Mini Coupe: Morphing into sports cars

By John Simister

Mini is starting to stretch brand credulity. Photo / Supplied
Mini is starting to stretch brand credulity. Photo / Supplied

Oh, the power of a name. The new Mini Coupe's greatest asset is also, paradoxically, its greatest liability. Call a car a Mini and there is really only one "look" it can have.

It should also be small; that is implicit in the name. Restrictive as they are to expanding a brand's reach, these attributes should be sacrosanct.

Or so you might think. The vast, five-door Mini Countryman's success suggests the buying public is less bothered by such brand nuances. In which case there is perhaps scope for a new shape of Mini, in the form of this chunky two-seater. Why should a modern brand be shackled by history? Better to break out and evolve.

Most Mini buyers are female. The Coupe is intended to masculinise the brand, although to me it seems as inherently gender-neutral as any other Mini. To this end the racy stripes and contrasting roof colour are standard, although you can opt not to have them.

Don't expect a price cut, though. The four most powerful engines from the Mini range are offered here.

Three are 1.6-litre petrol engines producing 90kW or, with a turbocharger, 135kW for the Cooper S and 155kW for the John Cooper Works, and the fourth is a 105kW turbodiesel with a hefty 2-litre capacity. That seems huge for a Mini, but you can't argue with an official C02 output of just 114gr/km. BMW New Zealand has confirmed that it will bring in two versions of the Mini Coupe next year: the Cooper S and the John Cooper Works.

Whatever you think about the way it looks, the Mini Coupe does flow through the air more smoothly than the regular hatchback to the small benefit of pace and fuel thirst. The windscreen leans 13 degrees further back, and there's a spoiler on top of the boot that rises at 80km/h and sinks again at 60km/h. Raised, the spoiler makes the view aft even worse; thick rear pillars are a further blind spot.

The boot, however, is bigger than that of any Mini-sized Mini, as it should be with just two seats ahead of it. They inhabit a cosy, well-finished cabin, dominated by a speedometer so vast that it's hard to assimilate its reading at a glance. Better to use the separate digital display instead.

In top John Cooper Works form, the Coupe seems expensive at £23,795 ($47,450). But it is also impressively rapid, with an insistent rush of thrust right through the engine's speed range and a deep, enthusiastic exhaust note.

All that thrust is channelled to the road with good discipline and excellent traction, even on a wet road, thanks to the electronic equivalent of a limited-slip differential achieved by selective braking of a wheel likely to spin. It also helps keep the front wheels firmly nailed to your chosen cornering line, making the Mini feel firmly planted on the road.

That said, the cheaper SD diesel model (£20,510), which has even more torque but less ultimate power, also sticks to the road even if it lacks the same degree of easy flickablility despite having equally quickly responding steering. Actually, the steering is the least pleasing aspect of both Coupes; it is electrically powered with the sense of artificiality, tactile detachment and rubberiness around the straight-ahead position all too common in such systems.

Another advance in dynamics is in the way these Minis cope with bumps. I expected the SD to be acceptable here, notwithstanding the test car's optional 43cm wheels whose tyres' shallow sidewalls made it thud over ridges, but previous JCWs have felt stiff, unyielding and tiresomely choppy. Work has been done here and this Coupe version has a flow over fast, bumpy roads.

Next year, the Mini will grow further with the arrival of the Roadster, effectively the Coupe but with a soft-top. Thus will the Mini morph into a sports car. Back in the early 1960s the whole point was that a Mini Cooper could run rings round traditional sports cars. All of which begs the question: should a Mini be a sports car (or sports coupe), or should it stay as a Mini? I think I'll leave that to the buying public.

- Independent

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