Mini makes some great cars. The standard hatch is peppy and fun, while the S models give you silly grunt and big smiles. The next step up, the John Cooper Works (JCW), gives you more hardcore kit, more power and a car that can trouble most other things on the road. Mini decided that it wasn't quite enough and created the JCW Challenge, the most hardcore Mini you can buy today.
What's different about it from a standard JCW? It's slightly aesthetically altered from the base car (no bad thing), but that's only the start of things. Under the skin there's adjustable Nitron dampers, a proper Quaife differential, an antisocially loud exhaust (adjustable by Bluetooth, because reasons), vented and grooved brakes mixing with Mintex pads, 17-inch lightweight wheels (worth 5 pounds a corner), adjustable ride height (from the factory, it's 20mm lower at the rear and 40mm at the front) and camber. It even comes with a set of super-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires -- the same you get on Porsche's 911 GT3 RS. So it's pretty hardcore from the off.
The JCW Challenge's engine is the same as the base JCW, so you get a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine with 228 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. The Challenge weighs a whole 33 pounds more than the base car, but it's better setup so 0-62mph takes the same 6.3 seconds. Oh, and it only comes with a six-speed stick shift.
You buy the Challenge as a complete package -- there are no options outside or in. Cloth interior, silver paint, no satnav...this isn't a car for pootling around town. It's for spanking around a track and having fun.
The people who made the Challenge a reality have all raced in Mini's own one-make Challenge race series. That's why they know the mechanical upgrades work -- they've used them at the limit. A small chunk of credit needs to be thrown to the UK's Evo magazine. The team was involved with creating the brief for the car and aided the later stages of development as well. Evo's boys know a thing or two about fast, fun cars so they were ideal real-world types to bring on board.
Only 100 will be sold, all in the UK for £32,000 (around $45,400). Considering the UK is a nation of people who like small cars, especially fast ones, that's no huge surprise.
Now, there happened to be one at Goodwood Circuit in the UK with an empty driver's seat and a chap willing to ride shotgun. Only four laps of the legendary circuit were allowed, but that's enough for a first impression.
Only a few details make it stand out from the regular JCW inside. The lack of leather (something pretty much everyone specs) isn't jarring, because once you fire it up and hear its bark you focus only on the act of hammering it around and giggling like a loon.
Sport mode, the only mode it should be in, keeps the throttle sharp and the steering pleasingly heavy. It's just as urgent in a straight line as the JCW, but feels more so thanks to the extra noise the tailpipe spews out. It crackles when you lift off, surges forward when you pin the go pedal.
Straight line performance is one thing, but it's the corners where the Challenge stands out. Where a normal JCW gets jittery on a high speed corner exit, or heavy braking in to a tight corner, the Challenge remains composed. Mid-bend you can feel the diff doing its thing and dragging the car round cleanly to allow for as quick a lap as you can muster. Chances are you'll lose your bottle before the Mini will, as you have to go at silly speeds to unsettle it.
The standard JCW can feel a bit soft and squidgy, whereas the Challenge is immensely stiff. It doesn't lean in to corners as much, nor do you feel weight shift as obviously under acceleration.
Its steering feels much more direct as you wang it in to a bend, much more responsive and composed compared to the normal car. While it isn't perfect by any means, it's still not bad. If you want race car steering, buy a race car.
Your gears are controlled by three pedals and your left hand, a wonderful thing to have in a modern car. The shift is light, perhaps a bit too easy, as is the clutch. Sport mode does rev the engine for you on downshifts, so barrelling towards a fast bend is slightly easier to deal with if you're that way inclined. Around the fast Goodwood circuit it was only necessary to use third and fourth thanks to the massive lumps of torque on offer from its smooth, linear engine. It's not a rev monster, but good enough for what it does.
Stopping isn't a problem either. The new brakes are much more responsive than the base car, though they take a while to get used to, once you're there they're magic -- easy to modulate, a joy to use.
Finally, the new rubber. It offers so much grip. Despite a damp circuit and a touch of early bravado, they felt grippy to the end. Push too hard and they'll give up, obviously, but the base car's shoes would have given up the ghost a long time before the Challenge.
Four laps of Goodwood isn't long, but it was enough to show how fantastic the Mini can be as a proper track car with the right knowhow behind the scenes. Here's hoping this is only the first Challenge road car and that they make more than 100 next time round.