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2012 Mini Cooper Coupe JCW

posted by on 9 May 2012 in Passing Lane

The Mini Cooper, in so-called “Hardtop” form (or as we call it, a hatchback), is a stylish, practical piece of compact transportation, renowned for its surprising interior space, visibility, and all-around functionality.  Ask the guy (that’s me) who’s owned a brace of them. Last September, when our man Tom first drove the new Mini Cooper S Coupe, he praised its performance and looks, but questioned its raison d’etre. But he took part in a one-day drive under the control of Mini’s press department. What we wanted to know is this: would a week spent commuting to our suburban Chicago offices reveal its true purpose?

Yes, as a matter of fact. After just a couple days piloting the coupe from inside the gun turret Mini calls a cockpit, it became clear to us that the Mini Cooper Coupe exists for one reason only: to be a convertible. Everywhere we look, the evidence shouts that the Coupe is really the by-product of Mini’s funky little Roadster; it’s an oddball derivative for those who desire all the isolation from the elements afforded by the hardtop but without any of its actual day-to-day benefits.

From inside, the coupe looks as though an impromptu roof has been grafted onto the roadster’s body. The A-pillar trim, for instance, is cleanly capped at its peak for a neat finish when the non-existent drop-top’s roof is folded. Likewise for the seatbelts, which are mounted where a proper B-pillar might begin. And the roof itself, which is no longer flat and Mini-like, but instead curves around all four sides like a ragtop.

The Coupe’s “boot” might seem larger than the hatchback’s at first glance, especially considering the elimination of the rear seats. However, the fastback design actually cuts off the top half of the cargo capacity, effectively making the Coupe’s full trunk only marginally more useable than that of the Hardtop with its rear seats upright, but offering less than a third of the Hardtop’s overall, seats-folded capacity.

The result of all of this is a heavily compromised little car. Outward visibility is reminiscent of a ‘90s-era Lamborghini, which is to say it’s acceptable as long as you’re looking straight ahead through the steeply raked windshield. But even that can be a challenge, since the windshield itself is so short, that I (at a modest 5’8”) had to hunch forward in order to see the traffic lights at some intersections. On top of that, the Coupe’s chop-shop roofline is loud, creating a lot more wind noise where the window meets the b-pillar.

With practicality out, perhaps the Coupe can make up for its shortcomings with a boost in performance? You’d think. Despite two fewer seats and seemingly less sheetmetal and glass, a Mini Cooper Coupe is actually 33 pounds heavier than an equivalent Hardtop. Our test Coupe, equipped with the 208-hp, 192 lb-ft high-performance John Cooper Works (JCW) package, accelerated briskly in every gear with almost no turbo lag from the twin-scroll turbocharged engine, the same as the last Hardtop JCW we drove. Its slightly quicker run to 60 mph (6.1 seconds vs 6.2) and higher vMax (149 mph vs 147) may solely be a result of the Coupe’s 0.01 coefficient of drag advantage over the Hardtop (0.35 vs 0.36). Because one hand takes what the other one gives, the two cars share EPA fuel economy numbers of 25 city/33 highway.

The one clear advantage the Coupe holds over the Hardtop is its road prowess, particularly with regards to chassis rigidity. It’s no surprise, really — that bulkhead brace immediately behind the front seats (where the two rear seat normally live) stiffens up the chassis considerably as it’s necessary to keep the Mini Roadster from flopping about. At a brisk pace, it’s hard to complain about the Coupe’s agility. A Mini Cooper S Hardtop equipped with the JCW upgrade is a benchmark for front-wheel-drive steering performance and feel; the JCW Coupe improves on that, with remarkably more feel and surprisingly neutral handling that all other understeering front-drivers will envy for generations to come.

The more visceral nature of the JCW’s other hardware suits the Coupe’s punk-ass attitude. Cold pads inside the big Brembo four-pot calipers squeal incessantly as they clamp down on 12.4-inch inch rotors, singing until they get a little heat in them. Adding to the symphony is a more emphatic note from the hi-flow exhaust, though mysteriously absent (and disappointingly so) is the burble and pop that Mini Cooper S owners get during deceleration with the sport button engaged. Perhaps it’s a function of the JCW N14 engine versus the N18 in the MCS variants, or maybe it’s a programming thing in the ECU. Either way, it is missed.

For our money, if we’re going to lose the back seat, trunk space, quiet cabin, and visibility, why not opt for the Roadster? After all, $38,450 could buy either a lot more performance or a lot more practicality. This price included full leather seats, technology package (MiniConnected and navigation), xenon headlights, Harmon Kardon sound system and sport suspension, but not the Cold Weather Package — a must in Chicago — or automatic climate control.

We have no doubt that the Mini Cooper Coupe, in all its engine configurations, will develop its own cult following, as has been the case with every other Mini variant since 2001. It is, after all, undeniably a Mini: great fun to drive, and with a larger presence than its diminutive stature would suggest. But like a pair of fingerless gloves or pre-distressed jeans, the coupe is a constant reminder that its previous functionality that has been, unfortunately, diminished for the sake of fashion.

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