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First Drive: 2013 Mini John Cooper Works GP

Much has changed at Mini since we last saw the John Cooper Works GP, the hardest-core, racing-oriented version of the basic hatchback. Back then, the brand still subsisted on its basic two-door models. Now, the brand offers crossovers, coupes, and lots of odd stuff in between. As we pull into the Circuito Mallorca RennArena (yes, there's a racetrack on Mallorca), it's easy to forget all those less-than-pure models: we're about to drive the new GP, the ultimate distillation of the Mini brand's motoring mission.

You'll have to forgive our sense of time warp, for the new GP looks a lot like the old GP, which appeared in 2006 as a swan song for the last-generation Mini. It again comes only on the two-door hardtop model and only in gray metallic paint. A large rear wing adds downforce at higher speeds and looks cool at lower ones. New seventeen-inch wheels and some fast-looking decals are also part of the deal. "I have to admit, I love stickers," says Mini designer Anders Warming. The interior makeover is no subtler. The Recaro front seats have beefy bolsters and the rear seats don't exist -- a bright red shock-tower bar takes their place. Stitched black leather wraps the dash and attempts to dress up the rather basic Cooper interior.

Despite all these enhancements, it's the basic essence of the Mini design that strikes us when we approach the GP and climb into the driver's seat. The hardtop's accessible size and the wonderful simplicity -- it's still just a little box on wheels -- contrast sharply with the overwrought and sometimes pudgy styling of Mini's newer offerings.

The GP coughs to life with a boisterous burble from its center-exit exhaust. The John Cooper Works Mini's 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder has been tweaked just a bit further to produce 218 hp (U.S. cars will be rated at 211 hp). The GP also features Mini's first production application of coil-over dampers, derived from what Mini uses in its one-make Challenge racing series. They can adjust ride height by 20 millimeters (0.8 inch) and also allow Mini to use stiffer, lower springs. Before heading out for our laps, we set stability control to GP mode. That prevents traction control from cutting power and puts the front brakes to use as an electronic limited-slip differential.

The obligatory pre-lap safety presentation warned drivers against drifting recklessly through corners. This proved unnecessary -- the GP's tail stayed firmly planted through the turns. Sticky Kumho summer tires, developed specifically for the GP, stuck to the smooth tarmac without a hint of drama. In the few instances where lack of skill and good sense overwhelmed the tires' prodigious grip, the car simply plowed straight ahead. Adjusting the coil-over suspension -- a procedure that requires raising the car off the ground -- might change its cornering characteristics, as might completely disabling stability control. The electronics, the tires, and the suspension tweaks do seem to reduce inside wheelspin and torque steer, but digging out of turns still takes some work: second gear is incredibly short, and there's not enough low-end torque to stay in third gear. The constant shifting of the six-speed manual is plenty fun but not particularly quick.

In other words, the GP, for all its high-dollar components, drives a lot like a MINI Cooper. That's not a bad thing. The small, simple steering wheel transmits more road feel than many high-priced sports cars, and we barely need to adjust our grip through the track's multiple hairpin turns. The front wheels, retuned for increased negative camber, respond with even more immediacy, and the stiffened suspension cuts out what little body roll ever existed. The brakes, fortified up front with six-piston calipers, feel firm and powerful despite repeated outings with little cool-down time.

Mini will build only 2000 GPs, including an initial allotment of just 500 for the United States. Brand loyalists will likely, and quickly, snap up every last one of them. That's just as well -- it's hard to imagine many other people coughing up $39,950 for a two-seat hatchback that has less power than the $25,595 Ford Focus ST. Indeed, the inherent limit to the hardtop's appeal goes a long way toward explaining why the Mini brand has and will continue to expand its offerings. And yet, the GP also reminds us -- and, we hope, BMW decision makers -- what makes Mini so unique and so fun.

2013 Mini John Cooper Works GP
On sale:
Early 2013
Base price: $39,950
Engine: 1.6L turbocharged I-4, 211 hp, 207 lb-ft
Drive: Front-wheel
EPA Fuel economy: 25/33 city/highway (est.)