Pint-sized and power crazy

September 19, 2012, 9:14 am Richard Bosselman Yahoo! New Zealand

The Mini Coupe is clearly quite madcap and the flagship John Cooper Works edition is about 10 times crazier still.

Pint-sized and power crazy
Road Tests
Rating:

For: Great engine, full-on and utterly direct engagement, intriguing looks.

Against: Cramped, contrived in-cabin styling, wooden ride makes every road a rally stage.

Score: 3.7/5


How fleeting fame came be. In the video accompanying this roadtest of the Mini Coupe in John Cooper Works form, you'll hear me attest that this wee two-seater is the quickest non-racing.

Well, it was then. It isn't now. Mini has made the 'fastest' faster. The Mini Coupe John Cooper Works on test now has an even wilder sibling, the Cooper S John Cooper Works GP.

Set to debut at next week's Paris motor show, this 'limited edition' follows the usual format: Slightly more power, slightly harder suspension, somewhat louder graphics and, in all probability, an even steeper price tag. And, of course, an even bigger badge to squeeze onto this wee racer's teensy boot.

But anyway, that's all to come. Let's focus on what's here now -

Design

As trite as it is to highlight how small the Coupe is; the car's diminutive size does seem to something everyone is compelled to comment upon.

The shape is certainly chic, but you might be compelled to debate how clever it is in terms of livability. It definitely isn't one of those 'Tardis' cars that look modest on the outside yet somehow seem amazingly vast within.

Slide inside and there's no disguising the markedly diminished functionality over the hatch: There are no back seats, obviously, and the sightlines are more restricted. Hard to believe it shares the same wheelbase as the four-seat Mini, it's clearly more confined.

As much as it dares to dance on the edge of creative madness – most obviously with that reverse cap roofline that confused more than one onlooker into thinking this is a convertible - there's no argument that the shape does achieve the primary objective expected of all Minis: To leave all onlookers with cricked necks and slack jaws. It's a magnet for attention and comment, not always kind. Praise, scorn, bewilderment, I copped it all.

Mini says it created the Coupe to deliver a more macho image to the badge. I'm not sure it does that, though it does try hard to turn heads. That unique lid – a 'helmet roof' officially but ‘Mini in a baseball cap' to those not indoctrinated by Munich – the steeply raked windscreen and its whole, lowered stance are especially shouty. Only its round headlamps and bonnet-mounted airscoop have been obviously lifted almost without change from the hatchback.


Expect Mini newbies getting the view from the inside looking out (in slightly hunched fashion) to be rather cruel about the instrument cluster, but Mini can't say it wasn't asking for it. That the massive over-sized speedo, the biggest instrument to look at by far and quite possibly the largest speed-measuring device ever to go into a vehicle smaller than a Mack truck, is here because original Minis also had a grandfather clock-faced speedo does not excuse its stupidity. Thankfully BMW has already promised to do away with in the next-generation Mini. Hopefully they might do something about the confusing array of fat flick switches too.

It feels cramped and enclosed because, well, it simply is. That Mini has fitted the roof lining with two large, oval cutouts so the lanky types don't need to rub their heads says much. Despite this convenience, you still find yourself crouching in the seat to get a decent forward and side view. The rear window is a waste of time; what little visibility there is disappears once that rear wing pops up.

Value

What Minis are all about is money. In cost per kilogram, these cars representr precious metal. The JCW Coupe is priced at $62,200 and the Roadster version costs another $5000 – either way a big step up from just under $55k for a JCW Mini hatch. The six-speed automatic transmission adds $3000. And then there are the options – lots and lots, as usual. All alluring, few cheap. Our test car got off lightly with just $5000 worth. Sports seats, sports steering wheel, 17-inch alloys, xenon lights, Bluetooth and parking sensors all come standard, as do four airbags and stability control. The JCWs take different wheels with run flat rubber, a unique body kit and a Harman Kardon sound system.

Driving

'Feral' is the most appropriate single-word descriptive for manual JCW; outputs of 155kW and 280Nm are extreme for a turbocharged 1.6 but even moreso when they're fed through the front wheels of a small, low-slung two-seater. In case you're wondering, a GP has 5kW more and the same torque.

Mini's fervour for providing fast action is never in doubt; it's a great little engine. The throttle response is electric, with especially zingy pulling power that feels punchiest between 2500 and 4500rpm. It also sounds great, no more so than in Sport mode, where the exhaust growl is enhanced.

The brakes and performance rubber are also fabulous. The Coupe's lower centre of gravity allow it to carry more speed through bends than could be achieved in the JCW hatch. I like the steering feel, too.

There's an overall sense it works as 'one'. Regardless that the body stiffness leads the Coupe to actually come in heavier than their four-seat brethren, it feels light on its feet: Lighter even than its 1165kg kerb weight.

But it's a car that consistently demands a firm hand. The sports suspension that's 15 percent harder than the hatch's transgresses into the territory of utter harshness. It's a bang-crash, nervous and darty experience.


The relationship between the throttle, clutch and gearshift action isn't entirely cohesive, either; get slightly off-tune with any of those actions and the result is unintentionally jerky shifts, because the clutch take-up is long and the selection action is a bit rough.

At speeds above 80kmh, the integrated rear roof spoiler extends automatically. Mini says it is to reduce drag and add up to 40kg of downforce to the rear axle, improving stability and handling. I can't say it's something you can easily feel.

Speaking of which. Here's an admission I'm not proud of – for several days, I drove this car with an a severely deflated tyre and was wholly oblivious to it. The only mitigating factor is that I think it would have fooled anyone: This is a light car and the JCW is among BMW products meted run-flats, a design purpose-made to retain its integrity at normal driving pace even after the air departs.

Curse or a blessing? I can't decide. On the one hand, I suppose I should be glad that the tyre worked as advertised, remaining intact and offering grip. On the other, I wish the car had given some indication that all was not well. There was none; the tyre didn't feel, look or sound unusual and the tyre pressure warning system didn't activate.

Verdict
The Coupe is a hot little jet that certainly keeps its occupants involved and also comes up to speed on its remit as a 'halo' model. Yet in JCW form, at least, it's simply too one-dimensional for everyday use; the absurdly firm ride quality alone guarantees that. It's fun, but best experienced in small doses, and for that reason cannot hope to outshine more rounded performance rivals that often (Renault Megane RS, Ford Focus ST, Toyota 86 GT) cost a lot less.

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