This was, at the very least, a perfect matchup of car and track. We've just returned from enjoying a day-trip drive in a pre-production 2012 Mini Coupe, the very two-door that is due for worldwide deliveries at the start of October. Not only that, the only model available to drive was the 208-horsepower John Cooper Works edition. You can imagine our sad frowns with curled lower lips.
Twisting the dagger so good this day were the peerless conditions at the very tightly wound seven-tenths of a mile Wachauring, a track located in Melk, Austria, about an hour from Vienna. The combo of a demanding circuit and great weather really gave us the chance to work the Mini Coupe hard.
First off, you can only get a six-speed manual in this JCW two-door, and rightly so. The lapping time allotted to us on the Wachauring was generous, and Mini's various experts were wide-open to suggestions based on our driving impressions. For instance, we think it's time that the Getrag 285 six-speed manual for the Cooper S and JCW be offered with a more direct and precise action. For the everyday, and for most buyers, this unit is absolutely fine. One of the best in the market, perhaps. But what would be a great option is a JCW gated shifter with shorter throws to boot. Maybe 15 percent of JCW and Cooper S buyers would want it, but it ought to be available. While we're at it, we'd like pedals positioned a little bit better for heel-and-toe. Missing the third-into-second downshift and plunking into No Man's Land off to the left happened too often in the hottest moments. We accept our share of the error always, but getting cleanly down to second when the adrenalin's thumping is a must, and this was exactly the right circuit for bringing these picky peeves to light.
Right off the Wachauring's grandstand straight, there's a long, three-apex right hander that tested our throttle-to-the-floor nerves in third gear as we exited, giving a spurt of full throttle as we powered the JCW to the next descending double-ess. Knowing, as we do, the general behavior of this Mini chassis (including full Dynamic Stability Control mode, Dynamic Traction Control mode with DSC off, or with both DSC and DTC off), we took our best shots pressing the button to feel the various setups. Surprisingly, the seemingly smaller JCW Coupe weighs 55 pounds more than a similarly trimmed Mini hatch, and it's four millimeters longer (0.2 of an inch). The added heft is due to added reinforcements beneath the Mini convertible chassis that is used as a starting point, plus the addition of a torsion wall inserted where the token rear seats would otherwise be. Why is all of this necessary? The large and not too lightweight rear hatch that is a Mini first. Yes, despite looking like it has a trunk, the Mini Coupe is, in fact, a liftback.
All of these structural reinforcements work well under duress. This JCW with its "helmet-head" roof not only hunkers down some 23 mm (0.9 inches) lower than a JCW hatch, but its effective hip-point/center of gravity drops some 30 mm (1.2 inches). Add the much less boxy stance from the roofline down to the rocker panels, plus the 13-degree shallower angle to the windshield, and the driving dynamics couldn't help but be improved on demanding, transition-happy circuits like the Wachauring. It was difficult to tell whether we were making headier forward progress in the DTC mode or with DSC/DTC off, but on a closed and secure circuit, it's clear which mode had us grinning like Cheshire Cats.
With all chassis-policing electronics off and the Sport button lit for crisper throttle pickup and more communicatively weighted steering, we quite frankly took a few liberties. The fine balance between wheel spin and hookup from the 17-inch ContiSportContact3 SSR tires (205/45 R 17 84W front and rear) became a predictable thrill. We only occasionally resorted to quick dabs with the handbrake after downshifting into second to swing the rear end around as we wished it to do in the nastiest of corners. All of this is part of the Mini game and this new coupe plays it particularly well. By the by, standard Coupe models come with 15-inch wheels, the Cooper S with 16s, and there will be a dealer-installed 18-inch option, as well.
On that long triple-coned right hander we mentioned, it was a little surprising at first how much the Coupe wanted to drift out of the curve's best line – particularly on the corner's back half. We feathered the throttle and then stayed consistent, feeling as though we needed to stomp on it about 50 yards beyond where we would have liked. Perhaps a stickier semi-slick tire from Continental or someone else might also be a good option for those who crave all the edgy performance that John Cooper inspired. Even so, while fully 62.9 percent of the Mini JCW Coupe's 2,735-pound curb weight sits over the hardworking front axle, we expected more egregious understeer than we actually experienced. That the car's balance is mostly so neutral and adaptive under the highest stresses is commendable.
We enjoyed the dealer-installed optional Sport suspension's behavior throughout the day. Never too soft, it likewise never threatened to beat us up despite being 10 mm (0.4 inches) lower to the tarmac. The added rigidity of the chassis plus its naturally lower roll center turns the Mini Coupe into a sort of hard-to-tip turtle in its physics. We can conclusively say that we were able to squeeze the N14 1.6-liter four-cylinder's 208 hp and 192 pound-feet of torque hard all day. Out of most of the curves in Austria, we probably called on the twin-scroll turbocharger's added boost for brief injections of 207 lb-ft more often than many owners will in a year of everyday driving. And the proven workhorse stood up faithfully to our right foot's demands like it was scoffing at us. That's pretty standard Mini fare as well.
Though much of the interior of the prototype we drove was described as unfinished by Mini design boss Anders Warming (there was black electrician's tape covering several detail bits in the cabin in addition to BMW-typical black-and-white camo on the body), the car is mostly as it will be. We were barred from photographing much of the interior and we can't yet show its inner door panels, but the roof liner accounts for helmets and taller folks by carving out two elliptical insets. It works. We're about six feet tall in this case, and we were able to get as comfortable in this coupe as we are in its boxier hatchback cousin.
There's a row of chrome toggle switches above, including one to manually raise the 43.3-inch rear wing. Moveable software-activated aerodynamics on the Mini Coupe are an absolute first for the entire BMW Group. Left to its own devices, this moveable wing raises up at 50 mph and slinks back down at around 37 mph. Between the deep, fixed cheese-cutter spoiler at the rear edge of the roof and this pretty large rear wing, we think we know why the Coupe isn't as light on its gym shoes as it might otherwise be. With just 37.1 percent of the weight over that rear axle, the added downforce in back is palpable, welcome, and a key factor when trying to lose the hounds.
Acceleration from the turbocharged four-cylinder to 60 mph is estimated at 6.2 seconds, and a terminal velocity of 149 mph is being called the highest top speed ever for a Mini production car. All throughout this day of spitting acceleration and winding-up of the front axle, when DSC and DTC are all the way off, the valves of the twin exhausts remain more open more often. The lower and louder note of our pre-production pool was the best we can remember hearing from a bevy of Minis at full tilt.
How you see the Coupe's design is highly personal, but we'll say that its styling has unsurprisingly not been the topic of a lot of cocktail chats since it debuted in conceptual form at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show alongside the Mini Roadster (due out in March 2012).
As Mini first showed these two purely disposable-income models during some of the worst economic times many of us will ever remember, the call to hurry up and build ranges number five and six for the growing brand has not been terribly forceful. The Coupe is – just barely – a three-box design, the first such mass production model in Mini history. Yet the one and only thing about the Mini Coupe that is undeniably handy, in all honesty, is its cargo space. It's the most capacious Mini in the entire lineup, albeit that's when comparing spaces with the rear seats left up. Even so, it's only 9.9 cubic feet, though it is highly flexible, with a useful load-through opening. You can hold 67-inch-long skis between the rear limit of the hatch and the manual shifter. Good to know.
While the standard Mini hatchback has the popular Mini Challenge racing series, motorsports applications for the Mini Coupe will be more specialized. We'll see a fully tricked-out and stripped racing version that competes in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring at the end of this month. After that, rest assured, according to German sources, this is the Mini that'll get wilder than the others are allowed to get.
Currently, Mini plans to offer a range of nine exterior colors, while the roof will only come in silver or black on standard cars (Chili Red will also be offered for the roof on JCW models). Should you desire the optional body-length pair of stripes, the stripe colors on the hood and tail will reverse to body color as they pass over the roof. The only entirely monochrome treatment that can be requested for a Coupe is black.
Our sources tell us that the price hike for the niche-o-rama Mini Coupe will be between seven and nine percent above the Mini hatchback trim-for-trim. So, a Mini Cooper Coupe should fetch around $21,900 and the JCW Coupe will hover around $31,900.
We were actually sort of hoping we might get the chance to drive non-JCW coupe trims and over normal roads, but this will have to wait. However, in terms of the U.S. market, we're not sure if customers for the low-volume Coupe will want anything other than the JCW or Cooper S levels, with maybe a handful of base Cooper buyers showing up.
The drive is undeniably fine, but we really can't anticipate how the Mini Coupe will do over here. At least the forthcoming Roadster variant can drop its top, so we definitely see more of a business case in that configuration. For the hardtop coupe, we can see it being a hard sell, particularly with the cost premium. Or are we being too practical?