For such a small car, the 2012 Mini Cooper Coupe John Cooper Works has got a stupidly long name that's nearly impossible to speak casually without stumbling over all of the "coo" syllables. It's clearly the subject of some inside joke at Mini that the rest of us are simply not privy to. Just call it the JCW Coupe and save yourself the embarrassment.
Like most Minis, the Cooper Coupe is a slight variation on the theme set by the standard Mini Cooper hatchback. It breaks down into the same Cooper, Cooper S, and JCW trim levels, offers the same batch of options, and, at first glance, pretty much looks like every other modern Mini that's preceded it. Of course, this also means it gets the same goofy interior treatment that we've been complaining about since the new Mini launched around the turn of the century.
John Cooper Works models, like our 2012 JCW Coupe, are powered by a turbocharged and direct-injected 1.6-liter engine that outputs 208 horsepower and 192 pound-feet of torque and features upgraded body and suspension components. Every Mini bearing the JCW badge has delivered first-class performance and this JCW Coupe is no exception. However, that performance comes at a pretty high price, literally.
Design: Cooped up in the Cooper Coupe
While the standard Mini was designed as a hatchback and then modified to create the Mini Cooper Convertible, the Coupe was actually designed as a convertible and received a fixed roof. (Oddly, the Coupe's convertible version, the , was released after the Coupe.) Where the Coupe should have rear seats, there's a wall that separates the passenger and storage compartments with an integrated chassis crossbar. Essentially, the Cooper Coupe gets all of the stiffening bits of a drop-top (making it more rigid than the standard Cooper) but without the top that drops.
And what an odd top it is. The Coupe features a severely raked windshield that transitions into a low roof that ends with an integrated spoiler. The roof spoiler catches air passing over the roof and redirects it over the sloping windshield and onto the short rear deck that hides a second spoiler. This small, motorized spoiler rises at 50 mph and, in concert with the roof spoiler, actually creates downforce, according to Mini. When the vehicle's speed drops below 40 mph, the spoiler retracts back into its hiding place. Add to this low roofline a body that's actually 2 inches longer than the hatchback version and you end up with a long, low silhouette that gives the Coupe a more ground-hugging and purposefully sporty look than any previous Cooper model, particularly in our tester's JCW trim.
Inside the Cooper Coupe's cabin, the low roofline somewhat compromises visibility when compared with the standard Cooper. You'll want to park a few feet back if you want to actually see taller traffic lights at intersections, and thick B and C pillars almost completely obstruct the Coupe's blind spots. However, the view out of the back window is easily the worst, particularly at higher speeds where the motorized spoiler almost totally blocks the rear view, as if to say, "No, dummy! There's nothing to see back here. Keep your eyes on the road." Even with the rear spoiler retracted, the Coupe's rearward visibility had me wishing the diminutive Mini offered a backup camera option. Interestingly, the Coupe isn't exactly short on headroom thanks to a pair of oval-shaped indentations above the seats that make room for a helmet and give tall drivers about an extra inch of vertical space.
The low roof and two-seater configuration are what separate the Cooper Coupe from a standard Cooper, but the performance is what separates the JCW trim level from just about any other front-wheel-drive vehicle that I've ever driven.
Performance: The best-handling FWD car ever
For starters, there's more than enough power -- probably too much for your average Mini driver. There's enough grunt available before the turbo spools up so that the JCW never feels laggy. However there is a night-and-day difference between the zippy below-4,500rpm performance and the neck-snapping push that's generated when the turbocharger starts whistling. A weighty manual gearbox slips almost effortlessly between its six well-spaced gears with a flick of the wrist, making it easy to keep the revs up and the turbo spinning. The gas and brake pedals were nicely spaced for heel-toeing with my size 11s, but the clutch pedal's engagement felt a bit vague for the first few trips out. By the end of the week, it felt like an extension of my left foot.
The JCW's exhaust has been upgraded for increased power and makes a nice, deep note that sounds fantastic at full chat. However, for longer trips, that droning exhaust note combines with the increased road rumble generated by the very stiff suspension to fill the cabin with a good deal of noise. Fortunately, our Cooper Coupe featured a great premium stereo that is easily loud enough to be heard over the din, but cranking the volume really just adds to the total noise level of the cabin, which was starting to get a bit annoying by the time the JCW Coupe left the CNET garage. This is definitely no road-trip car.
It is, however, a motorsports weapon. The JCW Coupe is suspended over sticky tires with stiff sidewalls and even stiffer springs. It claws at the asphalt around every bend, generating fantastic grip and communicating the very texture of the road up through its chunky steering wheel. Like most front drivers, the JCW will push understeer through a turn if you overdo it. But with the grip and information provided by the suspension and chassis, it is remarkably easy to feel and control the vehicle's weight transfer to keep the car neutral and balanced when approaching, apexing, and exiting a turn. Stand the car on its nose by trail-braking the large, four-piston Brembo brakes and you may even be able to eke out a bit of grin-inducing oversteer. Simply put, the John Cooper Works Coupe is easily one of the best-handling (if not the best) front-wheel-drive vehicles that I have ever driven. Over a smooth surface like you can expect to find at your local autocross or track day event, there's simply nothing negative to say about this car's handling.
On regular roads with potholes, expansion joints, and cracks in the asphalt, there is much left to be desired. I constantly put the Mini's responsive steering to the test on the streets of San Francisco dodging potholes, because even the shallowest of them would jar the entire vehicle with a massive CRASH! Navigating the construction zones around the CNET offices felt like driving through a minefield -- BAM CRASH BOOM -- with me cringing all the way. The JCW Coupe tended to bounce over imperfections in the road rather than soaking them up gracefully. When this happened midturn -- such as during a spirited drive up a curvy mountain road -- the results could be clenchingly terrifying as you felt the hop an inch or two laterally beneath you. Mind you, at no point did I feel like the Coupe was trying to kill me or chuck itself off of the mountain -- the suspension setup and steering were so responsive that keeping things in line quickly became second nature -- but I did get the message that driving the JCW near its limits on public roads is a high-risk, high-reward endeavor. Less experienced drivers could find themselves running out of talent long before any JCW Mini runs out of capability. Know your limits and approach them with caution.