Driven: 2012 Mini Cooper S Coupe

By Brandon Turkus

September 28, 2011

—Nashville, Tennessee
Since exploding back onto the automotive scene with the 2002 Mini Cooper, the Mini brand has “grown” in multiple ways. The current Cooper hatchback is bigger than the model released in 2002, which is, in turn, utterly massive compared to the model penned by Sir Alec Issigonis for the 1959 original. Add in the long-wheelbase Clubman, and the all-wheel-drive, four-door Countryman, and one could be forgiven for thinking that Mini was losing its Mini-ness.
Now along comes this Coupe, a two-seat, three-box design that hopes to bring the brand back to its roots as a maker of fast, attractive, chuckable, and distinctively styled small cars. In terms of distinctive styling, this car doesn’t just stand out from the Mini range, it positively screams, “Look at me!” when parked next to a hardtop. This car looks like the wild child of the Mini range.
That’s thanks in large part to its two most distinctive styling elements: a revised windscreen and roof design. To achieve the three-box shape, Mini gave the windshield a rake that is 13-degrees sharper than the hatchback. If you’re thinking that this might adversely modify visibility, you’re dead right. Due to the sharp angle of the windshield, and your author’s long-legged frame, forward visibility was quite possibly the worst we’ve ever experienced. We tried scooting the seat up, but that did little to help the problem. The roofline simply comes too far forward.
As for that helmet roof, it looks considerably better in person. The fixed spoiler mounted above the rear glass (which Mini insists removes the need for a rear windshield wiper as it diverts dirt and water from the rear window) gives the car some real attitude. Like the front of the car though, the design does hurt visibility. The rear window is just too small. We did appreciate the inclusion of small windows between the B- and C-pillars, as it made us slightly more confident during lane changes. Mini might want to think long and hard about adding a blind-spot warning system though.
An active rear spoiler also hampers rear visibility. Like the Audi TT, the spoiler will deploy at speed, improving overall stability. It pops up automatically at 50 miles per hour, and retracts at 37 mph. You are also able to raise and lower it yourself below 37 mph.
The problem we have is that it diminishes what little rear visibility there is in the first place. This is less of a factor on a curvy road, where rear view is less important, but in the real world having the ability to raise and lower it regardless of speed would make us feel a lot better when maneuvering through traffic.
Interior styling isn’t a real departure from the rest of the Mini range. The Coupe boasts some exclusive trims and upholstery, but overall the interior will look familiar to any Mini customer from the past several years.
Despite the revised roofline, the Coupe doesn’t really lose a great deal of headroom, thanks to a pair of recesses in the roofline above both seats. A rear parcel shelf with a pass-through to the trunk adds a bit of the hatchback’s utility. A right-sized, leather-wrapped steering wheel and nicely bolstered seats are borrowed from the rest of the Mini range. Ingress and egress isn’t too difficult, despite the two-seater’s roof sitting 1.25-inches lower than the hatchback.
If a performance Mini is what you want, the Coupe is the car to get. The John Cooper Works version is the fastest Mini ever produced, boasting a 0-60 time of 6.1 seconds, and a top speed of 149 miles per hour. The Cooper S and Cooper are no slouches either, hitting 60 in 6.5 and 8.3 seconds respectively, en route to top speeds of 142 and 127 miles per hour. For the stat hounds out there, that means that each two-seat Mini is a tenth-of-a-second faster to 60 miles per hour than its four-seat cousins, and has a top speed that’s anywhere from one to two miles per hour higher as well.
Those numbers are generated from the same naturally aspirated or turbocharged 1.6-liter fours found in the rest of the Mini range. Six-speed manuals are standard across the range, while six-speed automatics are available on the base and S models.
The engine and transmissions perform just as admirably in the two-seat Mini as they do in the rest of the range. There is some turbo lag, and torque steer exiting turns is still an issue, but otherwise power is plentiful. We did wish the Coupe came with a more aggressive exhaust note, though we were happy to hear the return of popping and crackling noises on overrun. This feature was first engineered into the last years of the R53 Mini, and has finally made a return on for all 2011 models onward. It adds a nice dose of attitude to the growly exhaust note.
The six-speed manual still isn’t the best gearbox on the market, lacking the precision smoothness of a Honda shifter, but it certainly isn’t bad. The same can be said of the automatic transmission. It’s not as quick-shifting as a dual-clutch unit, but left to its own devices, it’ll deliver admirable performance. The steering is pretty much the same as well. The amount of weight behind the wheel is spot on, but overall feedback is still lacking.
Reading to this point, we’d excuse you for thinking that the Mini Coupe is essentially a Mini hatchback with its party hat on. And that would be the case, if it weren’t for the revised handling package. Mini used the same McPherson front/multi-link rear suspension found on other cars in the range, but a slight change in rear weight distribution along with the lower center of gravity makes for a far more confident drive.
This car takes Mini’s trademark go-kart handling to another level. Minis already deliver the majority of feedback through the suspension, and that is no different on the Coupe. But it’s the way that information is transmitted that really impresses. The two-seater uses a torsion wall, which runs between the seats and trunk, and connects to the B-pillars and rocker panels. This keeps the Coupe structurally rigid, while having the happy effect of transmitting the cars lateral motion right behind the driver’s gluteus maximus. This front-drive Mini delivers an almost mid-engine sensation of feedback, as the majority of weight passes extremely close to the driver.
Besides the excellent communication, the Coupe is quite a good handler. Squat and dive were tidily controlled, although nowhere near as well as body roll. Turn-in was also quite sharp, as the car really felt like it was digging into the pavement under hard directional changes. We did notice that the two-seat Mini doesn’t rotate as quickly as the hatch, which we think is a good thing. The hardtop tends to whip its tail around a bit too fast sometimes, which is a disconcerting sensation on a twisting road. The Coupe, on the other hand, delivers much more progressive rear end movement, and is quite easy to correct with some counter steering and throttle application.
If there is one thing that we value more than anything when reviewing a car, it’s feedback. It is the man-machine interface that makes driving such an enjoyable experience. What Mini has done with the Coupe, is take a car that already was quite talkative, and amped things up to deliver one of the most communicative and affordable cars on the market. We questioned at the beginning of this story if Mini had lost its Mini-ness. Well after a turn in the Coupe, we can say without a doubt, that the iconic British brand’s identity is as strong as ever.
VS: Mazda MX-5 Miata
While the Mini Cooper S and MX-5 have been natural enemies at the local autocross, no Mini has ever represented as much of a direct challenge to the MX-5 as the Coupe. The Mazda, in top-line Grand Touring form, is only 168 pounds lighter than the Mini, but is down 14 horsepower and more importantly, 37 pound-feet of torque (52 pound-feet when the Mini is on overboost). So the Mini wins the straight-line contest fairly easily.
While it’s a safe bet that the MX-5 could outmaneuver a Mini hatch, the revised Coupe might be a different story. The MX-5 is the more communicative car here, but it’s by a fairly slim margin.
Finally, the MX-5 has always suffered on the utility front, and it’s no different here. The Mini simply has more places to put your stuff in the cabin, and it has a trunk that is actually usable all the time.
VS: Audi TT
Yes, the Coupe is a bit of a niche product, so to find another competitor, we need to move up to the considerably more expensive TT. The Audi boasts more power (211 versus 181) than the Mini, but the big difference comes in the torque department, as the Audi produces a whopping great 258 pound-feet of torque. Even on overboost, the Mini is still 66 pound-feet shy of the Audi.
The Audi is quite a bit heavier than the Mini though, tipping the scales at 3153 pounds. So while its 5.3-second 0-60 time might best even the JCW, the Cooper S would likely make up quite a bit of ground in the turns.
2012 Mini Cooper S Coupe
Engine: Turbocharged four-cylinder, 1.6 liters, 16v
Output: 181 hp/177 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 6.5 sec
Top Speed: 142 mph
Base Price: $25,300
On Sale: Fall 2011