This most hardcore Mini to date was developed with help from evo. After 12,000 miles with one, we look back at what made it so special – and also so polarising
Our Lexus RC F and Audi RS5 face-off in a coupe battle, it’s goodbye Mini JCW Challenge and Focus ST, and does our GT-R really represent progress?
THERE WERE SOME SMALL THINGS that I really liked about our Mini John Cooper Works Challenge. That you could change gear without the cruise control automatically pausing. That when you disabled the stop/start system it remained off, even for your next journey. That the automatic wipers stayed on automatic even if you did a single wipe. That the simple radio had physical buttons and dials rather than a touchscreen.
But as useful and as pleasing as those aspects were day-to-day, the Challenge was at its best when driven on great roads. So it made sense to give it a proper send-off by taking it to some of our favourite roads in Wales.
Like every iteration of ‘new’ Mini so far, the Challenge felt so right before it had even turned a wheel. The ergonomics were brilliant: the seat could go low, the steering wheel could be pulled out and angled to the perfect position, the gearknob atop the tall-looking lever was close to your left hand, and the pedals were nicely spaced for heel-and-toe downchanges. Ironically, the Challenge could rev-match for you, and the only way to disable the automatic throttle blip was to turn the stability control fully off, but that was something you could do without worry thanks to the huge amount of grip from the chassis and the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres.
The Challenge’s control weights were excellently judged, too. I particularly liked the heavier steering in Sport mode, as it helped calm my steering inputs so I didn’t overwork the alert front end. It also made the throttle feel more urgent, helping with heel-and-toeing even further, and added some juvenile pops and bangs from the exhaust. These could be made even louder thanks to the system’s switchable element – a Bluetooth-enabled flap controlled by a canister-like button in the cabin – at which point the car sounded like it had anti-lag. The noises were obnoxious, over the top, and so entertaining. They also gave the engine some much-needed character: the 228bhp 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder was smooth and torquey and made the Challenge properly fast, but it was also not that keen to reach its disappointingly low, not-quite-6500rpm rev-limiter.
But even if this Mini had the most exciting engine imaginable, it’s still the chassis that would have been the most memorable part of the car. The most contentious, too. Yes it was firm, but that uncompromising ride really allowed you to work the sticky tyres. When the road was dry it felt as if you could amplify
a tyre’s grip as you put pressure onto that corner of the car, almost like you were driving through layers of rubber until you found the tyre’s super-soft core. On cold tarmac, or over wet patches like those I encountered on my farewell drive, it was less confidence-inspiring, and the stiff chassis meant the tyres didn’t transmit an awful lot of information before they let go. In fact, you only really knew the grip levels once the car had already broken away, but because I tweaked our Challenge’s chassis to suit my driving style, it at least reacted in a predictable and manageable way.
By experimenting with our car’s set-up I learnt that there was enough adjustment in the suspension and the Nitron dampers for it to be taliored to your tastes – making it either edgier or safer, depending on what you preferred – but not enough to dramatically
alter the car and make it feel like a totally different animal. Sadly, at a Mini Challenge trackday at Brands Hatch, a Nitron engineer told me that, rather than giving advice on specific track and road settings, they’d actually just been encouraging owners to adjust their car’s set-up for the first time. It seems most of them hadn’t touched the dampers at all since buying their car, let alone found their preferred settings. That’s a real shame, as it wasn’t until I played around with the damper stiffness, ride height and tyre pressures that I started to really fall for the car.
Not everyone at evo was won over by the Challenge, though, not even the Challenge running on my settings. And even though I did enjoy it, I have to agree that it was too stiff. Not too stiff to be fun, not too stiff to live with (for me, anyway), but if the suspension
had been softer the car would have worked on a wider range of roads and, potentially, been even more entertaining more of the time. Maybe a solution would be to have softer dampers and springs with stiffer, or adjustable, anti-roll bars.
But I still thought our Challenge showed signs of pure brilliance far more often than it was frustrating. (The only time it really frustrated me was when it spent six months back at Mini waiting for the production-spec dampers to arrive to replace our car’s prototype units.) Whether it was perfect or not, the Challenge proved one thing: that the current Mini can be fun – something even the regular JCW version has struggled with. If it’s a taste of what to expect from the next GP, then we should be very excited indeed.
‘ Yes it was firm, but that uncompromising ride really allowed you to work the sticky tyres’
Above: damper stiffness was adjustable through a range of ‘clicks’. Above
right: engine itself lacked character, but its exhaust didn’t. Top: driving position could be adjusted to perfection. Left: one last blast on some great roads