Wachauring, Melk, Austria
This is a Mini?
Yes, indeed. As we explained in our introduction to the car earlier this week, it’s the first Mini with a traditional three-box design, and it goes on sale October 1, 2011, as the fifth model in the Mini range after the classic hardtop hatch; the convertible; the Clubman; and the Countryman. Early in 2012, this coupe will be followed to market by a roadster, bringing the total number of Mini models to six. Both the coupe and the roadster were previewed by a duo of concept cars at the September 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show. Mini representatives claim that the MINI Cooper Coupe’s only competitor in the United States is the Audi TT coupe, a far more expensive car.
Does it drive like a Mini?
Yes, indeed. It’s based on the current Mini Cooper Cabriolet chassis and shares its powertrains with other Mini models. We drove only a top-of-the-line John Cooper Works version at the Wachauring racetrack in Melk, Austria, about an hour from Vienna. In late September, we will have the opportunity to drive the base MINI Cooper Coupe and the Mini Cooper Coupe S.
Our driving impressions were gained solely at the track, as there was no on-road driving in this early media drive program. The 2012 MINI Cooper Coupe, like the classic hatch, is one of the better front-wheel-drive cars you might want to use for zooming around a handling course, but Mini officials corrected our preconception that the Coupe is intended to be the sportiest model in the Mini range. “Our goal was to reach the same level of agility as the hatch,” confirms Heinz Krusche of the Mini Coupe development team. Note that he did not use the word “exceed.”
“The word ‘sportier’ is a bad word,” chimed in Finnish rally legend Rauno Aaltonen, who was on hand to help the media make the most of their Coupe track drive. “Going sideways slows you down,” he joked. But their point was clear: the Mini Cooper Coupe is primarily a means of expanding the brand’s model range and its design envelope. And far from being lighter than the hatchback, as we originally reported, the Coupe is 25 kilograms (55 lb) heavier, mainly due to changes made to the Cabriolet’s body structure. Reinforced side sills and a structural “torsion wall” in place of the Cabriolet’s rear seats comprise most of the additional weight, but the active rear spoiler, a first for any car in the BMW Group, itself weighs about 12 lb. The curb weight of the JCW Coupe is 1165 kg, or 2568 lb.
The pre-production cars we drove at the Wachauring were very close to the final production specification, but Mini does not want the world to see exactly what the Coupe will look like until later this month, so the cars were camouflaged. Aaltonen jumps into the passenger’s seat of my tester as we prepare to go out on the track, a reasonably challenging, compact course with a variety of corners and quick elevation changes set into the rolling Austrian countryside. I immediately notice the electric power steering, which in typical Mini fashion is precise and provides good feel. As I pitch the Coupe into some of the bigger, wider corners, I initially am surprised that it is itching to oversteer; the rear end is twitchier than I expected. Aaltonen advises me that I have to “give it far more steering input than you would in a rear-wheel-drive car” in order to avoid drifting too far to the outside edge, and of course he is right. “You’d have to be very, very aggressive to make it spin,” Krusche says later.
As I become more familiar with the track and the car, Aaltonen decreases the role of the electronic nannies. Before long I’m rotating through the sweepers smoothly, following Aaltonen’s advice to keep the revs way up on the turbo 1.6-liter four and to accelerate sooner rather than later out of corners. Throttle and brake pedal response are impressive, and JCW’s beefed-up brakes stand up to repeated flogging. The Mini Cooper Coupe’s traction and stability control program has three settings: 1) everything is on in normal mode; 2) DTC, or dynamic traction control, which you choose with a quick press of the DTC button; 3) DTC/DSC-OFF, where everything is turned off. The latter requires a prolonged press of the DTC button. There is also a sport button that increases steering effort and quickens throttle response. (Mini will offer a dealer-installed sport package, with much stiffer springs and dampers, that also lowers the ride height by 10 mm.)
Mini uses the brakes to mimic the effects of a differential lock with its Electronic Differential Lock Control (EDLC) system. “I personally think the word electronic diff is misleading,” says Aaltonen. “It’s not the diff lock. This is stopping the inside wheel from spinning, which then forces [power to] the outside wheel, and then you have grip.” EDLC comes into play only when the DTC is in performance mode or totally off. “In practice these 3 modes are not only for fun,” comments Aaltonen. “Because if you have a surface with a soft top layer on it, like gravel or snow, you need wheel spin to go forward. And the amount of wheel spin you get from normal DSC mode is not enough to bring the car forward on a soft surface, so then you need the DTC.”
As I downshift from third gear in the tighter corners, I encounter the same difficulty finding second gear that we’ve experienced in other Mini Coopers. “Don’t look for a ‘gate,’ says Aaltonen. ‘Don’t shove the gear lever over to the left, just slide it.” Again, he’s right, and I’m able to nab second more easily. The track has a slalom course set up on it, and the Coupe dives around the cones handily, with lots of grip from the 205/45R-17 Continental tires and minimal body roll. When I allow the front tires to shudder coming out of the slalom, Aaltonen suggests less throttle. “That will get the weight transfer back onto the front wheels and help traction,” he says. As I pull into the pits to let Aaltonen out of the car, he concludes, “weight transfer is something everyone needs to think more about.”
Design: “No other Mini has ever had this proportion before.”
Anders Warming, the young Dane who became head of design for the Mini brand earlier this year, inherited the Coupe and Roadster designs from his predecessor, Gert Hildebrand, who was in the position for the past decade. Now it’s Warming’s job to explain this new direction for Mini. He does so very enthusiastically, pointing out that “no other Mini has ever had this proportion before, with the side line going upward as it goes rearward.” He enthuses about the Coupe’s stance, with “all four wheels in all four corners. We are the kings of short overhangs.”
The so-called “helmet” roof of the Coupe is its principal design signature and a point of pride for Warming. The camouflaged cars we drove had eclipse gray paint with silver roofs. Although there will be nine available exterior colors, the roof will be offered only in silver and black, except red will be available as well for the John Cooper Works version. The only monotone color combination that will be allowed out of the paint shop at the Mini factory in Oxford, England, will be black on black, which we expect will look pretty cool, actually. Sport stripes will be available on the hood and hatchback, with inverted color on the roof.
“We consciously decided on only three roof colors,” explains Warming. “We wanted an extra emphasis on the roof.” For his part, Warming warms to the idea of a Coupe in British racing green with a silver roof over an interior done in “toffy,” which is a medium brown caramel (formerly used on some special editions). Warming considers the helmet roof to have two parts. “The forward part emphasizes the two-seat character,” he claims. “Then we added rake to the rear spoiler, so the effect is cheeky; it’s like a baseball hat turned around.” The roof-mounted rear spoiler leads visually and aerodynamically to the spoiler mounted on the hatch lid. The lower front lip of the Coupe was lengthened about an inch from the 2009 concept car to increase down force at the front axle.
“The three-box design is new for Mini,” Warming continues. “The windscreen [windshield] angle is 13 degrees flatter than on the hatch, and the car is 29 mm [just over an inch] lower than the hatch. The C-pillars pull in, so the car looks wider. The interior features and geometry carry over [from the hatch].” But as a two-seater, the Coupe interior is different from any other Mini’s. There’s a cargo shelf behind the seats and a flip-down center door leading to the cargo area which, at 280 liters [10 cu ft], is significantly bigger than the hatchback’s 160 liters [5.6 cu ft]. There are two elliptically shaped indentations in the headliner to increase headroom.
What kind of Mini is this, anyway?
“The Coupe stands out from the rest of the Mini family in its masculinity,” claims Roderick von Ostrowski, the car’s product planning manager. “We expect to attract a higher percentage of male buyers, people who maybe dream of a Porsche Cayman or Audi TT but cannot afford it. Some of them are already Mini enthusiasts.” Hmmm. Maybe the black-on-black version of the Mini Cooper Coupe will attract this sort of buyer, but we suspect that many Mini enthusiasts will dismiss the Coupe as a marketing exercise or, worse, a chick car, and the people who’ve purchased Mini Coopers because of their styling, heritage, and upscale practicality, rather than for their impressive driving dynamics, will be left puzzled. With the Coupe, Mini is definitely on a road never before taken. We expect that the Roadster, which goes on sale in the first quarter of 2012, might have more resonance in the marketplace, at least in America. The Coupe will be attractively priced, though, falling between the standard hardtop, which currently starts at $20,100, and the four-seat convertible, which starts at $25,550. The hardtop Cooper S currently costs $23,700 and the John Cooper Works $29,800.
BMW has proven to be quite a remarkable shepherd for the Mini brand over the past decade, and the company clearly feels the need to expand the model range to increase sales, which were 234,000 last year worldwide, 45,644 of them in the United States. Warming claims that there is a historic precedent for the Coupe in a variety of one-off, homebuilt Mini Cooper coupes built in Britain back in the 1960s. We shall see how it all plays out.
2012 Mini Coupe John Cooper Works
Base price (estimated): $32,000
Turbocharged 1.6-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4
Horsepower: 211 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 192 lb-ft @ 1850 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
0-to-60 mph, manufacturer estimate: 6.4 sec
L x W x H: 147 x 66.2 x 54.2 in
Cargo capacity: 9.6 cu ft
Curb Weight: 2568 lb