It’s a shame that hot hatches haven’t got the same rich history in the Middle East as they do in my native Europe. Most hatchback sales here tend to be little runabouts or bargain basement white goods – those that like their driving go rear-wheel drive. But there’s a lot to be said for a sorted front-wheel drive pocket rocket, and perhaps the region is starting to wake up to that.[Not a valid template]
Witness the success of the Volkswagen Golf GTI and R, and the fact that the only Renaultsport product sold here is the Clio 200. Ford is also preparing to launch the Focus ST here for the first time.
For today though, we have the latest, and hottest hatch from MINI. It has based its entire company on fun-to-drive hatchbacks, and now the temperature has been turned up even further. Not content with the Cooper, the Cooper S or even the John Cooper Works, MINI has now released the latest JCW GP – a pared down, extra-focused version designed for both road and track use.
We’ve seen the GP before, sort of. Back in 2006 the company release 2000 editions based on the first generation ‘new’ MINI, featuring a supercharged engine and a mechanical diff. It went down well, so it was sort of a given that another model would follow towards the end of the current hatch generation.
This new version has a strut bar where the rear seats were, thoroughly sorted coilover suspension and a lot of stickers to go with its unusual four-spoke wheels. We could take or leave the stickers, but we don’t have a choice in paint colour – only grey is available on the GP.
The end result is a machine that looks a lot like a race car, which for those looking for a purity in their hot hatches, is very encouraging. Under the bonnet the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine has been tweaked to give an extra 7bhp over the JCW – up to 215bhp – and is attached to a six-speed manual gearbox, while the brakes have been enlarged and the electronic stability control revised to brake the inside wheel while cornering, replicating the function of a limited-slip diff.
All very exciting. So we decided to give it a workout against our favourite hot hatch of last year – the Volkswagen Scirocco R. We liked this 255bhp beastie a lot and we’re intrigued to see how it fares against the newcomer. Sitting above the already-peppy regular Scirocco, the R features an electronic differential and keeps the excellent double-clutch gearbox now so beloved of the Volkswagen Group. The resultant package is both stylish and fast.
Joining me for our test today is Rami Azzam, who is both an experienced racing driver and a chap that sits squarely in the target market for both these cars, being in his mid-20s and keen on front-wheel drive action. Indeed, unbeknownst to me until just before we set off, he actually owns a standard Scirocco already. So the GP has some convincing to do.
I hop into the Scirocco R to reacquaint myself during the journey out of Dubai towards more exciting roads. Visually, it’s not that different to the standard car. The bumper is a bit more aggressive, the sideskirts more pronounced, the rear lights are lightly smoked and it sits a little lower. Plus there’s the tell-tale R badge on the front grille. It’s slick, but I fear that five years after it was introduced, it’s slightly showing its age, especially when compared to the latest VW face seen on the new Golf.
Open up the large doors, settle in to the seats, which are more sporty and supportive than the standard car and adjust electrically to a nice low. Then almost pull a muscle trying to reach the seatbelt, which is mounted far back – too far to be comfortable. That could get annoying after a while.
The ‘Rocco’s interior is unremarkable in terms of design – restrained, sensible, but it’s smart too, and feels well put together. Again though, the new Golf’s arrival makes it seem a little outdated, particularly in terms of technology. Don’t be surprised if some form of refresh is on the way.
A start button where the keyhole should be fires up the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine beloved of the VW group. This particular version delivers 255bhp – slightly down on the figure delivered by the equivalent model in the West, due to cooling needs in the Middle Eastern summer. Still, that’s still a healthy hike from the standard Scirocco, and from the MINI as well, which pushes out 215bhp but weighs considerably less than the Volkswagen.
A stop at a supermarket on the way out serves to briefly highlight the practical aspect of both cars. Both have stiff suspension and aren’t too keen on speedbumps, but the ‘Rocco’s excellent manual ‘box makes it a breeze to drive around town while Rami clutches his way through traffic. And the VW has a decent-sized boot for our supply of drinks and snacks.
Rami is pleased to find that removing the MINI’s rear seats has resulted in plenty of storage space in the back, and the addition of cubby holes capable of storing a day’s worth of chocolate and crisps.