uned Minis have always been a part of my life. In fact they were imprinted on my DNA well before I was born, thanks to my dad having an early Mini in the mid-’60s that he tweaked to look, go and sound the part. I can remember looking at fuzzy Kodak photos of that car – Old English White with a black roof and black Minilites – and knowing that I too would have a snorty Mini one day.

When that day came – or rather when I talked my mum into selling me her nearly new Mini and then spent all my money on hotting it up over a period of years – I couldn’t have been happier, or driven it with more enthusiasm. Anything that puts a premium on handling over straight-line performance is a drivers’ car, right? And no car enjoys corners more than an original Mini.

Those formative years mean I’ve always had a bit of a soft-spot for the BMW Mini. I’ve run a couple as evo long-termers and enjoyed many memorable drives in them on road and track. There’s just something about them that gets under your skin, a kind of infectious enthusiasm that unfailingly eggs you on. The car may have changed beyond all recognition since the Issigonis-designed original, but something of that car’s energy has been passed down through the ages.

Two generations of Mini GP have proved what potential can be released – plenty, as it transpires – but this new JCW Challenge goes several steps beyond anything we’ve seen before. It’s not as extreme a proposition from a usability standpoint, as it retains the rear seats, but in drawing from experience gained in the Mini one-make race programme, and partnering with specialist component suppliers, the limited-edition Challenge is Mini’s most concerted effort to bring race-car edge and attitude to a road-going car.

If you’ve been following the development story of the Challenge, you’ll know that evo has a vested interest, with road test editor Dan Prosser and contributing editor Jethro Bovingdon both having hands-on roles at key stages in the programme. Knowing their taste in cars, and knowing how good a well-sorted Mini can be, I’m unusually excited to be the first to try the finished article.

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First impressions are very encouraging. People like you and me will recognise there’s something special about the Challenge, but its signals are subtle enough to pass by the casual observer. A nudge of camber here, 40mm off the front ride height, 20mm from the rear, 17-inch wheels with a bit of extra width, and tyre sidewalls bearing the same Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 legend as a Porsche 991 GT3 RS. It looks the part without having to draw attention to itself.

The big news with the Challenge is the chassis, which has new springs, adjustable Nitron dampers, thicker anti-roll bars and those lighter, wider Team Dynamics rims wearing Cup 2 tyres. Two settings for the manually adjustable dampers are recommended by Mini – one for road, one for track – but owners can experiment for themselves. This car is running the suggested road settings and the low-speed ride is unashamedly jiggly. You’re left in no doubt that this is a serious car, but there’s enough give to soften the sharpest edges. At speed the Challenge remains lively, especially on less than smooth roads. The wheels don’t leave the ground, but the car can get itself into a bit of a pogo motion through awkwardly spaced bumps.

Fortunately there are Sport and Track modes to add some zip. Personally I think a car like the Challenge should be in Sport mode as a default, with the option of switching to Normal or Eco, for it’s what the car is all about. In truth you’ll always want to drive in Sport. Actually I think you’ll want to drive in Track mode, though this will mean ignoring the little dog-tag hanging from the natty remote switch that you have to press to engage the most aggressive mode. The tag warns you that Track is not approved for road use, though I can only assume this is because it makes the exhaust louder and unleashes a fusillade of snaps, crackles and pops when you back off the throttle. It really does transform the Challenge into a little firecracker.

The uprated brakes (330mm discs and four-piston Brembo calipers with bespoke Mintex pads) are palpably sharper and stronger than those they replace. There’s immediate bite and a ton of stopping power, so you always have utmost confidence in your ability to wipe off speed quicker than you can gain it. If there’s a criticism it’s that while they clearly have the power to stand the Mini on its nose, they don’t have an abundance of feel. Coupled to a firm pedal that’s slightly mismatched to the height of the throttle pedal, this means it’s trickier than it should be to execute smooth heel-and-toe downshifts. There is an auto-blip function, but that’s not the point!

If you happen to be accelerating hard you also have torque-steer to contend with, courtesy of the new Quaife limited-slip differential. It takes a bit of hanging on to, but there’s no doubting its effectiveness. You can get on the power really early in tight corners, putting every scrap of power and torque into the road, and you know you’ve got the whole thing singing when the car tightens its line as the diff really starts to work. On a fast, twisting, bumpy road you’ll be working hard, but if you’re prepared to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in, the rewards are there for the taking. There’s plenty of grip and the balance is inherently neutral, but it’s nicely throttle adjustable, so you can tweak your line mid-corner, or back it in with a lift on turn-in.

The engine remains unchanged from the regular JCW. That’s to say 228bhp and 236lb ft of torque. Given the Challenge weighs 1215kg, that’s a lively power-to-weight ratio and means a 0-60mph time in the low 6s, but the turbocharged motor is typically linear in its delivery, with a modest red line. In fact it’s pretty much done and dusted by 6000rpm, which is the way of the world these days, and a little disappointing. The tall gearing doesn’t help the cause, either. Extend fourth gear to the red line and you’re doing a good 115mph (where safe and legal to do so, obviously), so if you want to feel like you’re working the car hard and not relying on mid-range torque, your fun is confined to the first three gears of the manual ’box.

So the JCW Challenge isn’t perfect, but by definition a car with this set of priorities is not meant for everyone. By shifting the focus from all-round competence to sharply focused capability, it’s inevitable some qualities are sacrificed along the way. The Challenge is just such a car. The ride is never less than busy, and can be combative on bumpy A- and B-roads. The brakes are sharp, the diff tugs and pulls on cambers, surface changes and white lines and the engine only really gives its best in Track mode. If that paints a picture of a car that can be hard work to live with then you’ve read me correctly. But. When the planets align and you find a great piece of road with no traffic, it really comes together to raise its game in a way no other Mini does. It gives you moments to savour and puts a smile on your face.

Yes, it’s boisterous, but it has an energy and intent that’s very clearly aimed at those of us who are prepared to give a little, or even a lot, in terms of daily civility for a gain in aggression, response, ability and enjoyment. I’ll have to wait to drive the Challenge on track, but rather like an RS Renault, or even an RS Porsche, I don’t feel the need to drive it hard, or indeed drive it on track, to fall for what it does, how it does it, what it represents and what making that choice says about me.

If there’s a general criticism to level at BMW’s Mini it’s the overt marketing and non-threatening, female-friendly image. It’s a strategy that’s worked brilliantly for the brand, but rightly or wrongly it has also got in the way of the JCW’s credentials as a bone fide drivers’ car. OK, a bone fide blokes’ car. The GP special editions offered a more extreme driving experience, but their overwrought styling has proved a distraction.

The JCW Challenge feels like a departure from that. A more authentic, no nonsense, no excuses, drive-it-to-the-Nürburgring-and-kick-ass kind of hot hatch. A £30k-plus price tag is big money for a Mini, but true special-series cars built in relative handfuls (only 100 Challenges will leave Plant Oxford) don’t come cheap. The development team – including Prosser and Bovingdon – wanted to create a road car with the feel and character of a race car. They wanted to give us a Mini with motorsport pedigree, fit to stand alongside today’s breed of hardcore hot hatch. I’m pleased to say they’ve delivered. The boys done good.

Mini John Cooper
Works Challenge

Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1998cc, turbo
CO2 155g/km
Power228bhp @ 5200-6000rpm
Torque236lb ft @ 1250-4800rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, adjustable dampers, anti‑roll bar
Brakes Ventilated 330mm front discs, solid 280mm rear discs
Wheels 17in front and rear
Tyres 215/45 R17 front and rear
Weight 1215kg
Power-to-weight191bhp/ton
0-62mph 6.3sec (claimed)
Top speed 152mph (claimed)
Price £32,000
evo rating:
★★★★★

some like it
hotter

With the current John Cooper Works missing the mark for people like us, Mini has created a more focused version, the JCW Challenge. And evo had a hand in its development. So, did we get it right?

by henry catchpole
PHOTOGRAPHY by ASTON PARROTT

‘The exhaust unleashes a fusillade of snaps, crackles and pops when you back off’

‘On a great road it comes together to raise its game in a way no other Mini does’