Before 2011, if you were looking for a hot hatch but wanted something MINIer than a Cooper, your options were limited to the less than smart Smart BRABUS. With fuel costs on the rise and fuel economy targets looming, MINI and Fiat are hoping to tempt “sporty” shoppers into something smaller and more practical. This week we have the MINI answer to the question: why doesn’t MINI make a heavier John Cooper Works (JCW) without back seats? We kid, we kid. But in all seriousness, why would you buy the MINI Coupé instead of the four-seater JCW Cooper, JCW Roadster or even the sexy Italian we tested last week?
The modular car strategy has been around for some time, but few auto makers take the “one sausage, different lengths” school of design to these heights. The MINI Coupé is instantly familiar with its large headlights, hood scoop and perky side view mirrors. To “coupify” the basic building blocks of the MINI brand, the engineers raked the windshield back, lowered the roof, ditched the hatchback for a “liftback” with a faux-trunk and added the infamous ” backwards baseball cap” spoiler. MINI prefers to call this design cue a “helmet,” but to my eye it’s just funky. And not in the groovy kinda way. Completing the look is a spoiler that deploys from the faux-trunk at 50MPH and retracts at 40 MPH. My bottom line: if you wan an attractive 2-seat MINI, just buy the Roadster.
While this may be splitting hairs, MINI tells us the Coupé is based on the Roadster which is based on the Cabriolet which is ultimately based on the Cooper. This
game of semantics lineage is important because while the Coupé rides on the same 97.1-inch wheelbase as the Cooper, it inherits all the chassis stiffening from the Cabriolet and the Roadster, then adds the rigidity imparted by a solid top. Oh, and it ditches the Cooper’s rear seats.
All MINI models share more than just their design DNA – the interior bits are shared across the range, too. This is by no means a dig against MINI, as on the whole MINI’s parts bin is a nice place to be. As with every other MINI, the interior greets you with a ginormous round speedometer front-and-center and more chrome toggle switches than you can imagine. As always, the speedometer’s location means it’s more of a styling exercise than a useful gauge and thankfully MINI continues to provide a digital speed readout in the tachometer on the steering column. If you were hoping the MINI Coupé would improve on the few problem areas of the modern MINI, you’ll be disappointed. The same blend of first-rate stitched leather and bargain-basement headliners still exist.
The relative roominess of the Cooper gives way to a cabin that feels cozy, bordering on “tight.” The raked exterior design required moving the driver’s seat rearward which yields a seating (position relative to the wheels) that is similar to many RWD coupés. Headroom is still fairly good despite the lowered roof thanks to the novel way the headliner is molded with “divots” above the driver and passenger. Although this is unlikely to be a feature tested regularly, these “head wells” mean the MINI Coupé is one of the few cars I have tested recently where you can sit in a comfortable driving position wearing a helmet and not have it constantly hitting the ceiling.
The infotainment system on the JCW Coupé is a basic, 6-speaker AM/FM/XM/HD Radio/CD unit. That’s right, iDevice integration and a Bluetooth interface are $500 extra. If you’re a gadget hound like I am, be ready to open your wallet because the options list is extensive, full featured and high-priced. An extra $500 (or $250 if you planned to get the armrest anyway) gets you the MINI Connected system (without navigation). MINI Connected is essentially BMW’s iDrive (circa 2011) with a rounded LCD and a more minimalist control interface. Like iDrive, Connected provides an elegant, snappy interface for browsing your tunes along with iPhone app integration. As with BMW’s iPhone app, you can Tweet, Facebook, stream internet radio, Google, and view some additional “sport” themed instrumentation on the LCD.
MINI takes the app thing to a new level with their “Dynamic Music” and “Mission Control” apps. Dynamic Music plays digitized, beat-heavy, music that changes as you drive. Speed up and the tempo increases while the system adds more instruments. Flip your turn signal on and cymbals start ringing out of the speaker on the side that you’re indicating. Mission Control plays canned phrases in stereotypical British accents in response to driver inputs. Floor the MINI and the system says “fulllll throttle!” Press the Sport button and several canned voices have a conversation about sporty driving. While it is entertaining for a day or two, I can’t imagine owners using this option daily.
Like a gateway drug, once you have MINI Connected, it’s hard to say no to the $750 nav. Once you have the nav, it’s easy to up-sell the $750 Harman/Kardon speaker system. After all that’s been added, your MINI sales rep will tell you “if you select the Technology Package you can add the parking sensors for half price” ($250.) Total up-sell: $2,750 and we have only just begun. The JCW Coupé has a base MSRP of $31,900 ($32,050 for 2013), but if you’re buying “off the lot,” expect to pay around $38,000 according to our survey of 4 local MINI dealers. Our tester rang in at $38,450 and included metallic paint, the Connected system with navigation, chrome accents, black headlamps, sport stripes, white turn signals, chrome mirror caps and the up-level speaker system. This represents a nearly $2,000 premium over a similarly equipped four-seat JCW hatchback.
Powering the JCW Coupé is the same 1.6L four-cylinder engine shared with every MINI model (as well as select BMW, Citroën and Peugeot models), only this one’s had a twin-scroll turbo and direct-injection bolted on. New for 2013 is a variable valve event system based on BMW’s Valvetronic technology to reduce emissions (power output remains the same.) The JCW tuning increases power to 208HP at a lofty 6,000RPM and torque jumps to 192-lbft from 1,850-5,600RPM. MINI incorporates an “over-boost” function to bump torque to 207 lb-ft (2,000-5,200RPM) automatically under the right conditions. A six-speed manual is the only cog-swapper on JCW models in 2012, but for 2013 MINI has announced you’ll be able to have the car shift for you. MINI has yet to release official pricing on 2013 options, but expect the Aisin six-speed automatic to add around $1,250.
Before our week-long stint in the JCW, I had an opportunity to drive a similarly equipped JCW Coupé on Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca. The impression that resulted is a classic problem in our business. The JCW Coupé impressed with impeccable track manners, incredible grip, perfect poise in the corkscrew, moderate steering feel and a feeling of confidence. Note that I didn’t say “fast.” Sorry MINI fans, with only 208 horses motivating 2,811lbs, the power to weight ratio ends up around 13.5:1 (lbs:HP.) This means the JCW Coupé scoots to 60 in 6.6 seconds, notably slower than the Volvo XC60 R-Design we had last month (5.6 seconds) or even a V6 Camry (6 seconds).
Back to the problem with testing a road car on a track. First and most obvious, the only place you’ll find perfect pavement in California is on a track. The rest of us must contend with potholes, loose pavement,
stop-light races, off camber corners, and parking lots. The “glued to the ground” handling feel the JCW exhibited on the track was replaced by a vehicle that felt decidedly unsettled over corners with broken pavement. The increased chassis rigidity, stiffer springs and run-flat tires that made the JCW Coupé a delight on the track also make it a back killer on Highway 101. The road noise that wasn’t a problem when you were wearing a helmet was a problem when you’re trying to have a hands-free conversation on the speakerphone. On the track you’re looking forward, on the road, the roof design and B pillars cause enormous blind spots while the seating position and small rear window make rearward visibility poor with the spoiler down and nearly non-existent with the spoiler deployed. Keep in mind, these trade-offs are nothing new, many manufacturers follow exactly the same formula to create performance versions, especially those with low curb weights.
There is little practical reason to buy the JCW Coupé over the regular hatchback JCW Cooper, unless you live in an area with three-person HOV lanes and your carpool is a dynamic duo.The regular JCW Cooper delivers 99% of the fun for nearly $2,000 less, has two extra seats, more cargo room and is far more attractive. If money is no object MINI has an even better solution for you: the MINI JCW Roadster. The drop-top MINI two-seater solves all the aesthetic issues of the Coupé and goes topless to boot. The problem? The price. A roadster is $3,300 more than the Coupé in 2012 and $4,350 more for 2013.
Because of how great the JCW Coupé felt on the track, I spent an entire week trying to find a compelling reason to buy one over the regular JCW Cooper hatchback. I’m still searching. Likewise the MINI Coupé seems to be the answer to a question few have asked. If you are one of the few people I met that liked the way the Coupé looked, or you just want one of the rarest MINIs around, then the JCW Coupé is for you. Everyone else should stop at the Fiat dealer and check out an Abarth on their way to buy the JCW Cooper hatchback.
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MINI provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Specifications as tested:
0-30: 2.8 Seconds
0-60: 6.6 Seconds (I’m sure a professional driver could eek out a 6.4)
1/4 Mile: 15.0 Seconds @ 98MPH
Average fuel economy: 25.6MPG over 754 miles