Driving the First MINI JCW GP – Can it Compete with Modern MINIs?

13 years ago when the JCW GP entered the automotive scene things were different. Turbocharged MINIs were only a tuner thing and fast meant under 6 seconds to 60. 13 years on and we have a different level of expectations around what is fast and what makes a great track car. Could the original JCW GP ever live up to those modern expectations?

2006 MINI JCW GP

In a word – no. But first lets go back in time a bit. I remember quite clearly the first time I got into a GP. It was a 13 degrees day in November and had just snowed. Not ideal conditions but then again I had a GP for a week – how can you complain. Soon the weather would fade into the background as the whine of the supercharger and the immediacy of the whole experience drown everything else out. Such was the overwhelming nature of the GP that your senses were immediately heightened and your level of concentration increased. And in a word it was fun. The R53 itself was pretty special in stock form. But reducing weight, adding power and increasing the noise just made it all the more raucous and lively.

Would we love the 2006 JCW GP as much in 2019? As we get closer to the launch of the 2020 JCW GP we wanted to find out and revisit where the GP lineage all started. With some coordination and luck we managed to end up with a museum piece; MINI USA’s own JCW GP. With just a few thousand miles and pampered throughout its life, it was the perfect time capsule for us to test.

2006 MINI JCW GP

Entering the 13 year old cabin is almost shocking at first. Having come from testing the latest range of BMWs that day it was both refreshing in its simplicity and eye-brow raising in its lack of material quality. But at a high-level its design holds up. There’s beauty in the functionally driven design and honesty in the materials – even if they feel low-rent. Modern MINIs are better put together and look and feel much more high-end. Yet there’s a simplicity here that is undeniably charming.

2006 MINI R53 JCW GP

Turning the key (which feels weird these days) and the 1.6L Tritec four cylinder fires to life. It’s not the most pleasant sounding engine at idle but give it a bit of gas you there’s that beautiful whine.

The Getrag 6 speed is a forbearer to the one found in most modern MINIs and it feels it. There’s got a great notchy feel to plenty of precision to it. The same can’t be said of the clutch. While it has good weight (arguably better than modern MINIs) it’s engagement point is high and not quite in-sync with the transmission. But it takes all but two gear changes to get the feel down and forget about the imperfections.

“Wow” and “holy sh*t”. Those were the first words I uttered to myself as I got underway. This car feels alive in ways that modern cars and even modern MINIs don’t. We keep talking about immediacy but this car has it in spades. There is a seriousness in driving experience here that you don’t normally get outside of high performance, track dedicated sports car. Yet there’s also a joy to be had in driving the GP that only comes from small well sorted cars like MINIs. It’s a rare combination and one that defines this car as fun beyond almost anything I’ve ever driven.

Feedback is everywhere and the wheel feels alive in your hands. While the braking can’t quite compare to modern standards there’s unquestionably more feedback from this car. Every input has an immediate reaction and the GP feels eager to respond at any moment.

It’s not fast. The power and torque build slowly and this isn’t the quickest shifting manual. Someone stepping into a GP who’s more accustom to modern cars would likely feel like there’s more show than go in terms of noise coming from the supercharger. And the quality is no where near modern levels. But taken as a whole this is a car that rewards tremendously. Whether it be at 20 mph or at the limit on a track, the original 2006 R53 JCW GP is a car that delivers an experience that is unique and simply not found in modern cars – even MINIs.

2006 MINI JCW GP