Over the past year or so, the entire BMW Group has released several new and exciting cars, cars we were chomping at the bit to drive. Personally, one of the cars from that crop I was most excited about didn’t actually wear a Roundel. That car was the 2020 MINI JCW GP.
After one look at the MINI JCW GP in person at the LA Auto Show, I thought to myself “this thing is gonna be a riot.” How could it not be? Just look at its carbon fiber fender blades, massive rear wing and dual poo-shoot exhausts. The new GP looks like the most fun car on the road today, with a sense of tongue-in-cheek humor that seems completely lost from the rest of the BMW Group. In fact, I even went so far as to say that the MINI JCW GP was going to be the most fun car in the entire BMW Group’s lineup.
If it seems like I’m readying you for some sort of surprise switch-a-roo and tell you that the MINI GP is a huge disappointment, you’d half be right. But not entirely.
What is the MINI JCW GP?
The MINI JCW GP is a car designed to bring track-ready fun to the road, much like its ancestors before it. There were two GPs before this; one back in 2006 and the other in 2013.
Over a standard MINI Cooper JCW, the GP has been lightened and made more powerful. Its lightweight measures are key, though. The back seat has been completely deleted, replacing it with just a rear brace, which is painted in a very loud shade of red. It also gets a re-tuned suspension and carbon fiber aero.
Surprisingly, though, the GP is quite accommodating for what’s supposed to be such a stripped-out car. It has MINI’s version of iDrive, surprisingly comfortable seats, a digital driver’s display, air conditioning, automatic climate control, wireless phone charging and all the creature comforts you’d expect out of a modern car.
In fact, so long as you don’t need a back seat, you could drive the MINI JCW GP everyday. Sure, the speakers a crap but that’s all part of adding lightness.
If It’s Light, It Must Be Fast?
Thanks to its BMW-sourced 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the GP makes 302 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque. It’s the same engine that you’ll find in the BMW M235i Gran Coupe here in the ‘States. It’s a potent little engine and one that can deliver some serious thrust when called upon.
However, you’d expect it to be quicker than it is. The MINI JCW GP is lighter than the M235i by a good margin, has less drivetrain loss and yet uses the exact same engine and transmission, yet is slower. So how does that make any sense?
While the BMW M235i Gran Coupe hits 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, the MINI JCW GP can only get from 0-60 mph in 5.0 seconds flat. That’s not slow by any means but it’s more hot-hatch-quick, rather than stripped-out track car-quick. Something doesn’t compute there.
Plus, just like in the M235i, the engine is effective but a non-event to use. It makes an aggressive noise but it’s not exactly a pleasant one. That’s forgiven in the GP, due to its more rugged, raucous nature, but it’s still not the most thrilling engine choice.
Having said that, one either a race track or a twisty road, the BMW M235i wouldn’t be able to see which way the MINI GP went. Despite its relative lack of straight-line speed, the GP is freakishly fast through corners. Its sticky Hankooks and incredibly mechanical grip allow it to corner at speeds that genuinely boggle the mind. The GP seems nigh unflappable through corners, capable of digging into the tarmac and transferring its power to the road at speeds that seem to defy physics.
However, there are two major issues that come from that power and performance. One is the fact that it torque steers like a bucking bronco. Put your foot down at any speed, in any gear and the steering wheel will pull violently one way or another and sometimes back and forth.
It’s quite startling the first time it happens, such as when you go to overtake someone on the highway and the torque steer almost pulls you into the car you’re trying to overtake, entirely unexpectedly. If that sounds like it’s coming from personal experience, that’s because it is. Not great.
The MINI JCW GP has a clever front diff that’s supposed to manage torque steering but it’s apparently not good enough, because the MINI GP has a lot of it.
It’s a MINI, Does It Handle Like One?
In a word — absolutely. The MINI JCW GP is a ferocious little car. Its steering is razor sharp, with a surprising amount of weight to it, and its front end claws into the road like few other cars I’ve ever driven. Sure, the steering can feel a bit artificial at times, and the way it returns to center feels a bit rubber band-like, but there’s no denying how responsive it is.
The chassis is also superb. For a powerful front-wheel drive car, it simply refuses to understeer. It might torque-steer you into an oncoming bus but it will never understeer. It just grips and pulls you through corners, even at shocking speeds. When you get the GP into a rhythm and start snaking it through consecutive corners, you realize just how capable its chassis is.
I was also truly impressed with its sticky Hankook tires. The grip provided and the response from its steering wouldn’t be possible without a great tire and the Hankooks provided, despite not being the usual Michelin Pilot Sports.
What’s also impressive is how well the MINI GP rides. Of course, it’s stiff. Over the right pot holes, the GP will rattle your bones. But, for the most part, it actually handles bumps and road imperfections better than I had anticipated. For a car as low and as stripped out as the GP, it rides remarkably well. It’s obviously no luxury car but you could drive the GP around on a regular basis and be fine.
What About the Transmission?
To be honest, all of the aforementioned complaints can be forgiven. Even the manic torque steer is comical when it’s not dangerous and can be chalked up to character if you want. However, there’s one aspect of the MINI JCW GP that can’t be forgiven and it’s by far and away the car’s biggest drawback — its transmission.
While previous MINI GP models used six-speed manuals exclusively, this new car uses an eight-speed automatic only. It’s not some fancy dual-clutch gearbox, either, it’s just your average transverse-oriented eight-speed slushbox. In fact, it’s the same one that you’ll find in your quirky aunt’s MINI Countryman Cooper S.
It’s also the same one you’ll find in the BMW M235i Gran Coupe, which means that only one second of thought blows the lid off of BMW/MINI’s phony argument that a manual couldn’t handle the torque. The Aisin eight-speed was already engineered to work with that engine. This was a money decision and we all know it. Don’t insult our intelligence, BMW.
To be fair, the eight-speed auto is fine in other MINIs but that’s just it — it’s fine. Sure, its shifts are quick enough and they’re surprisingly smooth but the entire gearbox is about as exciting to operate as a blood pressure machine. The MINI JCW GP isn’t supposed to just be fine.
It has carbon fiber fender blades, a rear wing that would make “Fast and Furious” fans blush and a red chassis brace where seats were supposed to go. The GP supposed to be about driver enjoyment, thrills and feedback, it’s not supposed to be fine.
That eight-speed is a huge buzzkill and completely neuters the personality of the car. Would a six-speed manual be slower? Of course but, honestly, if those few tenths of a second matter to you, you’re not the right customer for a MINI JCW GP. A proper manual would completely wake the relatively uneventful engine up and allow you to engage with that incredible chassis, become one with such a special driving car.
So What’s the Conclusion?
Well, there’s a lot to like and a lot to criticize. For starters, it’s a great looking car. It’s so silly and ridiculous that it’s hard not to smile at it. In a day and age when cars designs are more inspired by corporate committees than designers, the MINI JCW GP is a breath of fresh air. It looks absurd for the sake of looking absurd and it’s hard not to love it for that, however outlandish it may be. Anyone that thinks it’s too much and thumbs their nose at it is a square.
Its interior is also great. The seats are superb, it has all the creature comforts you want and every time you turn around to back out of your driveway, there’s a red chassis brace to remind you that what you’re driving is special.
And special it is. On a twisty road, the MINI JCW GP will leave most high-performance cars for dead. It steers, handles and rides like something special, because it is, and is genuinely a delight to toss around. It’s one of those cars that, if you’re having a rough week, you take to work on Friday to relieve some stress.
It’s also surprisingly cheap. At $45,750, the GP undercuts the Audi RS3 by about $7,000 and is only about $1,000 more expensive than the far less exciting Mercedes-AMG A35. So it’s a relative bargain.
Having said that, its biggest issue, and the one that keeps it from being truly great, is its transmission. It’s such a letdown and completely puts a damper on the fun you can have in the GP. If it had a proper three-pedal ‘box, it’s be the best hot-hatch on sale.