembos are pretty darn good. Under hard braking they bring the GP to a halt in a straight line with little drama, and the ABS kicks in noticeably but smoothly.

So, why in the world wouldn’t you buy it?

Well, let’s say you don’t plan to drive it at top speed through mountain passes all day. Let’s say that most of the time you just want, you know, a car. Ah, well, at that point, things begin to look a bit bleaker.

That stiff suspension and chassis is, well, stiff. It transmits every bump in the road and every crack in the tarmac to your butt. And let’s not forget those tires. Their low profile doesn’t cushion bumps much better than the suspension. Not to mention the thousand bucks or more it’s gonna cost you to replace them. Those Recaro seats are pretty firm, too. I suspect you’d notice that a lot, too, before long. It’s a very focused car, but daily driving comfort isn’t what it’s focused on.

What’s good about it

It’s really good-looking inside and out.There are also only 500 of them in the United States, so the chances are, if you own one, you will never meet anyone else who has one. So, being pretty unique, it’ll probably have good resale value as well. BMW makes it, so it’ll probably be pretty reliable. It also has USB and Aux connectors for audio. Also, all of the switchgear for windows and lights are in the center console, which means you can operate them with your right hand without taking the left hand off the wheel.

What’s bad about it

It costs a lot of money, for which you don’t get sat-nav, Bluetooth or steering wheel controls, or seating for more than two people. The stereo system isn’t great, and there are only speakers in the front. The fake stiffening bar cuts right across the middle of the cargo area, so even without back seats, storage space is limited. You’ll have to decide whether to keep tires on it, or send Junior to college. Or, get cheaper tires, of course, and wrap it around a telephone pole when they lose grip in a turn.

Conclusion

If what you really want is a focused, well handling, driver’s car, the GP is kind of hard to beat. Among competitors, the VW Golf is a far better and more comfortable daily driver, but far less satisfying when driving at the limit. The Ford Focus ST will be way cheaper to own and maintain, and is much more powerful, but it simply can’t match the stability of the GP’s chassis and doesn’t handle nearly as well. Nor is the Focus as comfortable. The Mini GP sits in a place right in the middle of its competitors.

It’s a pretty good place to be.

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