Like many of the world's largest automakers, BMW develops and builds more than just BMWs. Along with Rolls Royce vehicles, the larger BMW Group has also been at the helm of Mini ever since they took the reins from Rover back in 2000.
The company recently invited us out to the BMW Performance Center East in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to put the group's most potent offerings through their paces on the facility's test track. Among those machines, two of them really stood out to us, and for entirely different reasons.
Performance is a fairly broad term—in the automotive realm, it can be used to describe anything from at-limit handling to straight line acceleration. But in its most compelling form, performance is a fine balance between horsepower, grip, braking capability, and the various aspects of weight management. And when those characteristics are handled effectively, lap times often take a back seat to the overall experience behind the wheel.
To that end, we're taking a closer look at a pair of BMW Group's top-spec performers from their respective brands: the 2020 BMW M8 Competition, and the 2020 Mini Clubman John Cooper Works. Both bring more track-oriented performance to the table than any other model options in their respective lineups, yet they do so utilizing very different strategies—and with very different price tags attached. But does that inherently make one more fun to toss around a road course than the other? Let's find out.
THE POCKET ROCKET
It's clear the first time you set eyes on the new JCW Mini Clubman that this is not the British go-kart of the 1960s—or even the 1990s. BMW ownership finally brought modernity to the Mini brand, and as the years have gone on, they've slowly moved the needle toward the automaker's overall design philosophy.
With the Mini that takes many forms, nearly all of which result in "more." More sophistication, more room, more content, more power. And in turn, more mass. With a 105.1-inch wheelbase, this Mini isn't particularly miniature, even by modern standards, and as a result its curb weight is comparable to an M4. The base price of the Clubman JCW is just over forty grand.
OK—so it's definitely not your grandpa's Mini, but that cuts both ways. Under the hood is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder BMW mill making 301 horsepower and 331 pound-feet of torque, up 73 ponies and a similar amount of torque versus the previous John Cooper Works model. All-wheel drive is standard now (which offers up to a 50/50 torque split front and rear), as is an eight-speed automatic gearbox, and both contribute to massive accelerative improvements over its predecessor: This Clubman will sprint to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds and knock out the quarter mile in 13.5 seconds on the way to an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. It's not fast for a Mini—it's just fast, period.
On the chassis front, the JCW Clubman has been outfitted with fixed four-piston calipers that clamp down on 14.2-inch rotors to counterbalance the pace this Clubman is capable of. Along with additional structural bracing and a sport-tuned suspension, electronically adjustable dampers are now optional.
With the drive mode set to Sport (Mid is default, while Green is the most subdued setting) and the gearbox locked into "manual" mode for paddle shifting, we headed out on the course. First and foremost, it's certainly not lacking for power. Peak torque comes in at just 1,750 RPM, and it gives the Clubman an entirely new sense of immediacy, especially when pulling the car out of slow corners. The lack of an optional manual transmission will be a tough pill to swallow for many three-pedal advocates (like your author), but the automatic is fairly agreeable, dispatching shifts with appropriate haste and rarely arguing with our commands.
What does appear to be lacking, though, is grip. Almost immediately the 225mm-wide Bridgestone Potenzas outfitted to this car were screaming for mercy. With this much power, weight, and braking capability in the mix, they seemed to give up early, and often. But to the Mini's credit, this typically resulted in very neutral and predictable push at speed, and working with the mechanical limited slip differential, it retains some sense of tossability—you work both within and outside of the car's limits, and it generally rewards you for it as you trail brake toward an apex and adjust the attitude with the throttle mid-corner. A beefed-up wheel and tire setup would probably do a lot for lateral grip (and braking too), but we get the sense that some of the inherent fun that's been dialed into the car's behavior would be lost. While it doesn't really duplicate the character that made the original Minis such icons, the JCW Clubman delivers a unique—and very accessible—hot hatch experience.
THE BAVARIAN MUSCLE CAR
In many ways, the M8 Competition seems like BMW's interpretation of a Hellcat. The big, imposing coupe makes an impression even while standing still, and with a curb weight of roughly 4,300 pounds, it makes the Mini look downright svelte.
And like the Dodge, the mass is counteracted with some pretty serious hardware. Under the hood of the M8 Competition lurks a twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 dishing out 617 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque, which is channeled through an eight-speed automatic and sent to all four corners through a rear-biased all-wheel drive system. BMW says it'll do 0-60 mph in three seconds flat, but in reality it's probably even quicker than that.
Compared to an M850i—an already capable machine in its own right—the M8 Competition has more camber, stiffer engine mounts, a totally reworked suspension setup which ditches rubber bushings in favor of ball joints at the rear end, and six-piston calipers with beefy 15.5-inch discs are standard up front. 15.75-inch carbon ceramic discs are available as well, but they weren't outfitted to our test cars, which wore a staggered set of Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summer tires measuring 275mm up front and 285 in the rear.
After settling in at the helm, we hit the ignition button and brought the burly V8 to life. Once we'd dialed the multitude of performance settings in as aggressively as officials dared allow, we headed out on track for the first of many sessions around Spartanburg's test track.
First impressions: wow, this thing sounds great, and man does it move. For anyone who might be concerned that the M8's all-wheel drive system won't allow you to hang the tail out, let us ease your fears (and provide a word of caution)—it only took about three laps for an over-zealous driver to perform a 270-degree spin in one of these things right in front of us coming out of a slow corner. Like any good muscle car, the M8 Competition requires your full attention when the electronic nannies are given the day off.
The rest of our sessions were relatively drama-free, but certainly no less thrilling. The M8 piles on speed with shocking urgency, while the brake system is equally adept at shedding it when called upon to do so, the latter of which gave us the confidence to keep exploring the limits. There's some sense that the all-wheel drive system is helping to keep the car in line when you're dialing in slip angle at speed, but the system never felt intrusive, nor the M8 unwilling to provide some theatrics when called upon to do so.
Although it isn't an outright sports car—the dimensions and poundage are simply too vast to totally ignore—the M8 is a very fast grand tourer that's also a joy to pilot around a road course. Then again, with a starting price of $146,995, it's probably fair to assume that the M8 Competition will do just about anything that's asked of it with a high level of proficiency.
Both the Clubman and the 8-Series might be slightly imperfect vessels for track work, but each left us breathless after a stint behind the wheel. Would we take the M8 over the JCW? Sure—given that budget isn't an issue. But it should be noted that your author's grin was just as wide hopping out of the Mini.