Situated about ninety minutes northwest of New York City in the Catskills is a private racetrack for car enthusiasts called the Monticello Motor Club. Lined up trackside is a row of Minis, including a tiny powderkeg called the Mini John Cooper Works GP. Also present is the new electric Mini Cooper SE sporting a kicky yellow trim and wheels patterns that emulates British electrical outlets.
sight in its entirety speaks to the enduring charm and mystique of this
BMW-owned brand, and both vehicles, on either end of the spectrum, bring the
brand full circle to its birth as a world-changing automobile.
1957, with Britain roiled by the Suez Crisis, threatening fuel supplies and
sparking an invasion of Egypt, Turkish-born designer Alec Issigonis (later “Sir
Alex”) had his breakthrough with the Mini: A car as small as possible on the
outside, as big as possible inside, with thrifty fuel economy and a modest
1959 Mini created a sensation and a driving cult, including among the nascent
“youth culture.” The tiny machine also became the Adam for tens of millions of
cars that imitated its then-novel front-wheel-drive, engine-turned-sideways
approach. Today, that describes the vast majority of small-to-midsize cars in showrooms
around the world; including crossovers and SUVs that start with a front-drive
platform but add AWD, either standard or as an option.
it took a Formula One racing owner, the late John Cooper, to recognize the
Mini’s split personality. In another stroke of genius, Cooper supplied a bigger
engine and brakes, and reworked the suspension. Suddenly, this “economy car”
became a giant killer of rally racing, including three wins at the famous Monte
Carlo Rally between 1964 and 1967.
Which brings us back to Monticello. A limited-edition version of the Mini hustles around the hilly, 4.1-mile circuit. It’s the JCW GP, the latest creation of John Cooper Works, the formerly independent tuning shop that now makes special, factory performance editions of every Mini model, including the four-door Clubman and Countryman subcompact SUV. The JCW GP also is the fastest, most powerful Mini in history, with 301 horsepower from a BMW-based, 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine.
Previous Minis have been quick, but this one is fast. Like kids playing with a Matchbox toys, it’s my turn to drive.
maxi Mini scampers to 60 mph in five seconds flat, and reaches an eye-peeling
165-mph top speed. Even with a pro instructor driving up front to keep pace in
check, I’m soon brushing 140 mph on Monticello’s longest straight. Then it’s
time to hammer the brakes to negotiate a fast uphill left-right, the Mini jouncing
over candy-striped curbing and gripping the pavement like mad. The instructor’s
brake lights flash the Union Jack pattern now found on all new Minis, an
Anglophile wink whenever an owner touches the pedal.
This is one of the cheeky design flourishes that characterize every Mini; the attention-to-detail that makes them different from the typical small car. “Cheeky” might also describe the car’s “GP”-lettered rear wing, a billboard-sized ad for the performance below. The wing’s inner surfaces are lacquered in pinkish-red, a nail-polish hue that’s repeated on the grille, front air splitter and doorsills. Mini executives swear the insane-looking wing is more than an attention-getter—that it really does generate aerodynamic downforce to pin the car to the pavement at lofty speeds.
Inside, tactile niceties include robust paddle shifters formed from 3D-printed metal. This also is the only JCW GP downer: Unlike the JCW’s two previous generations, you can’t get a manual transmission, only a capable eight-speed automatic gearbox. On public roads the Mini is less impressive, with volatile handling that breaks a driver’s concentration and makes precision a challenge. This JCW is relatively overpowered for a front-drive car, including its 332 pound-feet of torque. It produces a boatload of “torque steer,” or the tendency of powerful front-drive cars to twist the steering wheel in a driver’s hands and fight the intended path. During a previous drive in New York City, the JCW outfitted with extra-wide front tires required harnessing like a bucking bronco, the car squirming off course under power or over the mildest pavement imperfections. Honda’s competing performance-tuned Civic Type-R does a much better job of quelling these troublesome handling traits.
track, however, the JCW definitely advances Mini’s reputation for go-kart
thrills. Those thrills will set a buyer back $45,750. Yes, that’s a lot of
money for a Mini, but only 3,000 JCWs will be built for the world, with only 500
of them U.S.-bound. The rarity is underlined by a four-digit serial number—like
buying a rare art print—that’s emblazoned on the car’s carbon-fiber reinforced
fender skirts and an interior plaque. Our four on-track rides include the #0250
and #0302 cars. But all eyes turn to the #0001 car in the paddock, the first
JCW GP off the assembly line in Oxford, England.
That highly collectible #0001 model led Mini to another of its signature advertising and marketing gambits. Mini asked fans who had put down deposits to submit a 30.1-second video—or 0.1 seconds for each of the car’s 301 horsepower—explaining why they should become its proud owner. The winning video came from longtime Mini fanatic and YouTube Vlogger Nick Tubbs, of Ithaca, New York, who’s also on hand at Monticello.
all-new electric Mini Cooper SE nods more toward the brand’s original,
energy-saving roots. For nearly two in three buyers, this plug-in SE is their
first-ever Mini. The two-door hatchback coupe adopts a carryover version of the
battery electric motor and single-speed transmission from the BMW i3. The big
difference is that the 135-kilowatt motor powers the Mini’s front wheels,
versus the rears for the i3.
The electric Mini has been dinged in some quarters for its relatively scanty, official EPA driving range of 110 miles. In my extensive tests, including in Miami and New York, the Mini proved it can cover 130 miles or more in real-world use. That’s still less than half the miles a typical Tesla can travel. But there’s only so much battery that can fit into such a petite car. The 32.6-kilowatt pack stuffed below the floor is just one-third the size of the battery that powers a typical Tesla. As batteries are by far the most expensive component of an EV, the Mini’s 484-pound pack keeps a lid on both curb weight and monthly payments, and maintain the frisky handling for which it is famed.
3,153 pounds, the Cooper SE is one of the lightest EVs on the market. With a starting
price of $30,745 it’s also among the most affordable, especially compared with
the Chevrolet Bolt ($37,495) or Nissan Leaf Plus ($39,125)—two EVs that are
less luxurious and lack the sportiness offered by the electric Mini. After a
$7,500 federal tax credit, the Cooper SE’s base price falls to just $23,245, on
par with Toyota Corollas and other gas-powered econoboxes. Knock off up to
$4,000 more in credits from states like California or Colorado, and fans in
those EV hotbeds could own this Mini for around $20,000.
makes the electric version an appealing, zero-emissions choice for commuting,
city driving, errands or weekend joy rides. Executives also underline that, for
78 percent of current owners, a Mini is either the second, third or even the
fourth car in their household.
“We don’t need to be apologetic about the range,” said Patrick McKenna, head of marketing and product planning for Mini USA. “Because it’s the second or third car, people can make this work.”
Americans have flocked to SUVs, and gas prices have tumbled, Mini sales have
dipped with them, down 17 percent last year to 36,092 units. The brand
responded to the SUV craze with the Countryman, its largest, roomiest model
yet, with available AWD. Even that Countryman is a foot shorter than a Corolla sedan.
For some Americans who obsess over third-row seating, a Mini isn’t for them.
But executives say that’s OK.
as now, Mini tends to shine brightly in times of crisis. That was true during
the first fuel shocks of the 1950’s, or America’s more-recent financial and
energy crises, when car buyers—at least momentarily—fled SUVs and discovered
the benefits of pint-sized, fun and efficient cars like the Mini.
been a bit of Darwinism at play,” McKenna said, with some automakers giving up
on cars entirely. Ford, which brought cars like the Euro-style Fiesta hatchback
to the U.S. after seeing the stunning rebirth of the Mini in 2002, has now
ditched every car in its lineup save the Mustang. Small cars are on-the-outs
again, and SUVs rule like never before. The next time gasoline prices soar and
consumers freak out, Mini’s foresight, and historic strengths, may again become
“Not all buyers want to migrate to larger vehicles,” McKenna said. “And when these companies aren’t offering small cars anymore, there’s an opportunity for Mini.”