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2012 MINI Cooper S Coupe review

One question, MINI: Why?

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2012 MINI Cooper S Coupe front view

2012 MINI Cooper S Coupe front view

Photo © Aaron Gold

First Glance: Love it? Hate it?

The idea of taking a useful thing and making it less useful strikes me as a poor business model. Would you buy a refrigerator that promises to keep your food at room temperature? A television that can't display the color blue? An iPhone that does everything but make phone calls? (Oh, wait...)

That's why I'm at a bit of a loss to explain the MINI Cooper Coupe, which is essentially a less-useful version of the MINI Cooper hatchback. The two cars are common in all dimensions except for height, but the Coupe has half as many seats and less than half as much luggage space. That's down to the roofline: While the Cooper hatch has a big, boxy back-end, the Coupe looks like someone took the roof (link goes to photo) from a hard-top Miata and smashed it down on the poor MINI's head.

Styling, of course, is a matter of taste. When the Coupe first arrived at my house, I was bowled over by it's sheer ugliness, although I will sheepishly admit that after a week, it didn't look quite so bad. (Then again, a splinter hurts a lot less after it's been under your skin for a few days.) But I was surprised at how many compliments the MINI Coupe got from other motorists and passers-by. So I took a poll, and as I sit here and write this review, 22% of respondents have said they like the look, 62% don't, and 14% are on the fence.

2012 MINI Cooper S Coupe dashboard

Cooper Coupe shares its dashboard with other MINI models

Photo © Aaron Gold

In the Driver's Seat: The hurt locker

After a week with the MINI Coupe, I've surmised that most of those who said they like the look of the MINI Coupe haven't been inside one. On paper, the Coupe sits less than an inch lower than the hatchback and has just as much headroom. In reality, watching a six-footer try to get into the Coupe is as cringe-worthy as watching a gymnast fall off a balance beam and land on his gentlemanly bits.

At 5'6", found getting in pretty easy, but once behind the wheel, I was almost overcome with claustrophobia, to the point that I barely noticed the lack of thigh support from the undersized front seats. The MINI Coupe's windshield is tiny, but it's a bay window compared to the mail slot that passes for the rear window -- and once you go past 50 MPH or so, a pop-up spoiler reduces what little rearward visibility there is by about a third. All week long I marveled that such a small car can have such big blind spots.

The MINI Coupe's dashboard is identical to the MINI Cooper hatch, including the dinner-plate-sized speedometer mounted smack in the center of the car. I found this all but useless -- good thing there's a digital speedometer incorporated into the tachometer atop the steering wheel -- although I did like the color display at its center, used for stereo, navigation, and the like. The toggle switches that control interior lights, windows and door locks are cool, if not terribly sensible in their arrangement, but the hard-to-use thumbwheels for fan speed and air temperature are ridiculous.

The Coupe's trunk offers 9.8 cubic feet -- compare that to the 24.8 cubic feet in a MINI hatch with the seats folded down. That said, the space is long rather than tall, so you can actually pack quite a lot into the Coupe's trunk. There's even a small pass-through and a narrow storage shelf behind the seats.

On the Road: Saving grace

2012 MINI Cooper S Coupe trunk

Coupe's trunk measures up to just 9.8 cubic feet, but the big hatchback opening makes it seem much bigger

Photo © Aaron Gold

The MINI Coupe's saving grace is that it is absolutely fan-friggin-tastic to drive. My test car was a Cooper S model, so it had a 181 horsepower turbocharged version of MINI's 1.6 liter engine. (Base models get a non-turbo 1.6 with 121 hp, while the John Cooper Works version gets 208 hp.) With just over a ton and a quarter of car to haul around, this little engine delivers stunning acceleration -- and despite liberal use of all that power, I averaged 29.8 MPG during my week-long test. Amazing!

The S model gets a performance-tuned suspension, and without question it's one of the best-handling front-wheel-drive cars I've ever tested. The Coupe has a stiffer body structure than the hatchback, so the handling noticeably sharper -- to the point that it crosses the line between "hot hatch" and true sports car. The Coupe made mincemeat out of the About.com Cars Top Secret Curvy Test Road, tearing through the curves with the speed and accuracy of... well, I was going to say "a sniper's bullet", but bullets don't go around curves. My point is that I was able to drive really, really fast, all while barely scraping the car's prodigious limits of adhesion. I'm sure a better driver than me could wring out even more speed.

But I can't say I was all smiles during my drive. With the stiffer suspension comes a stiffer ride, to the point that I began to wonder if MINI is in cahoots with the dental industry. And with the big open cargo bay serving as an echo chamber, there was enough road noise to give me a headache. From my notebook: "The drive ON the Curvy Test Road was magnificent, but the drive TO the Curvy Test Road was miserable."

Next page: Journey's end -- A second opinion

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