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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 Mini Cooper Roadster, 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.
Cabin tech: Form over function...mostly
Every car lover I've ever spoken with takes the same issue with Mini's cars: the goofy LP-sized speedometer at the center of the dashboard. At this point, to complain about it is tantamount to beating a dead horse, so let's just agree that it's useless to anyone but a nagging passenger -- and since the Mini Cooper Coupe only seats one passenger, that dashboard real estate is even more useless here.
That is, unless your Mini Cooper Coupe is equipped with the automaker's navigation and infotainment system, which moves the speedometer to the rim of the dinner plate and fills the center with a 6.5-inch color display. This display is not a touch screen, a fact that was lamented by nearly everyone who sat in the JCW Coupe's passenger seat. Rather, it is controlled by a tiny chrome joystick (about the size of the cap on a fancy pen) located just behind the shifter on the center console. I spent equal time praising and complaining about this controller. When the vehicle was stopped, I found the lack of a touch screen to be frustrating. However, I liked that the controller allowed me to quickly make accurate inputs while the vehicle was in motion without staring slavishly at the screen. Additionally, I liked that the Mini interface doesn't prevent users from inputting destinations while moving, but I also acknowledge that this power comes with the responsibility of actually paying attention to the road while you drive rather than searching for the nearest Taco Bell.
Mini's cabin tech interface very much resembles a cutesied-up version of BMW's current interface, which uses circular motifs and nested menus that are quickly accessed with a bump, twist, or click of the physical controller. Sometimes there's a bit too much nesting and occasionally menu screens can be a bit overwhelming (such as the route options screen, which is a mess of text and check boxes) but for the most part it's easy enough to understand. The system also features a voice-command service that is OK for initiating calls, but wasn't accurate enough in its recognition of my voice to be of consistent use for destination input.
There's actually a remarkable amount of distraction to be found in the Mini infotainment interface, particularly if you spec the Mini Connect option, which connects the vehicle to the Internet through a paired iPhone for, among other features, Twitter and Facebook integration. As an Android user, this option was absolutely useless to me. Fortunately, CNET's Wayne Cunningham has already taken a look at the system as part of his review of the 2011 Mini Cooper Clubman John Cooper Works.
I was able to enjoy the Harmon Kardon premium audio system with the aid of an audio cable for its auxiliary input. Audio quality was good and, as I mentioned before, loud. With the vehicle stopped and at lower speeds, the stereo actually produced a nice and balanced sound. However, as the road noise increased with the vehicle's speed, the only music that really sounded good was bass-driven rock, hip-hop, and electronica -- essentially, anything that made heavy use of the powered subwoofer. You can all but forget about the delicacy of a jazz piano, the subtlety of a violin solo, or listening to a podcast at anything below shouting volume in the JCW's loud cabin. Bluetooth audio streaming is not supported, although hands-free calling is. Other audio sources include iPod and USB connectivity, satellite radio, and a single-disc CD player.
If you're the type of driver who's looking for a track-day weapon or simply want the fastest Mini that money can buy, the JCW Coupe will not disappoint. However, for most drivers, I think it's a bit too hard-core. The Cooper Coupe S offers about 80 percent of the performance for thousands less, is fast enough for public roads, and won't rattle your fillings every time you drive over a manhole cover.
The 2012 Mini Cooper Coupe John Cooper Works starts at $31,900 including a $700 destination charge. That over-$6,000 premium over the Cooper Coupe S gets you around 20 more horsepower, a stiffer suspension, larger wheels, JCW badging and body kit, and a cool black-and-red color scheme inside and out. However, this is a Mini (which means that it's a BMW) so the price quickly gets out of hand when it comes to adding options.
Add $500 to the starting price for metallic paint, $1,500 for the leather interior, $250 more for chrome interior trim, $100 for chrome mirror caps, $100 for white turn-signal reflectors, and $100 for black surrounds on the $500 bi-xenon headlamps. Those fancy red and black stripes are a $250 option, as is a center armrest. Autocross junkies will no doubt plunk down the $500 for the sportiest version of the JCW suspension, but we haven't even gotten to the tech yet! The Mini Connected system with navigation will set you back $1,750 and doesn't include the $700 Harmon Kardon audio system.
In all, our as-tested price was a whopping $38,450, which brings us to my biggest problem with the Cooper Coupe JCW: it's too damn expensive. There's not much in its size and weight class that can compete with a JCW Coupe, but a fully loaded Volkswagen GTI or Honda Civic Si both come close for $10,000 to $14,000 cheaper. Where the Mini is priced puts it in direct competition with the likes of a fully loaded Nissan 370Z or Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8 (even without most of the purely styling options), and close to BMW's own 1 Series Coupe. However you choose to look at bang for the buck, the JCW just doesn't make much sense.
|Model||2012 Mini Cooper Coupe|
|Trim||John Cooper Works|
|Power train||1.6-liter turbocharged, direct-injected, 6-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||25 city, 33 highway mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||N/A|
|Navigation||optional 6.5-inch screen with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||yes|
|Disc player||single-slot CD|
|MP3 player support||standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, optional USB connection, iPod connection|
|Other digital audio||HD Radio|
|Audio system||6-speaker audio system, Harman Kardon premium option|
|Price as tested||$38,450|