Fun to fore in Mini's impressive new Coupe

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The new Mini has already spawned a sports utility variant in the Mini Countryman. Now there's an out-and-out sports car derivative, the Mini Coupe, too. David Thomson has been putting it to the test.

Few people will judge the new Mini Coupe a beautiful car and many, I am sure, will tend to the opposite view. However, when it comes to making an in-your-face statement of presence, this latest addition to the Mini range garners attention out of all proportion to its size.

Looking like a hard-top convertible (which it is not), the Coupe is a derivate of the standard Mini hatch, sharing key structural and mechanical underpinnings.

Yet a Mini hatch it assuredly is not. Most obviously, the windscreen is more sharply raked and the permanently attached roof - as well as being lower by some 29mm - is shorter.

This breaks the established two-box exterior design (engine compartment and passenger compartment) that has been a feature of all Minis past, and gives the Coupe an identifiable boot. The boot lid, in turn, provides a handy space for a rear spoiler, which pops up when the car reaches 80kmh.

A look that is remarkable in standard form ($51,200) is more compelling still in flagship John Cooper Works guise ($62,200).

Thus specified for test, the Coupe boasted a striking pearlescent white base colour scheme overlaid with chilli-red racing stripes on the bonnet and boot racing stripes, and chilli-red for the helmet-like roof, the door mirrors, and brakes. Meaty wheel arches to accommodate 17-inch alloys and ultra-low profile tyres and an extra-sporty body kit complete the attention-grabbing exterior package.

The interior is less startling, but remarkable enough in its own way: the Coupe is a two-seater - aside from one limited-run special from the mid-1990s, the first in Mini history. Partly as a consequence of this, it musters a decent-sized 280-litre boot. There is also a handy storage shelf behind the seats, and a load-through flap for long loads.

That shelf, incidentally, comprises the top of a cross-bracing bulkhead that you will not find in a regular Mini. It, along with extra strengthening along the sills, makes this the most rigid Mini of all, albeit at the cost of some 20kg in extra weight.

Up front, bulges in the roof lining are required to provide headroom for taller folk, the windows are narrower than on a regular Mini, and there is some Coupe-specific detailing.

The dashboard, centre console, instrumentation, key controls and switchgear are largely the same. Thus, looking straight ahead through the sports steering wheel, there is a tachometer (not a speedometer) dial in view. The latter function, while also provided in digital form in the middle of the tachometer, has its main display in a large centrally mounted gauge, which also houses the colour display screen for the multimedia interface.

The interface covers satellite navigation (an extra-cost option fitted to the test car), and audio and phone controls (both by Bluetooth) as well as vehicle setting functions. It scores highly for clarity of display and ease of use, not least because the entire system is operated by just two buttons and a small joystick topped by a burled rotary knob. Bluetooth connectivity, too, is a cinch.

The normal Mini starting procedure applies: slip the plastic ''key'' fob into its allotted slot, depress the clutch, and push the start button to bring the engine to life.

On the John Cooper Works (JCW) variant, that engine is the ultimate twin-scroll turbocharged version of the 1.6-litre BMW/Peugeot group motor used widely in the Mini range.

In JCW form it musters 155kW of power and 260Nm of torque, with the latter increasing to 280Nm for short bursts thanks to a special overboost function. The gearbox, meantime, is a smooth-shifting six-speed, of the old-fashioned (aka manual) variety.

Already familiar from JCW variants of the Mini hatch, this engine is a cracker: operated gently, it is docile, well-mannered, and frugal for round town or gentle highway work. Given a bit of wellie, it roars into sporting life, eager and responsive from as little as 1500rpm, and a performance screamer at 5000rpm and beyond.

Mini reckons the JCW Coupe will run from 0-100kmh in 6.4 seconds. That is quick, for sure, and feels about right, but with a car like this tight and winding roads beckon rather than the drag strip.

Quite how it delivers through the twists and turns depends rather on what you are after.

Certainly the JCW Coupe has what it takes to entertain, especially with sport mode selected and when pushed hard through sequences of second and third-gear bends: work the brakes aggressively, dive deep into corners, turn in assertively, get full power on as soon as you dare, use both the nicely weighted steering and the throttle to wrestle the car before grabbing for another gear, and it will reward with extraordinary lateral grip and fine balance.

Early application of the throttle on tighter bends will have the inside front wheel scrabbling for traction for a moment or two, but that is something the chassis takes neatly in its stride. The Coupe's resistance to understeer is impressive, too, most obviously on constant-radius corners, third-gear bends and to an extent on corners that tighten a little, where the car tucks in as if on rails.

It is nimble and darting when driven in a measured fashion, too, and the gearbox is a joy to work at any pace, but if expectations extend to a modicum of refinement and comfort, then the JCW Coupe can be a chore over lumpy, coarse-chip Kiwi back roads: it is bone-jarringly firm in its ride, and when driven with verve is prone to suspension thump and an initially unsettling tendency to skip over mid-corner bumps. There is also plenty of road roar as well as mechanical noise in the cabin.

All of this served to remind me that while the JCW Coupe's heritage is quintessentially British, Mini these days is a BMW-owned brand.

Dynamically, it feels like a car engineered for BMW's home territory, in southern Germany, where back roads - whether country lanes or alpine passes - are surfaced to a far higher standard than here in New Zealand.

While that is certainly enough to diminish the appeal of the Mini Coupe as everyday transport, it does little to diminish its allure as a special-occasion machine.

Mini, in its modern incarnation, has already produced a number of appealing driver-focused machines. This Coupe JCW is the best of the bunch, by a decisive margin.



Fun to fore in Mini's impressive new Coupe
At a Glance


Rating: ****

For: Distinctive styling, characterful engine, nimble handling

Against: Looks will polarise, ultra-firm ride, road noise

Verdict: Focused and fun as a special-occasion car


Price: $62,200

Engine: 1598cc turbocharged petrol, max power155kW@6000rpm, max torque 280Nm@2000-5100rpm (on overboost)

Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive

Brakes and stability systems: Disc brakes with stability programming, ABS, BA and EBD

Safety rating: Five-star European NCAP

Wheels, tyres: 17-inch alloy wheels, 205/45 R17 tyres

Fuel and economy: Petrol, 7.1 litres per 100km (on ADR combined cycle), capacity 50 litres

Dimensions: Length 3728mm, width 1892mm, height 1385mm