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km : First Drive

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30 September 2011

Back in 2001, when BMW relaunched Mini, we were curious about how an entire modern brand could be built around a single model, especially such a nichey one as the Mini Cooper. Ten years on, it’s obvious the folks in Oxford had no such plans at all. While the first generation of the new Mini Cooper included only hardtop and convertible iterations, the second generation that arrived in 2007 has spawned numerous new models, including the longer-wheelbase Clubman and this year’s all-new, four-door Countryman “activity” vehicle. But earlier this year Mini pulled the wraps off its most interesting derivative yet, the Cooper Coupe.



Look at Me



Structurally, the Coupe is a bit of a Frankenstein, starting with its odd little lid, which Mini likes to call its “Helmet Roof,” and the shortened greenhouse. Styled to look like a baseball cap turned backwards, the smaller, lower roof definitely adds to the Coupe’s sporty feel. Aiding in that is the more aggressively-raked windshield, which is tilted back an extra 13 percent compared to the hardtop, as the original bodystyle is known.



Out back, the fixed upper rear spoiler gives away the car’s sporting intentions, while also funneling air down to Mini’s first ever active rear spoiler. This second spoiler raises at 50 mph and lowers once the car drops back below 37. There’s a toggle switch that will let you raise the wing at speeds below 50 mph if you want to look cool, though the raised wing noticeably cuts into the already compromised rear visibility from the driver’s seat.



Everything from the A-pillar forward is a direct transplant from the hardtop. Below the shoulder line and aft of the A-pillar, most components are from the convertible Cooper, but with substantial additional bracing behind the two seats (another first in the Mini family) in order to give the handling a boost.



Inside Scoop



Not surprisingly, the interior consists primarily of bits culled from existing Mini parts bins. The trunk still isn’t really a “trunk” per se, but rather a rear hatch that opens all the way to above the upper fixed rear spoiler; it makes for a much heavier lid than what you would expect the first time you open it. Cargo space is adequate for a sporty two-seater, with enough room to hold two passengers’ carry-on luggage and laptop cases comfortably. Because of the larger rear torsion bar, the luggage compartment’s floor is stepped, with a raised section toward the front of the car, making it impossible for those carry-on bags to lay flat.



With space between the rear brace and the front seats, Mini’s engineers included two parcel shelves to stow smaller items, as well as a lockable cubby hole on the lower portion of the rear wall with the capacity of a large lunch box. Ergonomics are typical Mini with comfortable seats and decent seating positions, but switchgear that’s a little out of reach and too cumbersome to live with every day.



Possibly the most notable feature of the new Mini’s interior is the pair of indents found in the headliner, a laFord GT40. Despite the Coupe’s roof being one inch lower than the hardtop’s, these indents give you back six-tenths of an inch, meaning taller people, including this 6‘1” writer, can still fit comfortably.



Mini’s engineers insist the lack of rear seats allows great rear suspension freedom, allowing for decisions such as a rear torsion bar that’s three millimeters larger on the Coupe than on any other body style. As a result, Mini says that the Coupe is its quickest and fastest model it’s ever produced. The winding Appalachian backroads outside Nashville, Tennessee, where Mini turned us loose with its latest toy, proved the perfect playground to test the new setup.



Driven to Extremes



”Fun to drive” has been at the essence of Mini since its rebirth, and the Cooper Coupe only amplifies this spirit. Steering is reasonably weighted for around-town maneuvers, and if the driver finds it a touch on the light side, the sport button just ahead of the shifter adds just a bit more heft to the wheel in addition to quickening throttle response. The wheel communicates exactly what is going on at the front wheels, though it doesn’t have much to say about the mostly billiard-smooth roads around Nashville. With both Cooper S and John Cooper Works models on hand to test, the JCW proved quite a bit harsher over the rough spots we found. The benefit of the Works hot rod’s stiffer suspension is an incredibly flat-handling car through the twisties.



A makeshift slalom course in the parking lot at LP Field, where the Tennesse Titans play, proved just how flat the JCW remains in tight corners, where it displayed very little body roll as it danced through the cones. Weight transfer in the less tightly sprung Cooper S is significant enough that it warrants additional concentration on the course. High-speed esses and straightaways also really demonstrate the difference between the JCW’s 208 horsepower and the S’s 181; the tight cornering maneuver at the end also makes us thankful for the JCW’s 12.4-inch Brembo brakes (the Cooper S wears 11.4-inch discs). When pushed hard, both cars naturally tend toward understeer, but a quick lift of the right pedal brings it back into line.



In everyday driving these effects won’t be as obvious. It took us an afternoon on an autocross course to discover the nuances ourselves. And if you’ve ever driven a Mini, you won’t be surprised by the drive experience at all; with so many components coming from other Cooper models, it drives, well, like a Mini.



The JCW Coupe may be the quickest Mini ever built, but we’re talking a 0-60 of 6.1 seconds versus 6.2 for the JCW Hardtop and a top speed of 149 versus 147, respectively. It’s a very slight advantage at best, particularly the top speed claim, which means nothing in the land of double-digit speed limits.



Gadget Geeks Rejoice



When it comes to infotainment, Mini is on it, and the Coupe is no exception. All the cars on hand featured navigation and Mini Connected technology. When paired with an iPhone (Mini promises Android and other smart phone platforms are coming soon) plugged into the USB port in the dash, Mini Connected can use your phone’s data connection to connect to the outside world. And rather than just augment the current experience as other manufacturers’ internet-connected solutions do, the system actually adds quite a few new features.



Probably the coolest and most useful function of Mini Connected is the ability to stream internet radio directly through the car’s audio system. Using the phone’s internet connection, services like Pandora and MOG can be part of your daily commute. Better still, these services are totally integrated, being controlled through the large screen in the center-mounted speedometer and the console-mounted joystick to minimize distractedness. Even advanced features like giving a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down to a song on Pandora, or creating a custom radio station through MOG is handled right through the controls on screen. Other features include the ability to have tweets and Facebook updates read aloud by the car’s text-to-speech engine.



It’s all very slick, except for the fact that the data connection still relies on your phone’s antenna to maintain a data connection — something we experienced issues with in the more remote areas of Nashville’s suburbs — rather than have an antenna built into the car which may receive signal better, as other manufacturers offer.



Without a doubt, the new Cooper Coupe represents the most concentrated form of Mini’s fun-to-drive ethos yet. Visually, there’s nothing else like it on the road. But as we said before, it’s not a completely different type of drive from the established Hardtop models, and it may be hard for some to justify spending almost $2000 to lose the modest practicality a regular Mini Cooper offers. Nevertheless, its funky looks and improved performance should be enough to find new fans. And if it still proves too practical, a completely senseless roadster version bows next February, and we’re guessing it will be even more fun.


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