An expensive but entertaining, intriguing and very usable road-going track car whose rarity may eventually underwrite its high price

What is it?

If you have a liking for beautifully finished, high-precision tuning parts, then the pieces laid out on a table deep within the Mini factory at Oxford might just get you mildly excited. On display is a quartet of four blue coil springs, a pair of these Nitron coilovers, all four of them height-adjustable. Also present – and a surprisingly heavy thing to lift – is the flanged, step-domed shape of a Quaife automatic torque-biasing limited-slip differential.

Absent from the table, for reasons of weight and bulk, is the carbonfibre-tipped JCW Pro sports exhaust whose straight-through valve is operated by remote Bluetooth controller, a set of drilled and grooved disc brakes and four lightweight Team Dynamics 17in gloss black-coated alloy wheels and their Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. Also missing are a pair of camber-adjustable top mounts. All these components belong to the new Mini John Cooper Works Challenge, an ultra-low-production, highly specialized version of the JCW aimed at enthusiasts who want an everyday hot hatch that can also be used for serious track day work.

Partly the brainchild of Mini UK brand boss Nikolaus Griebner, this BMW-era Mini derivative is unusual for having been developed entirely in the UK, in a workshop called Building 71 that also prepares some of the Mini racers several employees campaign in the Challenge series. As you might gather from the tally of components, this is a Mini aimed directly at the (very) keen driver. "I want John Cooper Works to be the first address for enthusiasts of hot hatches," says Griebner, a racer himself and a man who clearly has his sights set on winning away some Renault Sport and hot Ford business.

The basic idea was to build a JCW Mini that’s closer in character to the Mini Challenge race car developed in 2014, which is, according to Griebner, like a small touring car. "So why not link the two?" he says. "I drove both and thought we could do something." That something involved a conversation with Oxford-based Mini development engineers Jim Loukes and Chris Fryer, resulting in the trio hatching a plan to sharpen a Mini JCW hatch with Challenge racer parts, although with the difference being that this car would be usable every day despite its track ambitions.

Which is why the rear seat remains despite the absence of such furniture in the limited-edition Mini JCW GP, the 17in wheels are not the biggest a Mini can wear and the non-run-flat tyres have surprisingly tall sidewalls, these last two selections aimed at delivering an acceptably pliant ride. The spring rates are unchanged for the same reason, with an required extra firmness achieved via the adjustable - and refurbishable - Nitron dampers.

"We wanted an analogue feel, with more directness and closeness of feedback to the driver," says Griebner. "We also wanted a car that works not only on the track but also on the road. A hot hatch has to be usable as well as dynamic." Discussions with Mini Challenge race suppliers ensued, and by December last year the shopping list of parts had arrived, all bespoke and none available off the shelf, including the Nitron R1 dampers, whose firmness can be altered by twisting a small knob.

The front pair couldn’t be easier to adjust once you’ve opened the bonnet, but to alter the rears you must grub about under the Mini’s rear end and remove a protective sleeve before doing your twisting. It’s easy once your fingers know where to go, though. "At track days, you often find that you soon get to the limit," says Griebner. "With this car, it evolves with you to suit your needs." 

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Saving weight has also been a minor mission, which is why the Challenge only comes in one specification. So there’s air conditioning, but it’s the lighter, manually adjusted variety, and there’s no sat nav (it's a 4-5kg add-on, apparently). The result is that the Challenge weighs 1215kg, but it comes with Bluetooth, pleasingly grippy front seats, a bespoke handbook, tools for adjusting the front shockers and, rather unexpectedly, a spare set of narrower Pirelli P-Zero-shod alloys for winter.

Mini Challenge décor includes various JCW Pro accessories, including an aero pack and carbonfibre elements, and the body is decorated with stripes over the white silver metallic paint that is the only colour available.

What's it like?

The JCW Challenge doesn’t sound very different from standard unless you open the exhaust bypass valve (making it vociferous enough to be illegal on the road), but within metres you know this is a different kind of Mini from the way it negotiates bumps. You’ll certainly feel them, but they’re rounded off in the controlled manner of an expensively damped machine. Out on the open road the Challenge initially feels largely like a JCW hatch, not least because its 228bhp 2.0-litre turbo engine is unaltered. So you enjoy a broad band of mid-range torque but a surprisingly low 6000rpm rev limit that you could usefully be warned of with lights. Although this is not what you will notice come the first tight bend, in this case a quiet roundabout.

Throwing the Mini at it rapidly uncovers turn-in sharp enough to require lock initially to be wound off, and then again when the accelerator is sunk and the JCW enthusiastically tightens its line as the Quaife differential does its work, counter-intuitively pulling you deeper into the curve. A burst of speed is needed because we’re following Loukes and Fryer in their development car on roads as familiar to them as their desks, our brisk back-road pace soon showcasing a heap of grip, great balance, a bit of darting over camber changes and, yes, a wriggle of torque-steer. That could be criticised, except that it’s almost refreshing when so many modern hot hatchbacks are numbly inert. It fits this Mini’s livelier character.

It turns with a bit too much liveliness over successive crests, and is busier still when the dampers are twisted 10 clicks closer to their smooth circuit mode, in which setting the Challenge almost pogoes over the same stretch of road. So that’ll be too stiff, then. That’s part of the finding-out fun of this car, of course, as is an exhaust that sounds like small-arms gunfire in Sport mode, a throttle that satisfyingly trims trajectories and reassuringly potent brakes.

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Should I buy one?

This is a Mini that requires effort to drive hard but delivers loads of exhilarating reward. And it needs to, at a price almost £9000 higher than for the standard, not-quite-lively-enough JCW.

Despite the price hike, Mini won’t be making money on the Challenge, which is homologated using UK National Small Series Type Approval, allowing up to 75 cars to be made annually. In fact, only 50 are scheduled for 2016, with maybe another 50 after that. Which should mean excellent residual values and for Mini, says Griebner, "a fantastic way to test the market". Now that sounds promising.

Mini John Cooper Works Challenge 

Location Oxfordshire; On sale Now; Price £32,000; Engine 4 cyls, 1998cc turbo petrol; Power 228bhp at 5200rpm; Torque 236lb ft at 1250-4800rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1215kg; 0-62mph 6.3sec; Top speed 153mph; Economy 42.2mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 155g/km, 28%

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bowsersheepdog 31 July 2016

A crazy thought?

Being as how they're called Mini, why don't they make a small version?