Snik! I’ve just hooked second gear, bursting from the pit lane and onto the main straight. The needle rockets to the red line and I flatten the clutch for the shove to third. Turn one is upon me and I’m off the throttle, the staccato full-bore roar replaced by a race car rifle crack from the exhaust barrels. Splutters, crackles and pops erupt as engine compression helps the massive brake discs slow the little car just enough to clip the apex. Power is poured back on and the sound on exit from the turn is madly addictive and wholly mismatched to the humble 1600 motor beneath that curvy bonnet.
This is the new John Cooper Works Mini, and at R300 000 in basic trim it’s no cheap thrill. Add a few options from the exhaustive Mini catalogue and you’ll easily rack up a R325 000 bill. That’s R100k more than two similarly-specced European rivals, the Renault Cliosport R27 and Opel Corsa OPC. We’ve brought them along to lay down their respective gauntlets, but they’re not alone. The Mini’s sky-high sticker price means it has to defend itself against the larger hot hatches, the cream of the crop. So we lined up the brilliant Ford Focus ST, fresh from its mid-life facelift, and the Seat Leon Cupra, which joins us for its last track foray before VWSA calls it curtains on the brand in SA. The bigger hatches still undercut the Mini’s price tag by R50k or so, and unless you’re a high nett-worther that’s hard to ignore. Each car trumpets the respective marque’s sporting heritage, and each promises the best compromise between trackday toy and urban runabout. After just one lap it’s easy to be seduced by any one of them. You’ll even be able to post a respectable lap time first time out, a testament to their driveability.
Killarney Raceway in the Cape served as our battleground, with its five distinct turns and two long straights more than capable of testing the mettle of any hot hatch. Here we can easily sort good front-driver from true performance legend. Our wait for a gap between a succession of Cape storms was worth it. We needed at least a partially dry track to extract the best possible performance from the cars. Our full day’s routine began with 0-100km/h sprints, quarter-mile (400 metres to be precise) runs and 100-0km/h braking tests. Finally, we wanted a lap time comparison, achieved via a warm-up and two flying laps in each contender.
OPEL CORSA OPC
This is one ‘cute’ car, but before you shoot me down, remember that the art of ‘cuteness’ has long been nature’s secret weapon. It’s the reason why giant bears are adored by children all over; it’s the law that endears our goo-covered infants to us. Small wonder such automotive notables as the VW Beetle, Fiat Cinquecento and Ford Ka. Enough to make you want to cuddle them for the full 54-month instalment term. Therein lies the problem: turning Bambi into a focused track tool. Witness the tinsel-strewn exterior of the Corsa OPC. The addition of aggressive bumpers, vented arches and massive hoop-like alloys, while striking to behold, seems to unbalance the lines of the little Opel. I’m still endeared to it thanks to the ‘smiley-face’ airdam and doe-eyed headlamp treatment, but the overall package seems compromised. Strangely this all makes me want it to be the quickest one here, to triumph over the cars who take themselves too seriously. Regrettably, it doesn’t quite happen.
The Opel makes its 141kW and 230Nm via a turbocharged 1.6 litre mill, and puts it all down via 225mm wide rubber, the widest of the junior hatches here. Disabling the traction control and flooring the throttle results in a flurry of wheelspin before the rubber bites hard into the tarmac, unleashing a wave of torque steer that pulls the OPC vigorously forward and to the right. It’s manageable when you anticipate it, but our test model had a bigger problem to contend with. It seems 11 000km of wrestling with press hacks, most of that on track, had cooked the clutch. This seriously hampered its 0-100km/h abilities and the best we managed in the dry was 7.8 seconds – a full 0.6 seconds slower than its claimed time. But despite tired mechanicals we still managed to blitz through a lap of the track in 1min 35.29 seconds. Our test pilot’s comment: ‘It’s quite twitchy coming out of turn one and five, but overall it’s a very predictable drive. A good car.’ With a properly working clutch we reckon the Corsa is capable of lapping a full second quicker.
RENAULT CLIOSPORT R27
Swathed in racy red, the heavily decaled Cliosport R27 cuts an impressive figure even in this bespoke crowd. Boasting a similar level of body widening, arch flaring and extravagant cutting of air vents as the Opel, on the Renault these mods seem more a result of function over form. Less Christmas tree, more race car – and the better for it. The Renault is the only car in this group that makes do without a turbo to achieve its outputs of 145kW and 215Nm. Instead, old-school fettling of its two litre 16 valve lump extracts the ponies from the barn. So no rorty induction noise like the Corsa; instead a highly strung scream of an exhaust note. A chisel-sharp profile and widened track helped by 215 wide rubber gives it a purposeful stance. The Clio looks like it’s moving at a blistering rate even when parked alongside the rumble strips. The cabin is also far less fussy than the Corsa. No circling of gauges and instrument pods with metal-look plastic here. Minimalism reigns supreme. Renault killed the clutter inside and opted for a vast grey slab, so no distractions from getting on with the job at hand. The main token to race-car ambience is the not strictly necessary shift light on the dash.
Rounding off the most track-focused interior of the lot is a pair of Recaro racing buckets. Climbing into them is effortless yet so rewarding once you’ve planted your backside into the deep recess. While similar in shape, grip and comfort to the Corsa, the Clio’s seats refuse to lower themselves quite as far. A favourable ‘racing’ position is still easily achieved, and with the sporty Clio steering wheel clasped in hand we’re launched from the pit. Hallelujah! Everything feels so direct in the Clio. Its normally aspirated lump delivers buckets of power with linear precision, so you can easily balance the car’s trajectory and velocity through the apex. Turn-in is predictable, with only the wildest inputs able to unsettle the Clio. This car is so neutral you could teach anyone to go fast in this. Release throttle, brake late, turn in hard, feel the back slide, feather the throttle, the corner opens up and ‘wham!’, I bury the throttle into the carpet and the little Clio rockets out of every bend we encounter. We gun for the benchmark time set by the OPC and on its first hot lap the Clio posts 1min 33.73 seconds. Tough to beat.
FORD FOCUS ST
We were expecting a lot from the blue oval. Ford’s rally heritage in addition to the allure of the ST and RS badges, coupled with that gravelly engine note, meant we had placed it on a pedestal. Closer inspection of its rap sheet showed some concerns. Despite boasting the biggest engine here, it was not the most powerful car. Its fifth cylinder and extra 500cc only contributed to its biggest downside. At 1437kg the Ford was a bit of a fat bastard. That goes against the lean, mean fighting trim track-car ethos. With bags of torque in reserve however, we were confident. Changes to this newly facelifted model are all cosmetic; the mechanicals remain as they were. That’s just fine as the ST has proven itself a capable performer. Raked-back headlamps, a smoother aero kit and the subtle addition of style lines along its flank are the key revisions, in addition to a resculpted interior. A trick bit designed to appeal to the racer in you is the START button to the left of the driver’s thigh. Be warned however, this keyless system could easily see you stranded at the track after your colleague’s gone home with it. True story …
Starting up the ST in the pit lane at Killarney is an experience on its own. The roar from that in-line five-pot is primal; each stab at the gas sends a shimmy of power through the chassis and directly up my spine. ‘No speeding in the pit lane’ – the signs in this place make no sense to me at all. I ease off the clutch and feed power through to the front wheels. A chirrup of wheelspin is all I dare muster before a wave of Newton’s finest sends me briskly onto the main straight. Turn one looms and … something is very wrong. It’s as though everything has been covered in wool. The throttle is soft, the steering vague and the road isn’t hurtling at quite the rate I expected, despite the aural assault from the exhaust. I’m being unfair, truth be told, as we are barrelling along just fine, but after two pared away baby hatches the Focus is a lesson in refinement. Select third, line-up for the turn, and it’s all a bit remote, even if the tyres are telling another story. ‘It’s heavier than the rest of them and you can feel it too,’ comments one of the testers, echoing my sentiments. As the corner opens up, a wide-open throttle pulls the Focus out with great resolve, though it’s no rally car. It may shine at the local traffic light Grand Prix, yet is strangely muted on the circuit. Predictably it’s slower than the Clio, with a respectable 1min 34.19 seconds.
SEAT LEON CUPRA
I feel like a bit of a bully as I stroll over to the Seat. If VWSA has no faith in this car, then why should I? Yes, it develops the most power here, thanks to some clever mapping of its GTI-sourced engine, but sans sport pack the design lacks aggression. It’s too soft. The car I’m about to drive is a nebulous dark ‘Grape’ colour. No show boat then, and while the wheels are pleasant enough, consensus is that they are the least exciting in this line-up. Wheels do not a car alone make, but we wanted to be moved and so far the Seat is coming across as a passion-free machine, a bit of a Cyborg. That might not be a bad thing on the track. Climb inside and it’s not much better. The seats and dashboard cosset you just enough to be classed as ‘pleasant’. Similarly, the engine note is subdued but adequate: smooth on idle and just a bit rougher in the upper rev range. More ho-hum than hurrah thus far.
A quick lap of the circuit reveals more of the same. Despite its power advantage it feels less special than the Focus, even though 177kW and 300Nm makes it capable of a 6.6sec sprint to 100km/h. It also weighs 100kg less than the chunky Ford. In the absence of visual and aural aggression, something else exists here – precision. Placing the car in the corner is notably easier than in the other hatches, and the back end remains composed even hammer down, yet I feel I have to work harder in the Seat. The steering is heavy, and my arms are tired after just two laps. I realise why. Despite being heavier than the small hatches, it offers similar levels of control. A racing driver would theoretically be able to extract decent performance from it on a track, and after logging a 14.8 second quarter mile we were expecting something special from the Leon. On our second hot lap we set up the quickest time thus far, at 1 min 32.70 seconds a full second quicker than the Clio. We’re astounded, but only because of the disconnectedness of the drive. I’d gladly sacrifice half a second of pace for a bit more involvement, but I might be alone on this.
There’s something inherently special about the John Cooper Works Mini. The first thing that catches your eyes are the relatively narrow tyres – only 205s – that should make it a much more agile, if scarier machine. The 17 inch multi-spoke wheels wouldn’t look out of place on a DTM car. They’ve been placed in the outer reaches of the car, giving it a square stance despite the short wheelbase. Massive red callipers handle the task of squeezing the equally large brake discs. We’ll be testing those in a second. The JCW manages 14kW and 60Nm more than the Corsa from its turboed 1.6 litre, achieved by John Cooper’s special witchcraft. Yes, the OPC sounded pretty god with al its induction and turbo noises, but the Mini has all that and some. It even carries the trophy for the most ellipses fitted into any interior, carried right through to the horrid seats. A shame, really. The deep, rasping exhaust note is almost out of sorts with the car’s rounded exterior. And I tried, your honour, I tried to drive it like a good motorist on my daily trips to work. But it actually turns you into a bit of a tit, revving when there’s no need to and accelerating hard from the traffic lights. I’m not proud of what it’s done to me.
I could drive this thing all day. Novices beware, this chassis, though remarkably sorted, is the most likely candidate for ending up arse-deep in an embankment. Lift-off oversteer moments keep us entertained all day. Still, it’s a more tactile experience than the rest of them. Yes, you can still gun it into a bend, pick up the inside wheel and power through the turn. And if you’re able to measure off your inputs it’s a razor-sharp experience on par with the Clio. With those JCW brakes you can stomp right at the 50m mark, pitch in hard, balance the car on the throttle and then jam it wide open with just the tiniest hint of a slide on exit. Fun! All to the zestiest sound we’ve heard all day. The final run of the day is about to begin. Launch! The Mini rockets off! Turn one is a mess of understeer, oversteer, opposite lock and tyre smoke. The track’s still wet in critical places and this was not a timed lap, just a bit of showboating extracted from that delectably twisty chassis. A full noisy out lap is completed and ‘Click!’ the stopwatch denotes the first of two timed laps. Turn one is noiselessly dispatched. Necks strain to keep up with the Mini’s antics as it powers through turn two. Its tiny black form traverses the kink and, again with nothing but engine sound, blasts through turn three. Turn four, a double right-hander, is blitzed with an audible tyre squeal indicating its nigh on flat-out before catapulting along the back straight. All that remains is turn five. We wax it effortlessly, cleanly, and hustle on to the main straight for that surge over the line. ‘Click!’ on 1min32.03seconds. The Mini proves its pedigree.
The motorsport connection
In 1964, car number 27, a Mini Cooper S piloted by Paddy Hopkirk and co-driver Henry Liddon, won the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally. Here was a British crew winning in a British front-wheel drive car, and a legend was born.
AND THE WINNER IS …
Sure, I could take the cowardly route and say ‘they’re all winners!’ And I’d be right. But our goal was to find the car that could best entertain you on a day to day basis, plus double as a real trackday performer. The Seat springs to mind, but like the Ford, it feel ultimately detached from the driving experience. Both cars are good on track, both would do well in a traditional traffic light grand prix, but once you’ve experienced the track-focused antics of the Mini, Corsa or Clio, you will feel cheated. At the end of the day, these diminutive cars gave us the biggest smiles. And if money is not an option, then the John Cooper Mini works! For under R230 000, you’d do well with either of its peers, but on the day when it mattered most, it was the cheap as chips ClioSport that was faster – and that’s value for money coupled with the sort of driving pace and involvement you simply cannot ignore.