This track-focused model trades its Mini-ness for a big wing and loads of torque.
Since its introduction for the 2006 model year, the Mini John Cooper Works GP has been the crème de la crème of the Anglo-Teutonic brand's line. Offering the most power, the sharpest suspension, stoutest brakes, and stickiest tires in a stiffened two-seat body, the limited-edition GP is as hardcore as a Mini gets.
But in the first two takes on the GP formula, there was a clear focus on still being a good Mini. The cars were ultra-capable, but still fun and engaging on a regular basis. Like the Cooper, Cooper S, and John Cooper Works, the GP worked in the real world, turning even mundane journeys into driving adventures. The 2021 John Cooper Works GP is an adventure in all the wrong ways, though. It feels more aloof, more difficult, and more serious, like a BMW M Competition model, rather than a true successor to the GP badge.
The most immediate sign of that M influence comes from the powertrain – it overemphasizes straight-line speed. But unlike proper M cars, the GP doesn't have the chassis to manage the added power.
The GP, like the standard JCW and Cooper S models, uses a BMW-sourced turbocharged 2.0-liter engine. But where a JCW Hardtop packs 228 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, the GP gets a new turbocharger that helps generate 301 hp and 332 lb-ft, while cutting the sprint to 60 down to 5.0 seconds, nine-tenths of a second quicker than a regular JCW Hardtop. But all of that fury flows through an eight-speed automatic transmission to the front wheels, creating a chaotic and disconnected driving experience that left me wrestling with the helm more often than exploiting the performance.
The engine's fury flows through an eight-speed automatic transmission to the front wheels, creating a chaotic and disconnected driving experience.
This isn't so much an issue of torque steer – the mechanical front diff helps there. Stick the GP on perfect asphalt and it's easy enough to manage a boot full of power. But on anything less than roads paved with the tears of the driving gods themselves, the combination of excessive front-drive torque, wider-than-JCW 225/35/18 tires, and fast steering causes obnoxious tramlining.
Every time I called for full steam, the Mini conspired with Michigan's rough roads and left me struggling to keep the car straight. I ended up driving as if it were in a high-powered rear-wheel-drive car, like a Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. Rather than just burying the pedal and watching the tachometer climb, the GP needs careful throttle inputs to manage the available grip and keep the chassis happy.
As I did that, though, the revvy 2.0-liter's relatively low 6,250-rpm redline came into play. And once you run past 5,000 rpm, the GP starts gasping for breath – like so many other turbocharged, small-displacement engines. From the monstrous torque to the low redline, this doesn't feel like the track vehicle Mini says it is. The GP feels like a muscle car.
And muscle cars often get automatic transmissions. I'm not going to dunk on the Aisin-sourced eight-speed auto too hard for a few reasons. First, in performance applications, modern automatics are almost always faster. Second, Mini didn't have a manual box that could manage this engine's torque and developing one for the 3,000-unit GP run is just bad business. And third, this gearbox delivers a sporty enough driving experience.
Upshifts are quick and the transmission knows just when to kick down a gear in aggressive driving. In normal commuting, it blends into the background, but manual mode, highlighted by an awesome set of real metal paddle shifters, is just okay. The paddles have an excellent action, but even though the shift speed is snappy, the response to inputs isn't. That, along with the eagerness of the engine, will lead to some awkward moments bouncing off the low redline as drivers mistime their upshifts. Better to just leave the GP in auto, although that's not a very Mini thing to do.
It's worrying enough that the GP's powertrain feels like something for a less focused product, but the generic noise makes things all the more frustrating. Blindfolded, this engine's sound is almost indistinguishable from any other 2.0-liter in BMW or Mini's lineup.
This car would be so much better with a little less power and torque, a manual gearbox, and a richer sound.
The exhaust is louder, but it lacks depth or character – even an M235i Gran Coupe, which features the same engine, gives some pops and crackles when revved. I was hoping for something like the John Cooper Works Knights Edition I tested earlier this year – sound, courtesy of an accessory exhaust with a comical dual-mode switch connected via Bluetooth, was central to the experience. In comparison, the GP was just dull.
Throughout my week with this Mini, one thought kept creeping into my mind over and over: this car would be so much better with a little less power and torque, a manual gearbox, and a richer sound. A higher redline would help, too. Not only would the GP be more manageable, it'd be more emotional. More than anything else, emotion and having a connection with the car are core to the Mini ownership experience, even in the track-focused GP family.
While the Mini's powertrain feels like that of a muscle car, at least its suspension and handling character remain mostly intact. Engineers stiffened the body with a front strut-tower brace, a stout under-body plate, and the GP's trademark rear brace (which is huge relative to the first two gens, for some reason).
Mini also stretched the GP's front and rear track from 58.5 inches front and rear to 59.9 and 59.4, respectively, while flaring the wheel arches to accommodate the wider rubber and 18-inch wheels. The tires swell from 205-mm wide to 225. The ride height is four-tenths of an inch lower, while the springs and dampers are stiffer, as well. Strangely, though, Mini opted away from adaptive dampers for the JCW GP.
The most obvious way the GP is not like a BMW M car is in its lack of configurability.
In fact, the most obvious way the GP is not like a BMW M car is in its lack of configurability. Beyond the absent adaptive dampers, the only drive mode is “GP Mode.” Tap the toggle controller for the stability control and it loosens up the electronic nannies. As far as I could tell, though, it made no other change to the Mini's driving character, like steering weight or throttle response.
While more adjustability would be nice, the GP is still a sharp handler. It weighs a scant 2,855 pounds, or 181 pounds less than a Hyundai Veloster N, 266 pounds less than a Honda Civic Type R, and 518 pounds less than the segment's fat boy, the all-wheel-drive Volkswagen Golf R. That is darn impressive in today's world of ever-increasing curb weights. The GP boasts high lateral handling limits, with its Hankook Ventus S1 Evo Z tires providing far more grip than I could take advantage of on public roads.
Understeer is the predominant handling character, as expected of a car with two-thirds of its mass over the front axle, but you really need to either carry too much speed into a turn or get on the throttle too early – the mid-corner behavior is very neutral, and I could dial in additional steering as needed. The mechanical limited-slip diff is happy to fling the GP out of a bend. It takes focus, though, to feel the diff doing its thing – the limited-slip effect isn't as obvious here, for better or worse.
I do wish, though, that the GP's character on turn-in were a little more assertive. The GP, like the rest of this generation of Mini, is far more relaxed in its behavior, with less direct steering and a front end that takes some goading to change direction. Feedback through the steering, another weak point on the third-gen Minis, remains an issue in the GP, too. You'll be relying on your backside more than your hands to feel what's happening between rubber and road.
Mini upgraded the brakes on the GP, but like the powertrain, it went too far. The new setup features 14.2-inch discs and four-piston calipers in front with what I can only assume are much more aggressive pads (they still produce huge amounts of brake dust, of course). Braking from speed, these stoppers perform, with sure-footed pedal feel that's easy to manage. But at low speeds, there's little travel before the stoppers bite. It's very difficult to modulate the brakes in, say, a parking lot or a neighborhood – they're noisy too, groaning loudly at anything but full engagement during low-speed driving.
Look At Me!
Ah yes, the carbon fiber-reinforced-plastic elephant in the room. The GP definitely, um, has a look about it, with its tacked on CFRP flares and look-at-me rear wing. Mini says that these elements, along with a revised front fascia, are there to “optimize the car's aerodynamic balance” while the rear wing provides downforce, and a new lip spoiler and side sills reduce lift.
But there are weird omissions – crawl under the GP, and you won't find an especially smooth floor, and in the back there's only the faintest hint of a rear diffuser. Those two significant aero aids are missing. And poking around those wheel-arch extensions yields more weirdness, like the cut-out for the fuel door or lack of pass-throughs for air on the back arches. So far as I can tell, the only thing those rear arches are good for is capturing very small pebbles and other road debris. I'm no aerodynamicist, but it doesn't take a lot of time around the Mini to start thinking those body enhancements are more about the show than the go.
And that's fine. I'm 100-percent fine with the visual insanity of the GP, functional or not, because it's the Mini-est thing about this Mini. But I wish the cabin were as crazy as the exterior. Aside from the awesome metal paddle shifters, a plasticky piece of dash with the car's model number (302, if you're in the market), and the missing back seats, there's little to distinguish the inside of the GP from the inside of another Mini. The cabin of this $46,000 hot hatch feels like a missed opportunity.
While I wasn't able to drive the GP on a track, I absolutely believe that it would be a hoot there. From the firm suspension and wider, stickier tires to the additional power and torque, it was hard to shake the sensation that I was driving a track special.
If Mini's goal was to build a JCW M or CSL or whichever track-focused nomenclature you prefer, then it succeeded. But that success comes at the expense of the everyday fun and engagement Mini known for. For a subset of customers who regularly attend track days, the GP is probably brilliant. For everyone else, a Honda Civic Type R or Hyundai Veloster N is a better, more affordable car for everyday entertainment.
Gallery: 2021 Mini John Cooper Works GP: First Drive
2021 Mini John Cooper Works GP