MF Review: Driving the JCW GP in the Wild
This week I had the opportunity to not just drive the 2013 MINI John Cooper Works GP, but drive it on real, imperfect roads. Specifically, I was able to put the car through its paces on the narrow, rough mountain roads outside Ponce, in Puerto Rico. Gabe drove this limited edition car for the first time in Spain a few months back as part of the international product launch, but that was on the track (check out the video and written reviews). Impressive as the car was in that context, we both wondered what the car would be like in the wild. So we went to the twisting roads of Puerto Rico to find out.
First, let’s quickly summarize what we’re dealing with here. In brief, the JCW GP (or GP2 as some call it) takes the standard JCW Hardtop hatch and pulls together a performance and styling package intended to make this the halo car of factory performance MINIs. The engine is tweaked for a bit more power and better cooling. The suspension is from JCW and it’s not just tuned for this specific car, it’s fully adjustable. (It even comes with a set of suspension wrenches.) Inside those one-off, 2006 GP-inspired front wheels are a pair of six-piston calipers and oversized rotors. Rounding out the performance package are a number of wind tunnel born aero pieces. That rear spoiler, for example, is helping to reduce rear lift by up to 90% according to MINI. Oh, and let’s not forget those custom compound, barely street legal Kumho tires gluing this car to the tarmac.
On the aesthetic side, the GP exterior features GP-only wheels, a unique exterior paint finish (that no photo to date has done justice to), and a love-them-or-hate-them graphics package. Inside, it’s Recaro seats, a leather-wrapped dash, and a myriad of red JCW accents and other choice details. The rear seats are gone, along with the rear speakers and all the sound deadening in the name of weight savings. Frankly, I think they would have pulled the stereo out all together were it not an integrated unit, but more on that later.
The package details are enough to make the JCW GP special, but added together they create a car that’s far more than the sum of its parts. All the custom touches and race-inspired kit blend together in a blur once you start the engine and let out the clutch. MINI says this is the fastest car they’ve ever built. From what I experienced behind the wheel, I believe them. It’s the definitive answer to those who think a JCW MINI needs more horsepower. I never bought into that line of thinking, and having now driven the car, I’m even more convinced that until these small MINIs go AWD, there’s no use in adding any more power.
At about 60 lbs lighter than a standard JCW Hardtop, the JCW GP felt feather light as I pulled away. It didn’t hurt that I’d just spent two hours in the new MINI Paceman, but that’s a whole separate review. For all its lightness, however, the JCW GP still felt substantial. It felt thoroughly well put together and as sturdy and tank-like as every other MINI Hardtop I’ve ever driven. With all that seemingly effortless forward motivation came no small amount of noise. With all the sound deadening material removed from the GP’s interior panels, this car is not at all quiet inside. While nowhere near the pain threshold, it was definitely noticeable. That said, I liked the noise. It was one more piece of feedback from a car that, for me, came to be defined by the sheer amount of feedback it gives the driver. The near sensory overload of road feel, steering feedback, engine and tire noise only added to the rush of rocketing this car down that narrow mountain road.
So let’s get to what, for many, are the burning questions. How harsh is that suspension? Can I live with the GP on the way to the track and not just on the track? Can this car be a daily driver as well as a weekend corner assault weapon? Those are tricky questions to answer for anyone but myself. Everybody’s tolerance for the softness of their suspension is different. For me, I didn’t find the GP harsh at all. In fact, I was expecting the suspension to beat the tar out of me on that rough road — a road, by the way, that rivals anything I’ve seen in the pothole-infested midwest in terms of roughness. Yet, it didn’t. While definitely far stiffer than the standard MINI suspension, instead of discomfort, what I got from the GP was a symphony of road feedback through my hands, my feet, and my backside. It was never harsh or uncomfortable, even over seriously uneven road surfaces. It was, however, very different from the regular MINI Sport Suspension that most MINI owners are used to.
The best way I can think to describe the relative character of the suspension is an analogy of sound. Imagine putting on a really good pair of headphones, plugging them into your smartphone and listening to your favorite band at a loud but comfortable volume. That’s the standard MINI suspension. It sounds good. It’s a lot of fun, and you get the full experience of the song. Think of the MINI Sport Suspension as unplugging from your smartphone and plugging into that same album on brand new vinyl. It’s richer. There’s more there. More detail and a better mix. It’s not really louder, but it’s clearer and you hear the song in a way you’ve never heard it before.
Now imagine that you’ve plugged those same headphones into the input side of the mixing board at the recording studio — while the band performs the song live. You’re getting the full, unfiltered, unmixed sound of the band as they play. You’re hearing their feet on the floor. You’re hearing the breaths between the vocals and the rustle of their instruments against their clothes. You’re hearing every time a drumstick catches a bit of the rim on the snare. Yet for all that cacophony of audio detail, it’s still not so loud that it hurts your ears. That’s the JCW GP suspension. It’s the whole road, unfiltered. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s a lot more road feedback than you get in the standard MINI suspension tiers. In this car, feedback is everything, and the JCW suspension on the GP let me all but feel the very texture of the road surface as the tires rolled across it.
Thing is, you may not like that much feedback. In fact, I can guarantee that a lot of people wouldn’t like it. It’s distracting. That preference is up to you, but that’s what the car’s like. To put it in terms closer to home for most readers of this site, it’s essentially the JCW suspension as I experienced it on the Coupe, but dialed up to 11. Like the JCW Coupe, it means that the JCW GP basically isn’t going to feel challenged at legal road speeds. Combining that with the weight savings and the aero improvements, be warned that this is a car that begs to be driven quickly. Gallop at your own risk on public roads.
To attempt yet one more comparison, the JCW GP has all the road feel (and then some) of my somewhat worn out R53 Sport Suspension, but without the mild-to-moderate discomfort over rough roads.
Moving past suspension comfort, let’s touch on livability. Is this a car you can live with on a day-to-day basis? Again, everybody’s different, but I feel like I could definitely run this car to work everyday. That is, if I keep in mind the compromises that have been made to make it brilliant to drive. Firstly, there’s a lot of road noise. So much so that you’d likely give yourself hearing damage just trying to hear any music over top of the GP’s interior environment. There’s not much point to the stereo in this car, in my opinion. Secondly, you’d need to run a second set of tires for daily driving simply because these special Kumhos aren’t safe on even moist roads. That’s a logistical bother for anyone using this as a daily driver. It’d be even worse in the snow belt. One might need three sets of wheels and tires: summer, winter and track.
None of that matters though. If the GP is compromised in terms of subjective comfort, practicality or ease of ownership, those considerations are completely eclipsed by just how utterly brilliant the GP is to drive. If you think the GP is just stickers and marketing, think again. It may not look like it, but this is that JCW “M car” MINI fans have been clamoring for. This is a MINI so capable, so poised and so well packaged that it quite literally made me a better driver just by being behind the wheel. What started as twitchy, 2nd gear squirts through the switchbacks soon became smooth 3rd gear gallops with 30 mph added on. Smooth inputs and composed foot work was rewarded with brush-blurring speed and more grip than I could possibly use on such tight, dangerous roads.
Let’s talk about those brakes for a second. If, like me, you’re used to the standard Cooper S brakes on your R53 and, like me, you’re well overdue to have your lines and fluid changed, then the JCW GP brakes are going to feel like they’re off of a BMW 135i without an extra 800 lbs to stop. Well, actually, they are, but that’s not the point. Standing hard on the middle pedal in the GP, if applied just so, could possibly reshape one’s eyeballs and even correct one’s vision. Maybe that’s a bit much, but you get the idea. I’ve experienced many a car and motorcycle that accelerate so hard they create a hyperdrive vision distortion. The brakes on the GP do that too, but in reverse. The world blurs backwards. No drama. No squirreling around. You just stop, right now. On those twisting mountain roads, this meant I could charge hard up the straights and arrest my forward energy aggressively before rebalancing the car and bending it around the next corner. It’s no wonder this second generation GP shed 18 seconds off the old GP’s Nurburgring lap time. Between the aero, the sticky tires and these terrific brakes, again, it’s easy to go fast.
It’s difficult not to gush over the JCW GP. For this MINI enthusiast, this is the car I always feel like my R53 is trying to be — and the car the R56 should have been all along. It’s that good bit more “MINI” in every respect. More speed, more stopping power, more road feedback, and more compromises for the sake of performance. In short, the GP has something that the regular R56 Hardtop actually lacks a bit of: character. As fun and quirky as the R56 cars are, they’re a bit tamer to drive than their R50/R53 predecessors. Yet, they’re also arguably better cars in many respects. I like a more comfortable car. I like getting better gas mileage. Yet for me, for many other R50/R53 owners and hard core MINI enthusiasts, the R56 has felt like it was missing that raw, visceral feel we found in our first generation MINIs. I’m happy to report that this feeling, and a hell of a lot of refinement, can still be found behind the MINI wings. It’s the JCW GP.
Written By: Nathaniel Salzman
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