PH Fleet reports
on Mini's latest JCW last year, you'll know it was a frustrating experience. Beyond the challenging looks, the motor was strong, the brakes were powerful and the interior was a lovely place to spend time in; but the steering lacked feedback, it wasn't very agile and it never displayed that infectious and utterly bemusing ability to carry speed around corners that should be the foundation of every hot Mini. The manual I eventually got to try was a
step in the right direction
Danny's JCW auto left something desired...
I signed off my eight months behind the wheel by suggesting that a more focused version, with a few mods - such as stickier tyres and styling based on the Challenge car - "would get pulses racing". Well guess what? That's pretty much exactly what Mini has done with the new
Mini John Cooper Works Challenge
Now, Mini has done a clever thing with this limited edition model. For starters it has leveraged the knowledge, experience and marketing appeal of its Challenge race series by collaborating with official component suppliers on all the car's main upgrades. So that's Nitron for suspension, Quaife for the limited-slip differential, Team Dynamics for the lightweight Pro Race wheels and Michelin for the Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres.
Then, and this is where the real genius lies, it invited some journalists from a certain motoring magazine to help set up the car. Most manufacturers would consider this insanity. Can you imagine an engineering department having to play second fiddle to some hack when there are millions riding on the commercial success of a product? Bit different for a limited edition niche special though. And what better way to guarantee critical approval than to let the very people who will review the car have a hand in developing it?
...hopefully delivered on by the Challenge!
So, did they do a good job? Absolutely. The Challenge is a hoot. To begin with, it has more visual presence than the standard car. The lowered stance really helps, as does the more aggressive camber, and what hot hatch isn't improved by the addition of Team Dynamics Pro Race wheels? OK, it's still no oil painting, but it has purpose, just like a race car. And race cars don't need to be pretty to look good.
Secondly, and more importantly, the dynamics are transformed. It's sharp, it's pointy, it's adjustable and it's rewarding... no, make that properly entertaining to drive. I only got to try it in the wet at Donington, but in these conditions it wanted to go sideways absolutely everywhere. Sounds sketchy, but that mobility can really be used to your advantage on track. With a bit of practice, you can get it rotated on the brakes and four-wheel drift past the apex with the wheel straight and the power on. Just like you see classic Minis doing at the Goodwood Revival.
Let's be clear though, it's not perfect. The steering still isn't too communicative and doesn't wake up until you've got a few degrees of lock on, and the differential really tugs at the wheel as you exit corners, so it feels like a right handful at times. Subtly metering the power is made harder by the throttle map, the gearing seems a bit long and there's a bit of sponginess to the pedals that shatters the race car fantasy when heel and toeing. All told though Mini's gamble has paid off, and the JCW Challenge proves giving the people who'll champion such cars a stake in setting them up can unlock potential we always hoped was there.
[Photos: Sim Mainey/Danny Milner]