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

Evo - - CONTENTS - Will Beau­mont (@Will­beau­mont)

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.