Thumbs Up: Doesn’t look like anything else, feels faster than it is.
Thumbs Down: Serious blind spots, low roofline for entry, pricey with options.
Buy This Car If: You really want a Cooper S, but don’t want back seats.
It isn’t easy being MINI. As the name implies, any new vehicles have to fit into a certain mold, and unlike most automakers, bigger is not better at MINI. Not only do its products need to adhere to an unwritten size convention, there’s the matter of styling to consider as well. To the uninitiated, a MINI Cooper looks a lot like a Clubman, which in turn just looks like a slightly smaller Countryman.
We can hear the gasps of the MINI faithful from here, but let’s be honest with one another: MINI has a certain design language, and all of its vehicles adhere closely to it. Perhaps the most radical departure from the norm is MINI’s newly-introduced Coupe, which features styling that’s best described as “polarizing.” It’s roof, for example, was designed to look like a backwards-facing baseball cap; if you’re of the generation that defines this as cool, that’s probably a good thing. If you’re not, a Cooper or a new Cooper Roadster will likely be much more aesthetically pleasing to you.
Like all MINI models, the Coupe offers a seemingly endless array of color, stripe and graphic options, meaning that buyers can personalize their MINI Coupes right from the factory. At a time when most manufacturers are getting away from building cars with manual gearboxes, MINI offers its products with both row-them-yourself gears and a Steptronic automatic transmission. Further recognizing that most buyers won’t be using their cars for autocross competition, MINI gives consumers the option of a sport suspension without just building it in.
In terms of exterior styling, the Coupe’s most noticeable trait is its oddly-tilted roof, which terminates in a roof spoiler. It’s lower in back than in front, which, combined with thick C-pillars, creates some serious blind spots and outward visibility issues. That said, if you’re passionate about the car’s looks, you’ll find a way to work around them.
Up front, the Coupe gets a more aggressively styled front fascia, with larger air vents, a molded air dam and recessed fog lights. The fenders get matte black flares, which carry over into matte black side skirts on Cooper S Coupe models. Out back, there’s a short trunk lid that gives way to a surprisingly large trunk, a spoiler that automatically deploys at speeds above 50 mph and a rear fascia that is styled to match the front. Dual exhausts exit in the center of the lower rear fascia.
Inside, the car will be familiar to anyone who’s ever driven an MINI. Don’t look for conventional instruments and switchgear, since you really won’t find any. Instead, drivers get a steering-wheel-mounted tachometer, complete with a digital speedometer.
The car’s real speedometer dominates the center stack, where its primary purpose is ornamentation for the car’s infotainment display. MINI loyalists will argue this point, but there’s no way to view the rotating needle main speedometer without taking your eyes off the road for a period of time. It’s really a non-issue, since MINI provides you with the easily visible digital readout at the bottom of the tach.
Don’t look for conventional rocker switches, either, since MINIs use toggle switches instead. It will take new drivers a bit of orientation before they’re familiar with the layout of switchgear, but everything begins to make sense in relatively short order. MINI’s infotainment system also takes a bit of getting used to, but the joystick selector works well, and you soon find yourself thinking that MINI’s system is more intuitive than most. Overall, the rest of the dash is a visually interesting blend of colors, textures and shapes that most drivers will find to be to their liking.
Even the base seats are comfortable and well-bolstered, but we’ve always been fans of MINIs top-notch Sport Seats. If we were checking option boxes on our own car, the Recaro Sport Seats would probably fall into the “must have” category, even though the base chairs deliver reasonable lateral support (and don’t add $2,750 to the sticker price). Thanks to the notched headliner (a concession to helmeted drivers, perhaps) head room is better than you’d expect, even for those over six feet in height.
Under the hood, the Cooper S Coupe gets a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, good for 181 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque and mated to the buyer’s choice of a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic gearbox. While acceleration isn’t any better than a Cooper S, the Coupe manages to feel faster, perhaps due to its smaller size. Expect the S Coupe to run from 0-60 in about 6.7 seconds with the Steptronic automatic transmission, and (surprisingly) the manual transmission shaves a few tenths of a second off that time. The EPA rates the Cooper S Coupe at 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway, and we saw fuel economy of 29.1 in primarily city driving.
“Nimble” is probably the best way to describe the Coupe’s handling, and it transitions from left to right corners like a (slightly larger) go-kart. Stand on the gas and there’s a bit of torque steer to contend with, but it’s never as intrusive as it is in the (admittedly more powerful) Mazdaspeed 3. There’s very little turbo lag, too, and no off-idle stumble as on some turbocharged cars (like VW’s GTI). In “Sport” mode, shifts are quicker, throttle response is improved and the steering gets a bit more weight; adding to the experience is a bit of popping on deceleration, just like you’d experience in a sports car of old. Our press-fleet tester came equipped with the stiffer Sport Suspension , which may provide too harsh a ride for all but hardcore drivers. We never found it objectionable, but we don’t live in the land of potholes and frost-heaves, either.
While the Coupe’s diminutive size requires some concessions for use as a daily driver, when the road gets tight and twisty the MINI S Coupe comes into its element. Like all MINIs, it’s just plain fun to drive and buyers will likely spend free time hunched over Google Maps, looking for any winding ribbons of asphalt in a three-state radius. Since the MINI Coupe begs to be driven hard, you may even find yourself pondering things like track days and autocross events.
Outward visibility aside, our only other gripe with the 2012 MINI Cooper S Coupe is pricing. Sure, it’s got an entry-level sticker price of just $25,300, including a destination charge of $700, but pile on the options and the sticker price seems to climb almost exponentially. Want the leather seats? They’ll cost you $1,500. The nav system with MINI Connected? That’ll be another $1,750. Want a center armrest? That will add another $250 to the bottom line. If you get crazy with options, adding another $10,000 to the price of the car isn’t difficult to do, and that puts the Cooper S Coupe into an entirely different price bracket. At $25,300, it’s a relative bargain, but when you top the $35,000 barrier it gets awfully hard to justify.
MINI supplied the 2012 Cooper S Coupe for our evaluation. Base price, including a $700 destination charge, was $25,300, and as-tested options included the $1,500 Carbon Black / Beige Punch Leather Sets, the $1,750 MINI Connected with Navigation Package, the $1,500 Sport Package (17-inch wheels, xenon headlights, Dynamic Traction Control, white turn signal lenses), the $250 MINI Yours wheel style option, the $1,250 Steptronic automatic transmission, the $500 Sport Suspension, the $250 Chrome Line Interior, the $100 Black Headlight Housings, the $250 Center Armrest and the $750 Harman-Kardon audio system for a total sticker price of $33,400.
For comparison, a similarly equipped Honda Civic Si with Navigation would sticker at $24,675, while a comparable Nissan Altima Coupe 2.5 S would price out at $32,450.