2017 Mini JCW Challenge review: Mini road racer, maxi price
How good would a Mini hatch have to be to be worth £32,000 of your finest pounds? Very, very good. Stratospherically good. I mean, that’s a Ford Focus RS or a BMW M140i, or a VW Golf R or a… You get the picture.
Well, that’s what the UK-only Mini Cooper JCW Challenge is up against, but it does have some justification for that, since it’s got proper race car bits underneath that familiar bodywork. Most critically, you get Nitron coilover suspension with adjustable ride height, damper rates and camber and castor angle, while the brakes are by Mintex and the limited-slip diff by Quaife (in place of the standard JCW’s open diff).
So let’s recap here. This is a 228bhp, 2.0-litre turbocharged car that’s been gifted with the significant parts from the official Mini Challenge race car, and has then been thrown out there to the British public as a honed track and road special.
A flying brick
We only got the opportunity to drive the Mini JCW Challenge on road, sadly, but it did bring to mind that old quote about how bumblebees have the aerodynamics of a brick and shouldn’t, according to the laws of physics, be able to fly.
Well, the JCW Challenge is an automotive bumblebee. It doesn’t look like it should be capable of being as aggressive as it is on turn-in. As clean to get its power down as you squeeze the throttle back on. As generally bombastic and keyed-in as it is. Yet the proof is right there for you to fling enthusiastically around every corner, which the Challenge sort of demands you do at all times.
The suspension is the real star of this show. Compared to the standard JCW, it is really quite transformative to the precision and responses that the Mini delivers. There's way less understeer, and a generally more neutral, planted attitude that only seems to respond with more grip the more vigorously you treat it.
And yet, for all that, it also still delivers a pliant, well-controlled ride comfort even on poor roads and with cornering forces involved.
It’s a shame that steering is still a little less than perfect – a bit vague when you’re dialled into a corner and wanting lots of feedback, and characterised by an initial response that feels artificially quick to give that Mini dartiness. That works well in the ‘lesser’ Minis, but given the racing roots of the Challenge, it feels that the steering also needs upgrading to really make the most of that wonderfully game chassis and the standard Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres.
The gearbox and engine are well-suited to the Challenge. The standard rev-match feature of the six-speed manual does a good job of making you look (and sound) like a hero, while the 2.0-litre turbocharged motor delivers exuberant performance, albeit with a bit of turbo lag and slightly soft throttle response to negotiate even in Sport mode.
So much fun, but so hard to see why you would.
So, the Mini is wicked fun, but it is not perfect. Far from it. In fact, it’s got loads of tyre and wind noise that booms around the cabin most of the time, it tramlines quite a bit, and there’s a rather aftermarket feel to aspects of the cabin – most notably the exhaust switch.
Push said switch and you can merrily terrorise pedestrians and other road users with what has to be one of the most anti-social, if entertaining, overrun pop-and-bang soundtracks south of a lairy V8. It’s great fun for a while, but so is listening to somebody repeatedly fire a shotgun into air; after a while, it’s going to get tiresome. So it's good that you can turn it down, because you'll probably want to, otherwise tinnitus will likely kick in and drown it out anyway.
For all that, we love the Mini JCW Challenge. It’s got such an overabundance of cheeky, wanton enthusiasm to it, all finished with a tinge of grown-up brilliance endowed in it by the chassis upgrades. You can’t help but drive it everywhere like you’re aiming for a personal best.
Obviously, though, you’d be a bit mad to buy one. After all, a Ford Focus RS is just as bombastic on road, not to mention way faster and frankly easier to live with. Plus, you’d think that someone with £32,000 and enough of a penchant for track use that they want something with fully adjustable suspension would be looking to lighter, rear-wheel drive stuff.
There’s something to be said, mind, for the fact that the Mini can be used as a daily driver but then can be fettled easily to bring into focus its significant track potential. The appeal of that is pretty obvious.
Regardless, only 100 examples of the Challenge have been made, and only two of them are left, so clearly there are people who feel that the Challenge warrants its price.
Good for them. This is one of those cars that's a bit hard to justify with your head, even with the rarity factor and potentially good residual values factored in, but on every other level it pushes all the right buttons and then some.
Mini Cooper JCW Challenge
Engine: 1998cc, turbocharged, 4cyl
Layout: Front-engined, FWD
Gearbox: 6-spd manual
Power: 228bhp at 5200rpm
Torque: 236lb ft at 1250-4800rpm
0-62mph: 6.3 seconds
Top speed: 153mph
Economy: 42.2mpg (combined)