It was a last-minute thing – driving the latest Mini John Cooper Works on a 1000km round-trip from BMW’s press car centre in Munich to the famed Nürburgring for a glimpse of the next Works GP prototype for the first time.
Notwithstanding the fact that I’d just spent the last 24 hours in the air en route from Australia and was now looking at a 550km drive, I was wide awake and looking forward to letting the Mini off its leash for what I was hoping would be no more than a three-hour blast.
But, that’s the thing with hot hatches. They may not be 300km/h-plus supercars, but for the vast majority of enthusiasts, they’re just as much fun. Perhaps even more so, given their relative bang-for-buck formula that puts them well within the financial reach of most folks with full-time employment and a friendly bank manager at hand.
But, true to form, when everything looks too good to be true, there was a bit of a hiccup in the works. I was led to believe I would be climbing in behind the wheel of the latest JCW Clubman or Countryman – both of which are armed to the teeth with the cracking new four-cylinder engine with BMW’s TwinPower turbo technology packing a stonking 225kW and 450Nm of tyre-frying torque.
I say that because even though the iconic Mini has grown in bulk over the years, it’s still one of the smallest cars in the segment, and 450 newton-metres is an awful lot of twist, even if it is to both axles.
The Clubman and Countryman in JCW guise will be the first to score the new powertrain late in 2019, while hatch buyers will need to wait until 2020 to get the fastest and most powerful JCW model ever (outside of the Works GP version). Some might even go so far as to suggest there’s a danger of this cute little Mini reaching the limit as far as engine output goes.
And, while we don’t expect the hatch to get Mini’s ALL4 – all-wheel-drive system or the mechanical diff-lock for the front axle – this new powertrain alone should be exhilarating and something we can’t wait to put to the test. In Germany again, please Mini.
That’s not to say the current-generation JCW version is any slouch or doesn’t quite have what it takes to thrill, because it surely does, as I would discover first-hand soon enough. It's still got more than enough fizz to pop with its four-cylinder turbo motor putting out 170kW and 320Nm of torque to the front wheels. And, let's not forget, it only weighs just over 1300 kilos.
BMW’s press service centre is around 20 minutes from Munich Airport, but the standard Light Ivory-coloured Mercedes-Benz E-Class taxi I jumped into just so happened to be piloted by an Eastern European chap bent on taking the fastest possible route with the accelerator pedal flat to the boards – so we made it in 10 minutes, give or take.
Welcome to Germany, the certified mecca of speed for punter and pro alike. With licence and passport checks out of the way, I was handed the keys to the latest Mini John Cooper Works hatch, which even amongst a plethora of BMW Z4s and spanking new 8 Series Coupes still has plenty of presence.
Think of the usual hot-hatch suspects and the Mini JCW tends to fly under the radar for many buyers, which is a real shame because few can boast the same level of character and retro design cues of our John Cooper Works tester.
But it’s those same features that make this go-fast Mini one of the pricier choices in the segment, too. The six-speed manual version will set you back a cool $49,900 (plus on-roads), while our tester was equipped with the more versatile eight-speed auto that jacks the price up to $52,850, making it easily the most expensive offering given its measure of performance.
Rivals include the very capable but manual-only Peugeot 308 GTi at $45,990, Volkswagen Golf GTi (exclusively with seven-speed dual-clutch transmission) for $45,490, Hyundai i30 N from $39,990 (exclusively available with six-speed manual until the dual-clutch arrives in 2020), and the revered Honda Type R – offered with a six-speed manual transmission for $51,990.
Oh, and let’s not forget one of our favourites here at CarAdvice, the latest-generation Renault Megane RS280 from $44,990 for the manual or $47,490 for the dual-clutch version. It’s particularly rapid and gets rear-wheel steering to help it maintain that pace through the bends.
That aside, the Mini JCW is still a serious-looking bit of kit despite its diminutive profile. But, I’m not thinking that right now. Not at all. To me, it’s a proper giant-killer, good for 245km/h and 0–100km/h in around 6.1 seconds with the eight-speed auto transmission we have in this tester.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not the least bit concerned about the Mini’s pace out of the gate. This is Germany folks, and top speed and in-gear throttle response are what matters most on the Autobahn. It’s the perfect disguise to challenge those monster-powered offerings from the German wolf pack.
Luggage space is a bit of an issue, though, especially if you’re lugging around a large 32-inch (85cm) suitcase and hard-shell cabin bag (yep, I’ve got to learn to travel lighter). But, thanks to the split-fold rear seats and using the smaller bag to wedge it all in, I attempt to thwart any sudden weight-shifting moments under heavy braking – something you can count on if you’re on a mission in the fast lane over here.
If you haven’t checked out a modern Mini in the last few years, you’re in for a bit of a treat. There’s a stack of the latest tech on board, but it's still instantly recognisable as a Mini thanks to the iconic 8.8-inch circular infotainment screen mounted smack bang in the middle of the dash.
In keeping with the general fun factor around this brand, there’s also plenty of bling about the cabin. I’m a fan of the old-school toggle switches, and the fact that the Mini gets its own version of parent company BMW’s benchmark iDrive infotainment system.
The materials are mostly first rate, too, with a semi-premium look and feel in the JCW versions, especially the aggressively bolstered sports seats in a soft Alcantara-like/fabric combination. Oddly enough, the driving position itself doesn’t feel especially low, but they’re magic over long stints with zero back pain or discomfort, even after 1500km of driving over three days.
Don’t get me wrong, the Mini might have put on a few kilos over the years, but alongside an original Mini Cooper – as was the case on arrival at the ’Ring – you realise our JCW is literally twice the size.
The fact is, there’s no getting around it with today’s safety requirements and mandatory crash protection systems. Nonetheless, it’s still a genuine triumph of retro design, but also loaded to the hilt with modern kit like wireless Apple CarPlay – a godsend given the sheer distance I needed to cover over the next 72 hours, not to mention the various last-minute excursions that inevitably pop up during trips like this.
The integrated navigation system worked a treat, too, once the language was switched from German to English. The fact there’s daylight in Germany until around 10:30pm this time of year is a bonus, making the journey far more interesting given the picturesque landscape of rolling hills and age-old castles that dot the countryside.
The map showed a distance of 537km and more than five hours' drive time, accounting for holiday traffic and of course race weekend itself. Time to crack on.
Regardless of the distance, though, this wasn’t going to be a long drive. Not in Germany, where general traffic often averages speeds between 140–160km/h (despite the signposted limit of either 120–130km/h), and that’s not the fast lane, either.
But, that’s not for us. Not today. Instead, we’ll be glued to the far-left lane exclusively while winding it out at close to top speed the very instant we enter the unrestricted zones.
For those who’ve never experienced Germany’s Autobahn system, it can be daunting and all a bit surreal. It is, as the signpost symbolises, no speed restrictions whatsoever on these sections. However, they’re often short-lived due to junctions or, more typically, roadworks these days.
While it took us a while to actually leave the press car facility, it was only a matter of minutes before we were merging onto the Autobahn and seeing what the Mini JCW had to offer. The Sport setting is a given, as is manual paddle-shifting, before properly laying into the right pedal with a fair amount of commitment, as is demanded in the left-hand lane.
Mind you, after strict adherence to the significantly lower speed limits back home in Australia, driving in Germany requires a seriously fast recalibration of your cognitive wiring in order for 200km/h-plus to feel strangely normal, or in some cases not enough.
That said, it’s in these conditions where the hi-po Mini feels properly rapid, and almost never outgunned by more powerful executive-class machines bent on showing the piccolo-size Mini a clean set of rear tyres.
As you build up to speeds of around 170–200km/h, you tend to keep your eyes front and centre in the straight-ahead position, thereby resisting the urge to look down at the instrument display to check the indicated speed.
That’s where the Mini’s super-bright HUD (head-up display) comes in very handy, not that you have to worry about your speed over here, but it’s nice to know you’ve cracked the 200km/h mark. Amazingly, on some stretches it’s too slow and you start to push on to 230–245km/h, but even then it’s not uncommon to have to pull to the right allowing faster vehicles to pass.
It’s surprising just how stable the JCW is at these speeds. There’s very little movement at the front end, allowing the driver to keep the right foot pinned with absolute confidence, even in those long sweeping bends that so often link the unrestricted sections on the Autobahn.
I thought about using Active Cruise Control, but because of the high speeds you tend to overlook that feature. And, besides, travelling at this kind of pace naturally spikes your adrenaline levels and sharpens your attentiveness. At least, that’s my experience.
Within what seemed like 20 minutes I’m passing Ingolstadt (Audi-town as it could be referred to), a must-stop destination for car enthusiasts and fans of the brand. No time today, though, as I keep my foot into it en route to Nuremburg, the second-largest city in Bavaria after Munich.
I was keen to high-tail it on to Frankfurt, which is just a hop-skip-and-jump from my final destination at the Nürburgring. We were making good time, but I’m watching the fuel gauge like a hawk at this point. The factory claim is 6.9L/100km, but at these speeds we’re using more like 11.3L/100km combined, though that’s exactly what I expected.
In the end, we only made one fuel stop, but that was more about range anxiety (the petrol kind) and not wanting to deviate from the route if things got desperate on that front. And besides, there’s no point in backing off in Germany, not once you’re in the groove and thoroughly enjoying driving off the leash.
Right pedal flat, and away we go again. The car sits dead flat in Sport regardless of how fast you’re going thanks to adaptive dampers. Ride comfort is excellent, too, even on the standard-fit 18-inch run-flats.
Yes, there’s more compliance in Comfort mode, but then again you’ve got to go far and wide to find anything less than a smooth, unbroken road in these parts. Makes you wonder how on earth the guys that build roads back home can get it so wrong. But that’s another story entirely.
If I wanted to nitpick, it would be about the relatively numb steering feel. It’s not a deal-breaker, but I’d like to feel exactly what the front wheels are doing, especially once you leave the Autobahn and start attacking the B-roads.
The sign says ‘Nürburgring 17km’ and the road is a series of perfectly smooth twists and turns with zero traffic – prompting a quick knock of the shifter over to the left, thereby engaging manual shift mode. The Mini is more at home here, though my 32-inch suitcase is starting to cause havoc, so an all-out corner-carving session is put on hold until another time.
Arriving at the Nürburgring early Friday evening in time for the official ADAC Total 24h-Rennen it's unbelievably busy, but the Mini John Cooper Works GP heritage display was front and centre at the central roundabout, along with a camouflaged prototype of the next-generation version.
The sheer variety of cars and bikes belonging to drivers and spectators is a feast for the eyes and a veritable car show all on its own. There’s plenty of other stuff on show, but the best viewing is at some of the OEM stands, and in particular the Mercedes-AMG stand, or should I say village, because it’s huge and inundated with punters. And with good reason given the spectacular display of road and GT race cars.
The full-blown GT3 racer with its bright-orange paint job was insane and made the GT Pro look positively meek by comparison. Then there was the matte-black G63, but the highlight was the BMW/Falken Tyres drift display using a collection of Bimmers including E30s – if you could see through the smoke from so much burning rubber.
The big surprise was meeting Charlie Cooper, the grandson of the original JCW founder, John Cooper. He is a fantastic ambassador for the brand and a genuinely nice guy, who also happens to race in the occasional Mini Challenge Race series, as well as running an electric bike company. Busy guy.
Click through to our Culture section for a sequel to this story – a drive from the Nürburgring to Belgium’s brilliant Spa Circuit and a track day to rival anything I’ve ever done, including the ’Ring itself.