MotoringFile First Drive: MINI JCW Coupe

It was my second stint on the track when it happened. A gentle lift of the throttle sent tail out and the JCW Coupe (with rear wing raised) gently drifted out and onto the rumbled strips on corner exit perfectly blending into the straight. It was that perfect track moment that sticks with you for days and week later. And it’s the kind of moment that defines the soul of the car like the Coupe.

More importantly it was exactly what I wanted and exactly what I expected the car to do. And no other stock MINI could have done it so easily and looked so good doing it. 

Since it was shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2009, the MINI Coupe has reached almost mythical status among MINI enthusiasts and fans. It was a car that looked fast at stand still in a way no MINI had previously. Its design seemed to promise what many MF readers seem to be in constant search for; a faster, unique and (ultimately) exciting MINI that delivers more of the motoring experience we’ve all grown to love. From the coupe shape to the rumored lighter body, it all served to create a mystique about a car no one had seen much less driven. And now that we’ve seen and driven it extensively on the track, I’m here to report we were all wrong. 

The truth is that the Coupe’s benefits are much more nuanced than simply being lighter or faster. For one it’s actually heavier than the R56 hatch by about 45 lbs (due to a handful of reasons we’ll get to). And while it is faster, it’s not dramatically so (1-2 tenths 0-60 and it does 149 flat-out). 

So what’s the point? Why would you give up a couple seats of the standard hatch for so little gain? The answer is varied and not as straightforward as some would have hoped. This isn’t the Lotus Exige of the MINI family some had hoped for. Instead it’s simply an extension of the MINI family put in a sleek and sophisticated package with a different kind of versatility than the hatch. Yes it’s faster, slightly more agile with its own unique version of MINI’s famous handling traits. But at the end of the day,it’s quite close to the hatch on the track and on the road. 

No the Coupe isn’t head and shoulders better than what came before it. Yes it’s a little faster and perhaps a little more of a hooligan on the track. But that’s not what will get people to drop their jaws. That will happen when they see the finished car for the first time. 

It happened to me after spending a couple hours with the car on the track. We were led into a small (and hot) room littered with sketches, images and elements of the car on all four walls. And one other thing; a completely finished and finalized White Silver and Chili Red JCW. We were there to listen to Anders Warming talk about MINI Design and the elements that make up the family of MINIs. But all I wanted to do was get up and touch it, study it and take this new car in. From splitter to spoiler it pushes all the right buttons for a car that’s meant to be a personal styling statement. And it’s a bold statement that I immediately loved in person.

Styling aside, there’s a lot new here. The R58 Coupe is based on the R57 convertible and that means the Coupe gets the Convertibles extra bracing in the door sills and under the floor. Great for rigidity (especially with the extra roof the Coupe has over the convertible) but bad for weight. Additionally the Coupe gets a pretty serious brace where the rear seats would be that spans the width of the car. With this extra bracing it easily qualifies as the most structurally rigid car MINI has ever produced and one of the most rigid cars sold today. But totaled up this makes the Coupe about 45 lbs heavier than the hatch. And it’s the added bracing that makes up the majority of the extra weight.

Additionally MINI has added further pedestrian impact safety into the front of the car (more specifically around the bumper) to comply with 2013 EU laws. Finally the movable rear spoiler adds about 6kg (13 lbs) in the rear of the car. 

Models

MINI plans to offer four models starting with the 121 hp Cooper Coupe (awkward isn’t it?). Next in the chain is the 143 hp Cooper SD (n/a in the US) and the 181 hp Cooper S. Finally book-ending the line-up will be the JCW which (despite rumors) features the same engine it’s had since the 2009 launch. But we’re not ready to call that a disappointment. With 208 hp and the best character of any engine in the line-up since the GP we’d have a hard time not opting for it if we were also considering a Cooper S. 

On The Track

We had two full stints in the R58 Coupe at Austria’s Wachauring to fully get a feel for the car. Within seconds of the pace car pulling off I was into a high speed sweeper with the tail out thanks to a liberal dose of lift-off oversteer. Lift oversteer is a result of weight balance shifting from the front to the rear while corning. With the weight distribution moved slightly forward and the suspension set-up altered the JCW Coupe we tested with the sport suspension showed a propensity to oversteer on lift like no other MINI I’ve ever driven since perhaps the GP.

Granted it’s not a trait that should surprise any R56 owner who’s been at the track. That car has the same tendency. But with the Coupe’s stiffer body shell and revised suspension set-up it’s more prevalent. And it makes things nothing if not exciting when you push the car to the limit. In fact afterwards in the paddock, a few journalists and I had a lengthy debate whether or not that much lift oversteer was a good thing. In my mind an experienced driver will love it and appreciate. But it could catch-out a few unexperienced drivers on narrow canyon roads. Either way it’s insanely fun on the track.

While MINI engineers have clearly dialed it into the car, they’ve been very careful not to allow for too much fun. I could drift the car into and sometimes out of a corner, but never felt out of control. Even with DTC completely turned off (and no electronic aids on) the Coupe never really seemed to get flustered. 

Speaking of DTC, it’s worth noting that MINI has slightly revised dynamic traction control to be more aggressive and allow for more slip before intervening. It’s much like what BMW M does with its own version of DTC. 

All test cars were JCWs with the factory sport suspension but all three (standard, sport and JCW suspensions) are available on all four models of Coupe. However each suspension on the Coupe is slightly more aggressive than the equivalent on the hatch. While MINI didn’t divulge every detail we did get out of them that the rear anti-roll bars are 1mm larger on the Coupe versus the hatch. Additionally the Sport suspension felt slightly more aggressive than the hatch’s set-up in terms of damping. 

And for what it’s worth nothing confused the press on hand more than how MINI allows the mix and match of every kind of suspension with every kind of car. Every one of the representatives of the major US car magazines was a bit baffled as to why the JCW didn’t come with the JCW suspension as standard. Granted I also gathered from most of them (and I agree) that the JCWs we tested with the sport suspension felt like a great combination of aggressiveness without being too punishing.

Through the high-speed corners the movable rear wing also helped reduce lift by 40 kg. This, combined with the new more aggressive front splitter, reportedly keeps the car less nervous at high speed and allows for better control at the limit. 

Could I feel the difference with it all? Is the Coupe really better than the R56 at the track? In my limited experience I would say yes. It’s got a slight weight disadvantage when put next to an R56 without a sunroof but it felt slightly agile, more playful and ultimately more MINI-like. The fact that the defining characteristic on the Coupe on the track was lift oversteer makes this car inherently more interesting. I can imagine throwing a JCW suspension on the car would button it up just a bit further and give you even more control at the car’s limits in the corners.

Whats New

One of the most talked about additions to the Coupe since we saw it at Frankfurt in 2009 is the movable wing. It’s the first time a wing like this has shown up on any BMW product. And as cool as it looks, it was born out of functional need. As mentioned the wing reduces lift on the rear axel by 40 kg or almost 90 pounds. It also helps reduce turbulence that is a by-product of the short rear window with air first flowing through the roof mounted spoiler onto the larger wing. 

Both spoilers were created in BMW’s new wind tunnel and are considered so crucial to the performance of the car that, if the wing doesn’t move up at 50 mpg for one reason or another, the car won’t allow DSC to be fully dis-engaged. 

You can flip the wing up at any time below 50 mph via toggle switch near the dome lights (ironically the same place you would have put the roof down on a convertible). It’s a cool trick and one that owners will love seeing in the rear view mirror. It also really completes the look of the car – especially with the optional stripes. 

Speaking of stripes, MINI has done a few things that will define the look of this car no matter how you spec your Coupe. Most importantly MINI will only offer the Coupe with a contrasting roof in either black, silver or red (for JCW). The only exception will be the Coup in Midnight Black which will be available with a body color Midnight black roof. Otherwise MINI wants this car’s roof to define its look. 

After seeing the final car un-camouflaged I tend to agree with them. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why the camouflaged cars at the track weren’t that impressive to me. It wasn’t until I saw the finished product that I realized the roof design of the Coupe completely defines this car and helps give it an entirely unique character. 

Along with the contrasting roof, MINI will offer what they’re calling sport stripes. For years in the US MINI world they’ve been known as ‘viper’ stripes. What’s interesting about them on the Coupe is that they alternate in color as they go from hood to the roof and back down to the boot. If you have a White Silver and Chili Red JCW you’d have Chili Red stripes on the hood that turned white on the roof and then back to Chili Red on the boot. It’s surprisingly effective and, when combined with MINI’s white array of colors, should give the Coupe another visual calling card. 

Inside MINI has a few new additions. Lounge Toffee seating will be the exclusive interior color for the Coupe. It’s the same color seen in several special edition cars over the years and should look great in combination with green, white or even any of the silvers. Also new (whether it was exclusive was unclear) was a new black leather ‘Punch’ seat. It’s essentially black sport seat with stripes of punched holes in the leather that allows another layer of white to show through. 

Another addition is the polar beige trim being offered in the center of the doors. This serves to add a bit of brightness to what will likely be a pretty dark and sporty interior.

Along with that theme MINI will only offer the anthracite headliner on the coupe along with black doors. Similar to what BMW does with their sportier cars, MINI wanted to cut down on glare and any driver distractions in what many will view as MINI’s sportiest offering. 

While the Coupe loses two seats it gains a huge amount of storage space with a total of 280 liters compared to 160 in the hatch. AdditionallyMINI has provided a pass-through (essentially a 170 cm square through the extra bracing that was added) to allow for skis or other long objects. And for those who are curious, yes you can fit a golf bag in the Coupe.

There’s even some space between the front seats and the bracing for a laptop bag. 

One major concern since the concept was unveiled has been headroom. Thanks to two large recessed ovals in the headliner above the driver and passenger there was a surprising amount of room. I’m 6’ 2” and I likely had another four inches above my head as I sat in the driver’s seat. 

Beyond the obvious, there are a couple changes on the outside that are worth noting. The car has been slightly lengthened thanks to a more aggressive front splitter on the Cooper S and the JCW. Also new is a set of 17” wheels that will be available across the range. 

Pricing and Launch Dates

MINI will be officially pricing the Coupe in the coming days. They reiterated to us that the price will fall between the hatch and the convertible for each of the models. 

And while we didn’t get details on the standard spec, one thing was hard to miss. Yes the JCW aerokit will now be standard on R56, R57 and R58 JCWs starting with the 2012 model year. And on the Coupe it looks even better with the exclusive more aggressive front splitter. 

MINI will launch the R58 Coupe worldwide October 1st 2011.

Why Should I Love it or Hate it?

In its current form MINI Coupe isn’t the new GP. That may come. But for now it’s just a new iteration on the same formula so many of us love. Albeit one with a few twists.  

Are the twists worth it? Does the styling work for you? Does the formula of two seats and bigger boot make sense? Ultimately for most it won’t. Like the Z3 M Coupe or even the GP there will be too many compromises to make most of us ever seriously consider it. And that’s by design. It’s meant for a person with a specific mind-set or perhaps in a particular place in their life. Whatever the circumstance it’s the owner that’s meant to make the compromises and not the car. And the result is low volume and a car that will achieve cult status years down the road.

Do we love it? I’m a bit relieved to say I (for my part) do. After a couple of stints on the track and some quality time with the finished product my expectations have been exceeded in every way. Yes there were some surprises and even a few disappointments (the weight clearly falls into that category) but the car exceeds at delivering what the concept promised.

It may not be as light or even as fast as some of us had hoped. But it’s everything a MINI already is, with a bit of swagger thrown in.

Official Photography

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MotoringFile Photography

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