It’s safe to say that the MINI Coupé and its sibling, the Roadster, are two of the most highly anticipated models within the enthusiast community since the original ‘new’ MINI.
On a temperate Tennessee Thursday I arrived in Nashville for the official launch for the first of “the twins”, the 2012 MINI Coupe. Though Gabe got a sneak preview of the car earlier this year, and a handful of pre-production cars have been circulating around the country, this was our first real look at the production versions. Here’s what I learned, and here’s what I experienced.
MINI’s most focused model yet
Two doors is nothing new for MINI. Even two seats has been done before with the rear seat delete in the MINI GP. What the MINI Coupé brings to the table is a much more ground-up development to be a particular kind of car because of those two seats. The crux of that focus is performance. The Coupé was designed, in essence, for enthusiasts by enthusiasts. From the love it or hate it roofline to the model’s focus on the JCW version, the Coupé is the furthest away from “all things to all people” as MINI could get. It’s the niche within the niche. MINI designed the Coupé to be driven hard, and to be hard to ignore. Both came into play during the two day press launch.
Our previous information had the Coupé predominantly based on the MINI Convertible, the R57. This was only partially true. In fact, the Coupé and it’s sister the Roadster are actually based much more heavily on the R56 — borrowing only a handful of rear chassis components from the R57 to help stiffen the frame. Additionally, the partition behind the driver and passenger cabin is not simply architectural, but structural. A pressed steel structure lies under the upholstery with only the boot pass-through door cutting through it. This creates a sort of “H” in the structure of the car. The result is impressive. If anything, the Coupé feels stiffer than its hardtop siblings.
That overall stiffness and solid construction of the Coupé bodes incredibly well for its soft top twin, the Roadster, because even now, the Coupé isn’t relying on its diminutive roof for any structural stiffness, yet it’s a noticeably solid car. Once you see the size of the boot opening, this chassis-first approach makes total sense. MINI couldn’t rely on the Coupé’s roof for lateral stiffness if they wanted to. There’s just too big a hole cut out of the back of the car. The approach they’ve taken has added benefits though. Those extra structural pieces have shifted the center of gravity much lower in the car. The result is a rigid chassis platform ripe for suspension tuning. More on that later.
It’s also worth noting that though MINI has engineered many key structural upgrades and reinforcements, the weight gain is as little as 11 lbs for the Cooper, and only about 30 lbs on the JCW (on US-spec cars). Euro-spec cars push up to around 40 lbs max weight gain. Given the gains in chassis stiffness, aesthetics, and suspension poise, that’s a weight tax I’m happy to pay.
Love it or hate it, the MINI Coupé’s most distinctive feature is its roofline. The windshield is backswept 16º from the R56, yet the Coupé is only 1.25″ lower than it’s hardtop sibling. Thanks to the dished-out sections in the interior, internal headroom is reduced by less than half an inch. At 6′ 3″ myself, I found slightly more headroom in the Coupé than in my sunroof-equipped R53. Viewed on its own, the rake of the Coupé’s windshield isn’t something you really notice. It looks completely “right” on the car. It’s only when you see the Coupé next to another MINI that the windshield angle becomes noticeable. Even then, it’s a positive notice. From the belt line down, a Coupé and a Hardtop are basically the same car, but the swept windshield plus the Coupé’s distinctive roof, make it look more contemporary and more aggressive. In a lot of ways, the Coupé looks like the car the R56 and R55 evolved from, rather than the other way around.
At the other end of the roof, the first of the Coupé’s two spoilers gives the car its distinctive backwards baseball cap look. I came to learn that this first spoiler serves a dual purpose. First, it directs airflow down the tail of the car toward the pop-up spoiler on the boot lid. This not only aids the downforce produced by the second spoiler, but serves to reduce the drag on the rear of the car. Secondly, the airflow off the first spoiler, according to MINI, keeps the rear window clean. This is why you won’t find a rear wiper on the Coupé. I’m curious to see if this turns out to be true in real world use.
Aesthetically, the roof looks simply fantastic in person. From every angle, the Coupé looks intentional and carefully thought out. It’s aggressive. It’s sleek. It’s mean. However, as bold a choice as the Coupé’s roof is, it’s not without its costs. Firstly, getting into the Coupé isn’t quite as easy as its hardtop siblings. It’s not difficult, even at my height, but it’s different from what current MINI owners have grown used to. Getting out is no big deal, but current MINI owners will have to relearn how they get into the car. Once seated, the MINI Coupé still seems surprisingly spacious and comfortable inside. The arc of roof feels much more sculpted around the cabin. Everything is a tad closer, but not in a claustrophobic way. However, those sculpted angles do cut into your visibility a bit. Looking forward, the Coupé has even more of a brow than the R56 does. This isn’t an issue for seeing traffic, and is actually pretty handy as the sun gets lower in the sky. The only place it’s a problem is if you pull up too close to the traffic light. This is already an issue in the current MINIs, it’s just a touch worse in the Coupé.
Rear visibility, however, is a different story. While the rear window essentially fills the rearview mirror, the position of the window meant that for taller drivers like me, you’re only able to see things immediately behind the car. It bothered me that I couldn’t see more than few car lengths behind me at any given time. I also couldn’t see the horizon behind me, let alone get a real picture of what traffic was doing. I couldn’t help but think that if I had a cop on my tail, I wouldn’t see him until he was right on my rear bumper. With the rear spoiler in the up position, you see even less out the rear view. I joked with one of the other journalists that it’s almost as though the rear window is there just so you can watch the spoiler move up and down in your rearview mirror. And really, the spoiler is so much fun that I’m completely okay with that. MINI is aware of the spoiler’s impact on visibility though, that’s why at 37 mph, it automatically retracts.
Where straight back rear visibility has its challenges, rear 3/4 visibility is all but compromised entirely. There are small windows between the B and C pillars, but the view through them is so limited that you’re left with a significant blind spot. Adjusting the side mirrors takes care of most of this issue, but it’s a significant difference from what R56 or R55 owners are used to. It will change the way you read traffic, especially while merging or changing lanes. On the driver’s side, the rounded shape of the door window cuts into some of your rear 3/4 view on that side as well. This was especially challenging when trying to see oncoming traffic from the left when stopped at an intersection. I had to lean further forward than I’m used to in order to get a clear view of oncoming cars. That said, none of these compromises in visibility really detract from the Coupé in my opinion. If anything, it’s character. But they’re worth mentioning because they’re a significant change from the rest of the solid roofs in the MINI lineup, yet also slightly better than say, a MINI Convertible with the top up.
Without the possibility of rear passengers, MINI engineers were able to dial in the Coupé’s rear suspension with greater precision. Gabe has already reported on MF that the Coupé is the most neutral and even tail-happy factory MINI ever produced. I can confirm this in the wild as well. The rear seat delete and chassis reinforcements have shifted the CG down and slightly forward, and MINI has balanced this against a 1mm thicker rear sway bar, plus stiffer rear dampening and rebound rates in the rear shocks and springs. This was especially noticeable on the JCW-equipped cars, but the Cooper S Coupé felt just as eager to turn in and poised through the corners. The Coupé takes the MINI handling feel we’ve all come to appreciate and turns it up to 11. If I had to sum it up in one word, it’d be this: poise. The Coupé feels put together at every level without ever feeling clinical or boring. In fact, the suspension is so responsive, and the car so eager to go where you tell it, that much of the time I was out driving the Coupé around, I’d forget to hit the Sport button. The car was already so much fun, it didn’t seem to need it. Though the roofline will get all the attention, it’s the Coupé’s suspension that makes it so special.
Driving the John Cooper Works Coupé
Though the Coupé will be available in Cooper, Cooper S and JCW trim, only Cooper S and JCW models were available for review at the press launch. Day one found me behind the wheel of a Lightning Blue/Silver John Cooper Works Coupé. As I pulled out onto the city streets of urban Nashville, the JCW Coupé felt immediately familiar. This is still a MINI, after all. This particular car was equipped with MINI Connected with Nav and the H/K sound system we’ve come to love in other MINI models. In the Coupé, however, the H/K system sound especially good as it’s a much smaller space to fill with sound. I wasn’t particularly interested in music at this point, I must confess, as I was having far too much fun listening to the rumbly growl of the JCW engine in front of me.
My JCW Coupé was equipped with all the JCW kit that counts: the powerplant, the suspension kit and the big brakes. Mated to the Coupé’s stiffened and rebalanced chassis, these top-shelf components combine to create a driving experience that made the car feel like the ultimate MINI that it is. Touting a 6.1 second 0-60 time, the JCW Coupé is the fastest production MINI ever built, including the GP. That speed bump is thanks to both its power and its improved aerodynamics. But make no mistake, this is no point-and-squirt muscle MINI. Mated to the specially-tuned JCW suspension, the JCW Coupé was poised at every speed and in every situation I could legally (or mostly legally) throw at it on civilian streets. Moving through freeway traffic was effortless and downright giggle inducing. On winding B-roads, the car positively dares you to push it faster and harder — a dare that only the local law enforcement can dissuade you from taking.
At the end of our day one route was an auto-x course set up in the parking lot at the Tennessee Titans football stadium. While not an ideal course for showing off the JCW Coupé’s high-speed poise, the course did give me an opportunity to push both the braking and handling limits. I parked my JCW review car and opted for a BRG2/silver JCW Coupé. The course kicked off with a balls-out, straight line acceleration, followed by a panic stop. Even the track-beaten demo car stopped in an incredibly short distance, thanks to its bright red JCW brakes. This was followed by the a series of quick turns and an aggressive slalom. This is where the Coupé’s unique suspension tuning really came into view. Driven straight through, the Coupé would understeer if pushed through the slalom with too much speed. However, a full lift or even a quick jab at the brake before each transition would bring the rear of the car around aggressively and duck the nose of the car into each tight turn. Even at this, the Coupé was very poised. That extra control over the rear end of the car let me push it much harder than I thought I’d be able to, yet at no point did the rear end come all the way around on me.
The JCW Coupé is, above all, a precision instrument. It’s so capable, and so poised, that by the end of the day I couldn’t help but feel like it was almost too capable for daily use. MINI fully intends the JCW Coupé to be a “halo” car for the brand — something to be aspired to. In that, they’ve succeeded completely. It’s all the MINI I could ever hope to drive. But that immense capability all but goes to waste on civilian roads. It’s a car that I would enjoy endlessly on roads like The Tail of the Dragon, or at a track day, but in my daily commute to the office, I think it’d be too restless — too anxious to live up to its immense potential. That’s not a criticism, as it’s not the car’s fault it’s basically too brilliant. It’s simply the reality of the roads I drive on every day. Thankfully though, there’s an alternative.
Driving the Cooper S Coupé
On day two, I got to go on a four hour road trip in the Cooper S Coupé, and had the pleasure of MINI’s Jim McDowell as my co-driver and navigator. Where the JCW Coupé is a serious, scalpel-precise and fire-breathing machine, the Cooper S Coupé is playful, quick and far more civilized. It’s as precise as you’d ever need it to be, yet retains a much more precocious and forgiving character than its older brother. Though the stiffer feel of the JCW was never uncomfortable, the Cooper S Coupé is a more compliant but still capable road feel. It retained the eagerness to turn in and its real handling limits are still well above the bounds of state and local speed limits. Yet the Cooper S Coupé was simply more fun on regular roads than the JCW version. The torquey, Valvetronic-equipped turbo engine replaced the JCW’s snarling brute force with an eager gallop that for lack of a better description, was simply more cheerful. With Sport button on, the engine back burble rounded out the package to create a driving experience that, for me anyway, would be enjoyable every day.
As we wound our way through the rolling Tennessee countryside, the Cooper S Coupé was a joy to drive. If a corner was a bit off camber or a bit sharper than anticipated, it didn’t matter. The Coupé would tear right through it. Braking was more than adequate, but I found myself missing the JCW brakes from the previous day’s car. With a huge boot full of luggage for our respective flights out that afternoon, the Coupe’s positioning as the ultimate two-person road trip car came into focus. The boot would seem large on most mid-sized sports sedans, so it’s especially impressive in the back of a MINI. Sipping fuel along our four hour journey, the Cooper S Coupé was the perfect blend of back road assault vehicle and long-distance economy.
If I had to pick one over the other, I’d spend my own money on the Cooper S Coupé, rather than the JCW. Not because of price though, because when you stack the JCW Coupé against its rivals such as the Audi TT, you’re getting terrific value for money. No, I’d choose the Cooper S Coupé because it’d be so easy to live with and fun to drive in those every day situations. With the available JCW body kit and brakes added, the Cooper S Coupé would be the sweet spot for my garage. However, if you’ve got regular access to the kinds of roads that would really challenge it, or are a much more avid auto-x’er or track day enthusiast than I am, the JCW Coupé may indeed be your ultimate MINI. It’s a car that fully lives up to its halo aspirations.
In terms of overall feel, the Coupé felt like a slightly more well-balanced R56. In fact, everything about the Coupé felt familiar yet special. The thoughtful interior touches, such as the cabin parcel shelf behind the seats, made the car feel wholly intentional. The Coupé, at every level, feels like a bespoke special edition — like a much more limited edition car than it is. When you drive one, you don’t get the sense that it’s a production car. It seems too right, too unique, too custom tailored. From the outside, it’s the same story. The Coupé looks so intentionally MINI, yet so uniquely its own animal. If it were the only one in existence, it wouldn’t surprise you. The looks I got from other drivers told the whole story. From one fellow in a minivan, it was a huge thumbs up and a bounce in his seat — especially when I put the boot spoiler up for him. From another guy in an older Z4, it was an open mouthed stare of pure envy. My favorite reactions, though, were from other MINI owners. I got waves, pointed fingers and huge smiles from folks in Coopers, Clubman and Countryman — exactly who this car is aimed at. If you’re a fan of MINI, your hero car is here.