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Mini would like you to think it's saved the best of its third-generation Hardtop models for last with this 2021 John Cooper Works GP. Limited to just 3,000 units worldwide, the performance-focused GP sends the third-generation Mini Hardtop out in style, with aggressive bodywork, a more powerful engine and a reworked suspension making it the most potent road-going Mini to date. Yet it's not quite going out with a bang.
The first thing you can't help but notice about the limited-edition Mini GP are its additional exterior touches. The front apron, lip spoiler and honking double-decker rear wing are exclusive to the GP. They're all functional, too, providing additional downforce over the standard John Cooper Works Hardtop. The carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic wheel arch panels sporting each car's production number are also more than just for aesthetics, covering the wider track and optimizing airflow around the sides.
Combine all that with a Racing Gray Metallic paint job, contrasting Melting Silver Metallic roof and Chili Red accents, and the GP certainly looks like a hi-po Mini should. Sure, the rear wing and side panels may be garish to some, but you can get away with a couple of over-the-top touch visual pieces on a Mini. And remember, it's all functional.
The hardcore theme continues inside. Like previous Mini GPs, the rear seats are gone, to save weight. There's a red aluminum cross-brace behind the leather- and microfiber-trimmed sport seats. Without the back seats, there's 33.4 cubic feet of cargo space, good for weekly grocery trips -- or a track box, jack and spare tire for trekking out to open track days. Other cabin changes include a numbered dash trim panel, GP-specific digital instrument cluster graphics and a Nappa-leather-wrapped steering wheel with substantial 3D-printed metal shift paddles.
If you're hoping for gobs of infotainment and advanced safety technology, the GP isn't for you. The Mini Connected infotainment system runs on an 8.8-inch touchscreen with navigation with real-time traffic info, a six-speaker audio setup, Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay, but not Android Auto. The center screen isn't the most responsive to inputs, though, often requiring a couple of taps for commands to register.
Power points for charging phones, however, are plentiful for a two-seater, with a USB-A, USB-C, 12-volt outlets and a wireless charging pad on offer. As for safety tech, there's the federally mandated backup camera and that's it.
While the regular JCW Hardtop's 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 pumps out 228 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, the GP gets the 2.0-liter powerplant found in the JCW Clubman and JCW Countryman. This better engine has upgraded pistons, connecting rods, crankshaft and more boost for a total of 301 hp and 331 pound-feet of torque. With the eight-speed automatic transmission, the GP will hit 60 mph in 5 seconds, besting the 5.9-second run of a base JCW Hardtop.
Oh, and you read that right: The GP has an automatic transmission. Unlike its predecessors, the latest GP doesn't route power to its front wheels through a manual transmission, and one isn't available, either. To driving purists -- not to mention the 46% of Mini JCW Hardtop customers who purchase manuals -- the slush box is a colossal letdown, but necessary from a business standpoint. Mini didn't have a manual transmission in its parts bin capable of handling the output of this engine, and the cost in developing and certifying one for a limited-production run wouldn't fly with the bean-counters.
So, for a GP to happen with this engine, it had to be paired with an Aisin-sourced automatic. To Mini's credit, the company did a respectable job giving it sportier shift programming -- something I appreciated while blitzing around GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Michigan. Activating Sport mode and leaving the transmission in fully automatic mode has the gearbox holding onto gears all the way to redline before ripping off smooth, quick upshifts. These aren't dual-clutch-quick gear-changes, but quite good for a torque-converter automatic. Manual mode features responsive upshifts through the paddles, with just a millisecond delay when downshifting.
The engine is strong, delivering consistent pull throughout the rev range with peak torque available between 1,750 and 4,000 rpm. The GP rapidly pulls out of corners and barrels down straights. Cracking 125 mph down GingerMan's back straight is easy, and feels super-fast in this little car. The one complaint I have about the engine is the exhaust note, which has a high-pitch drone at wide-open-throttle. It's not annoying, but simply not ear-pleasing.
As always, power is nothing without control and the Mini GP has a pretty darn good handle on dynamics. Additional underbody bracing and a front strut tower bar stiffen the chassis, while the suspension features a 1.4-inch front and 0.9-inch rear wider track, uprated springs, dampers, antiroll bars, increased wheel camber and a 0.4-inch lower ride height. The whole package rides on slick-looking 18-inch forged wheels wrapped with Hankook Ventus S1 Evo Z tires.
All that sounds like a recipe for riot around a track, but the Mini's Hankook tires prove to be a limiting factor. Turn-in is slightly muted and through gradual corners understeer rears its ugly head as the front tires howl attempting to hang on for dear life. For slower, sharp complexes, getting the rear to rotate can be done if you chuck it in hard, which is promising. After three short sessions around GingerMan, the signs of rollover on the front tires are evident, and a looming 150-mile return trip back to metro Detroit means I'm forced to take it easy around the 2.2-mile road course.
That's a shame, too. The GP's steering is fairly direct and communicative even with these tires. Side-to-side weight transfers are good, stability control tuning is excellent and the brakes stay strong with pedal travel only getting a touch longer at the end of a day of lapping. If fitted with tires with more robust sidewalls, there's little doubt that the GP will shine much brighter around a track and probably excel on an autocross course.
Away from the track, this potent Mini is a rough rider. Given the GP's mission in life, I expect that bigger ruts and potholes are going to be felt in the cabin. The brakes are interesting, with very light engagement at the top of the pedal stroke before abruptly clamping down. This makes it difficult to stop smoothly from lower speeds causing me to apologize to a couple of passengers on a few occasions for less-than-smooth stops.
The drivetrain is rather economical given its output, with the EPA estimating that the 2.0T will return 24 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. In mixed driving, I observed fuel economy in the high 20s, and when cruising on the freeway out to the GingerMan, I easily exceeded the EPA's highway estimates, returning over 35 mpg.
Is the 2021 Mini John Cooper Works GP truly the best third-generation Hardtop? Yes and no. Yes, if you're looking at it from a numbers standpoint. It's the most powerful production Hardtop to date, hits 60 mph in 5 seconds, and clocked in a sub-8-minute lap time around Germany's Nurburgring Nordschleife, beating the second-generation GP by nearly 30 seconds.
On the other hand, it's missing a manual transmission, which really takes away from the driver-engagement factor. While it is entertaining to drive on track and twisty roads, it isn't what I'd call a blast. It's been more than a decade since the first-gen GP came out, and I still remember driving that car, grinning ear-to-ear, working the manual and feeling like an integral part of the experience. I don't think I'll remember this car half as fondly -- if at all -- 10 years from now.
If you want to put a new GP in your garage, it'll cost you $45,750, including $850 for destination. You won't need to worry about options because there aren't any, but you'll want to run to your Mini dealer right now. Of the 3,000 units, only around 500 have been earmarked for the US, and a Mini spokesperson tells us many have already been spoken for. Personally, I'd probably skip the Mini and scope out a Honda Civic Type R instead, or just troll Craigslist for a clean first-gen GP.