Long-Term Car: 2012 Mini Cooper S Coupe First Impressions

By Winding Road Staff

January 24, 2012

After our first driving experience with the new Mini Coupe, you can probably imagine our delight when we found out we’d be able to get a Cooper S Coupe in for a long-term test. Historically our long-term coverage of cars has lead to better and deeper understanding of the models (no surprise there), and I don’t know that we’ve ever had anything as interesting to drive and as controversial to our audience as the Coupe for the long haul. Our year with Mini should prove to be filled with debate, at the very least.
To get the ball rolling with the Coupe, three of our Michigan-based editors took turns with a week in the car, to firm up our baseline of driving impressions. (As the months roll on, we’ll make an effort to get some seat time for those folks in our Texas offices, too.) Don’t be surprised to see the LT Coupe end up in further Winding Road features, comparison tests, and video content before the year is out.
Week 1 – Seyth Miersma
After only spending one night in the only other Mini Coupe we’d seen in the office to date (that a fire-breathing JCW version), there was no way I was going to pass up first dibs in our long-term car. The Cooper S Coupe came rolling into the office on its summer performance tires, just in time for the 2012 Detroit Auto Show, which seems like a nightmare in the making but turned out to be just fine. For the first time that I can remember, I wasn’t forced to drive through God’s snowy fury to reach the Cobo Center, meaning the Mini stuck to the road as I was driving it, instead of skating over the top.
(Don’t worry folks, despite our mild early winter conditions when the Coupe first showed up, I do recognize the fact that snow tires will be essential to our safe enjoyment of the car throughout the winter. The swapping of summer for winter rubber is being undertaken as I write this piece.)
My first impression of the Cooper S versus the JCW we’d recently had time in, was that the milder Mini wasn’t leaving all that much on the table. The trade-off in absolute sharpness where handling is concerned was mild, especially in the sort of normal driving most of us do, most of the time. The JCW certainly felt crisper and quicker overall, but my opportunity to leverage those traits (in an admittedly small amount of seat time) was minor. Track both cars and I’ve no doubt that the JCW will prove the faster point-to-point machine, but in the humdrum world of real driving, both cars feel quick, maneuverable, and pretty stiffly sprung.
The ride quality here may not be notably different from the standard Mini Cooper S, but it was rugged enough that my wife Molly called foul as I clipped the occasional pothole or section of cracked pavement. The rest of the Winding Road staff and I will most likely spend some goodly amount of time over the next year praising the directness of the feedback from the underpinnings, but to the unenthusiastic passenger (who only wants to get to the restaurant in peace) the phrasing was, “too crashy.” The ride didn’t bother me at all, and I’ll go ahead and assume that the tuning was done for an audience closer for me than to Molly, but there’s no “magic carpet ride” experience going on over rough surfaces, to be sure.
None of the ride quality stuff came into play during my first week—certainly not on the longish commute from my house to downtown Detroit for the opening day of the show. In fact I was most struck by how calm the Mini Coupe felt at 80 miles per hour or so on the open freeway, where I’d half expected to find a lot more straight-line jitters. The coupe was plenty planted and easy to relax with in the freeway environment, though the wind noise was loud enough to easily remind me that I wasn’t in a Rolls-Royce. Still, I wouldn’t have any problem commuting in this car—even the overall visibility was better than I’d expected. (Not “good” mind you, but better than I would have guessed.)
Downtown Detroit isn’t usually a crowed urban environment, but the early-morning slog of traffic before NAIAS is always quite heavy, and this year was no exception. That proved to be a good thing though, as the quick-turning, small-footprint Mini felt in element cutting through crowded city streets, and sneaking into very cramped parking conditions. During the warm months we my find a natural habitat for the Mini Coupe at the local autocross and/or road course (stay tuned), but I can safely say that the car is perfectly suited for urbanites, too.
Week 2 – John Beltz Snyder
When I first took the reins to the Mini Coupe, Seyth handed me the keys as we left day one of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and pointed in the general direction of its parking spot on the Cobo roof parking deck. Exhausted and famished, I found it, hopped in, fired it up, and started setting up the navigation for my trip home.
Using the system was surprisingly easy and intuitive, despite not having used the little joystick control much in the past. The menus are easy to navigate, and are clearly marked, and you don’t have to dig very deep through them to get to the feature you want to use. Scrolling is easy via twisting the joystick, and the predictive system was smart and fast. In just moments, I had my route programmed, with the not-too-robotic voice guiding me through the streets of Detroit and onto the highway.
And if I was tired getting into the car, a couple miles of decaying Michigan roads woke me right up. The sport suspension on the coupe is not for the faint of heart—it communicates everything back to the driver. I actually really appreciate such a talkative suspension, despite the occasional discomfort of driving over patchy pavement.
Also, my eyes were widened even further by the super crisp, fast reaction of the steering. It’s even more “go-kart” then the Mini Cooper, but somehow feels even more stable in hard cornering—there’s not nearly as much of that skipping sideways feeling as its siblings.
Over the weekend, I did a lot of running around town in the Coupe. At one point, I was giving a friend a lift, and he couldn’t contain his laughter as the Mini’s boosted engine flung us to speed, and as the car rotated very quickly and flatly in the turns. My friend, who doesn’t drive, mentioned that he had never seen himself owning a car before, but that with the Mini Coupe, with its size, personality, and entertaining driving dynamics, he could envision himself living with the vehicle and liking it.
And, despite the combination of summer tires and a snowy, unplowed neighborhood, I loved living with the car for the week. Parking in crowded garages is a breeze, running errands becomes a form of entertainment, and trips to the gas station are few and far between. The car is still so new and rare that I got a lot of looks from people, and a few questions here and there, but it wasn’t bothersome. And for the amount of joy driving a fast, small car brings, I can deal with the occasional gawker, especially if they also appreciate good cars.
Week 3 – Brandon Turkus

Having the longest commute of the Winding Road team, I knew I’d be putting a lot of miles on our long-term Mini. Thankfully, all I’d need to survive would be a couple of ibuprofen with the morning coffee, and my iPhone.
If you can ignore the firm ride delivered by the combination of the Mini’s sport suspension, run-flat tires, and the cratered roads of Metro Detroit (that’s what the drugs are for), then the Mini is a great little commuter. John and Seyth both covered the bases for puttering around town in the Mini, so I’ll simply add that they are speaking 100-percent truth. This thing is a hoot to drive, especially in tight urban situations, where you can really exploit its speed, maneuverability, and size. Still, I can imagine the harsh ride getting pretty annoying, especially as the winter freeze/frost cycle takes its toll on the roads.
As good as the Mini is when zipping around town, it’s more than just a fun-to-drive car. Considering my epic commute each day, music is a key part of the whole motive experience for me. The Coupe had me well catered for in that regard, boasting Mini’s new infotainment system, Mini Connected.
Mini Connected is essentially the same system as BMW’s iDrive. The main difference is that MC lacks the home buttons of each area that iDrive has (which isn’t really an issue at all once you get used to it). With Mini Connected and the associated app, you are getting a wealth of audio options right through your phone’s data stream. Web-based radio stations are available from all over the world, meaning that no two traffic jams need ever be the same. If you are an audiophile, than you’ll find no shortage of interesting ways of expanding your musical tastes.
When I first found out that we’d be receiving a long-term Mini, I was excited to compare and contrast the ownership experience of this new car with the two Minis I’ve owned (a pair of Cooper S models, vintage 2004 and 2006 respectively). The increase in refinement is immediately noticeable in the new car. Materials look and feel nicer, and the fit and finish of trim pieces is far superior. Even though the Coupe is the most extreme body style on offer, it isn’t the visceral driving experience that the 2002-2006 Minis were. To put it in simpler terms, it’s like switching from a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX to the softer, more civilized Evo X. You are still getting a lot of bang for your buck, but the overall experience is somehow diluted. I’m wondering if getting the Coupe into some warmer weather and some better roads will change my mind on this point. And maybe I’ll need to get my Cooper S fired up for a more direct comparison.
2012 Mini Cooper S Coupe
Engine: Turbocharged four-cylinder, 1.6 liters, 16v
Output: 181 hp/177 lb-ft
Weight: 2679 lb
Miles Driven: 1073 miles
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 27/35 mpg
Observed Fuel Economy: 25.82 mpg
Base Price: $24,600
As Tested: $32,400