Can a MINI priced at £32,000 ever really be worthwhile? Well, yeah actually, based on our brief experience at the 2017 SMMT Test Day.
On the face of it paying the same amount as a Volkswagen Golf R, or a Ford Focus RS, for any MINI may seem hopelessly decadent, or even foolish. But stick with us on this, because the John Cooper Works (JCW) Challenge manages to back up the big price tag.
We were a little undecided on the regular JCW hatch when we drove it at the 2015 SMMT Test Day, with the automatic gearbox fitted to that particular car seeming intent on spoiling the fun. Thankfully a six-speed manual is the only option for the JCW Challenge – phew – and it fits perfectly with the hardcore ethos the car is meant to embody, being based on the Challenge race car.
This is, essentially, a parts bin special with a host of bolt-on goodies from aftermarket performance suppliers. Were this the early 2000s, the ‘shopping list’ decals on the doors would be very long indeed. Brembo supplies the four-pot brake calipers, whilst Mintex provides the pads. Michelin is responsible for the grippy Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, which wrap around lightweight 17” Team Dynamics alloy wheels. Finally, the two most important items are the adjustable coilover suspension from Nitron, and the Quaife limited-slip differential.
The latter two have a substantial impact on how the JCW Challenge drives. The Quaife automatic torque biasing diff is seriously aggressive, but allows the JCW’s 228hp and 236lb-ft to be transferred to the road with zero fuss. Add in the almost instantaneous turn-in response from the steering, to a rock-hard suspension setup, and the feeling really is like driving a giant go-kart.
That is of course a horrible motoring journalism cliché, but it neatly sums up the experience of the JCW Challenge. It points and squirts with all the hyperactive enthusiasm of a miniature race car, allowing you to place it on the road with immediate impulse. There is also the rather important matter of the Bluetooth-controlled JCW Pro exhaust to contend with.
It’s loud. Oh, so very loud. The Track mode is so loud it shouldn’t be used on the road, although we imagine most race circuits would also ban it for exceeding noise levels. But as it pops and bangs, with the gearbox automatically rev-matching on each downshift, it’s impossible not to laugh at the sheer lunacy of it all.
All JCW Challenges will be painted White Silver with a black roof, and black alloy wheels. An aggressive JCW Pro aerokit is standard, as are the black stripes. There’s no negotiating on options, meaning LED headlights, parking sensors, and artificial suede sports seats are all included for that £32,000 price.
It is undoubtedly a lot of money for small car, and one that – in a straight line at least – holds no real performance advantage over the regular JCW hatchback. Yet the sheer infectious enthusiasm, plus the knowledge it would be hugely capable on track, go some way to justifying the cost. MINI only intends to sell 100 and, at the time of asking, possibly only two were unaccounted for. Those 98 buyers have made a brave decision, but one we can completely understand and approve of them making. This is, very much so, an ESM-approved hot hatchback.
ESM Rating: 9.0/10
Stats: £32,000, 2.0-litre I4 turbo, 228hp/236lb-ft, 0-62mph 6.3 seconds, 153mph top speed