Eighteen 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. 18 years later we have a very different set of expectations. The four door MINI Clubman JCW gets to 60 in the mid 4s and even the most basic MINI Cooper has a mid-range that feels R53 Cooper S like. How does the original JCW GP compare to today’s MINIs and can it live up to its enormous hype?
In a word – no.
But first let’s go back in time a bit. I remember quite clearly the first time I got into a GP. It was a 13 degree day in November, had just snowed and the GP was on summer tires. Not ideal conditions but then again I had been loaned a GP for a week from MINI – 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. It was the most all evolving driving experience in a road car I had experienced outside of a Lotus Europa. 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 today? As we get closer to the launch of the new electric MINI range we wanted to go back in time and revisit one of the brand’s icons. The car test was a literal museum piece; MINI USA’s own JCW GP. With just a few thousand miles and pampered throughout its life, it is the perfect time capsule.
Entering the 18 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.
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 all the following MINIs, right up to the last manual – the 1to6 JCW. There’s got a great notchy feel and even a plenty of precision in the changes. Compared to the last manual MINI offered in the F56 this Getrag has much more of a mechanical feel. There’s much less thought given to ease of use in the design and components. While that makes it less forgiving in stop and go traffic, when you get it right, it’s far more rewarding.
The same can’t be said of the clutch. While it has good weight (arguably better than modern MINIs) its 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. Then add a dose of heel to toe and it feels all the more rewarding.
“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 talk about immediacy in MINI’s driving experience but this car shames anything new. 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 joy to be had in driving the GP that only comes from small well sorted cars. 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.
Let’s be clear. This is not a fast car on paper. The power and torque build slowly. Combine that with a manual that is less fast than it is deliberate and you have a car that can easily be shamed by 6,000 SUVs at stoplights.
Someone stepping into a GP who’s more accustom to modern MINI would likely feel like there’s more show than go in terms of noise vs speed. And there’s no mistake that the quality is no where near modern levels we see in MINIs.
But it does something more important than being fast. It feels fast. At any speed and in any environment it feels alive and quick witted. And every input is greeted with immediate reaction and all the feedback and feel you could need. 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. The reward is far greater than the stats would tell you.
If you have the chance to ever get behind the wheel of the original GP, find a way to do it. Or perhaps don’t. It might just ruin you.