YES, YES, OKAY. LET’S get the price out of the way first. There is a $11,000 difference between these two, which is a fair slug of cash by any measure. But more than any other hot hatch pairing in the world today, these are kindred spirits. Both the new $63,900 Mini John Cooper Works GP and the $74,990 Renault Megane RS Trophy-R have binned their back seats to save weight, waved goodbye to ride comfort with ruthlessly focused suspension set-ups, and somehow squeezed 220kW+ through their front wheels only. They’ve also squeezed their production run down to a limited series, in the Megane’s case to 500 cars worldwide (and just 20 for Australia) and a less exclusive 3000 for the Mini (65 for this great Southern land). And both are once-in-a-lifecycle cars – this is the third Mini GP in 14 years (officially, it’s called the GP3), and the third fully committed Megane; the first was 2008’s plastic-windowed R26R, the second 2014’s 275 Trophy-R. The Renault holds the Nürburgring Nordschleife lap record for front-wheel-drive production cars at 7min 40.1sec, and the Mini GP3 too has lapped it in under eight minutes. That’s quicker than a BMW M2. So if you want the most hardcore hot hatch on sale today, one that’s closer to a sports car than a shopping car, these are the two hottest in the world right now. Which offers the hardest hit?
The Mini GP comes out swinging, from the moment its turbo 2.0-litre four-cylinder fires up with a guttural smoker’s cough, adding a couple of hacking fuel-pop exclamation marks from its stubby twin exhausts. There’s something of the cartoon character about the GP3, from its hooped boot spoiler to its giant aero side spats, flaring from the body like the wings from Hermes’ sandals. Fashioned from carbon fibre recycled from BMW i3 and i8 production, with a raw matt finish that makes them look like they constantly need a good clean, they enable the GP to sit on wider tracks without altering the standard bodyshell. Deliberately, no attempt has been made to blend them visually; the wheel arch pressings of the base car’s shell beneath jar unashamedly with the aero shrouds.
On the move, the Mini feels as purposeful as it looks from the get-go, fizzing down the road with the energy of a rattled Coke can. The suspension is unyieldingly firm, the driver’s seat slapping you on the back like an overly rowdy mate who’s had a few too many pints. The regular Mini JCW, from which this car is a mutant evolution, is available with adaptive dampers but the GP rides on passive, track-focused shocks. You need a firm grip on the steering, which pulls at cambers, torque-steers under power and occasionally multiplies the effect of both at the same time. No wonder our Georg Kacher found the GP3 eye-openingly twitchy on the autobahn where he clocked an indicated 281km/h, 15km/h beyond its quoted top speed – it feels a handful at a third of that pace. But in terms of outright grip, at sub-Georg speeds at least, it’s ultimately tenacious. Even on these rollicking roads of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire – natural hot-hatch habitat – you’d have to be trying really hard for the Mini to get properly bent out of shape. Most corners disappear on fast-forward, the steering wheel there to hang on to as much as steer with, while the grippy tyres and mechanical locking diff take care of business.
Its 225kW engine, closely related to that of the BMW M135i/M235i xDrive, albeit with a new turbo and intake system, is as flexible as it is brawny, deploying its 450Nm from only 1750rpm. First flattening of the throttle, on a slip road in the wet in this case, is enough to make you giggle and blurt expletives (while also tightening your grip to keep the thing in a straight line). It really is ballistic. There’s a hot-rod feel to the GP, the appealing sense of a car with an engine that’s too much for it.
If the Mini feels purposeful, like swinging a baseball bat, swapping into the Megane feels like picking up a carbon fibre tennis racquet. The thing that gets you first is the sense of lightness. The Megane is the larger car and is actually 60kg or so heavier than the Mini, but it feels the other way around. Depending on which options are ticked, the Trophy-R weighs a full 130kg less than the Megane Trophy it’s based on, helped by a NACA-ducted carbon bonnet, titanium exhaust and sundry other dieting measures. It doesn’t have plastic rear windows like the original R26R but they are made from thinner glass, saving a kilo. Renault Sport has also deleted the four-wheel steering system fitted to regular hot Meganes to cut 32kg, the weight saving around a ’Ring lap outweighing the system’s dynamic advantages.
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