The 2012 Mini Cooper S coupe is a fun grown-up toy for people with sizable piggy banks and a notable lack of claustrophobia.
The coupe is smooth and easy to drive -- once you get past the initial anxiety of placing yourself inside what feels like an aquanaut dive helmet at a cheap Cancun resort.
Before the debut of this model and the Mini Cooper Roadster, both of which are new for 2012, all Minis have had backseats, some of which are even usable. The little coupe and Roadster do, in fact, have only two seats, so they're best saved for singletons or families looking for a fun car for when the little ones are in school or home with a sitter.
The coupe and Roadster are offshoots of the regular Mini Cooper hardtop and convertible (as opposed to the longer Clubman and larger Countryman). There are three coupe trim levels: the base trim, with a starting price of $22,000; the Cooper S (which I drove), at $25,300; and the John Cooper Works, at $31,900 (all prices include destination charges). Each higher trim adds more engine power.
While the Mini Cooper coupe is unique in its design, its closest competitors include the Scion FR-S and Mazda MX-5 Miata.
It seems to me that the Cooper S coupe's exterior design is this little guy's main draw. Its look thoroughly personifies the vehicle: It's sporty, fast, fun and unlike anything else out there, and it looks every bit so.
The first time I saw one in person, other than under the glaring lights of an auto show, was in my own neighborhood. Its unique shape instantly caught my eye. While it's clearly a Mini and exudes that through its design cues, I didn't recognize the model off the bat and wondered if it was an aftermarket chop job. It looks like a full-size Mini whose roof has been cut off and replaced with a sloping hardtop.
This rear-sloping roofline creates an ergonomically strange angle for closing the coupe's liftgate. While opening it is easy, reaching up and pulling down to close the hatchback took more leverage than I could easily generate with my 5-foot-3-inch height.
The squat stature of this vehicle also requires the driver and passenger to step down into the car while ducking under the roof.
This obviously isn't a family car, but it does make a fun weekend-escape vehicle for singles or couples. Despite the liftgate's odd angle, the cargo area had more than enough room for a picnic date. We fit an extra large cooler bag and a full paper grocery bag from Whole Foods, with enough space left over for a couple of hats and a picnic blanket. We easily could have stashed a couple of weekend duffels if our travels were taking us a little farther.
That spacious feeling stops quickly inside the cabin. The roofline slants forward in the front as well as in the back, giving the feeling that you're peering out from a baseball cap that's pulled down just a little too low. Combine that with poor visibility to the rear and the tiny rear windows, and you might start to panic a little if you get uncomfortable in tight spaces.
There's a little ledge just between and behind the seats on which I was able to store my purse to keep it out of the way. A fairly large glove box with an additional tier above it gave a little extra storage space, as did a storage slot in front of the two cupholders and a small elastic, netted pocket in the passenger's footwell.
The control for the audio and optional navigation system took a lot of getting used to; I still hadn't quite gotten the hang of it even after a week in my test car. The main control is a bizarre toggle-like joystick low in the center console. You twist it or push it up, down and sideways to navigate through menus, then press the joystick down to select (and hope you don't move it in any other direction in the process).
Despite the coupe's small-feeling cabin, there was plenty of legroom in both the driver and the passenger footwell for myself and my husband, who is almost a foot taller than me.
The two-tone Polar Beige Gravity leather seats in my test car helped disguise the tight feel by making the interior look light and airy.
The tiny sun visors in the Cooper coupe are practically useless. When you fold them down, they offer only a couple of extra inches of protection from a glaring sun. Rotated out to the side window, they cover only about an eighth of the glass. They don't slide or extend at all, surely causing me to acquire my first few crow's feet as I squinted into the sun.
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Puny
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample
SENSE AND STYLE
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Fair
Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Groove-On
Behind the wheel
Driving the Cooper S coupe was lighthearted fun thanks to an incredibly responsive 181-horsepower, turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and a smooth, solid-shifting six-speed manual transmission. This version gets an EPA-estimated 27 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. With the optional six-speed automatic, mileage estimates drop to 26/34 mpg. All coupe trim levels require premium gas.
The base coupe has 121 hp and gets 29/37 and 28/36 mpg with the manual and automatic, respectively. The turbocharged John Cooper Works version has 208 hp and comes only with a stick. It's rated 25/33 mpg.
The S coupe that I drove came equipped with an optional, $500 sport suspension. While it definitely lived up to its sporty title, it wasn't annoying or offensive on the short jaunts this particular car warrants. I wouldn't, however, want to be stuck in it on a long road trip. A Sport button in the coupe gives the driver access to even sportier steering and throttle response.
The coupe's cabin is quite loud, with tons of infiltrating road noise. I also experienced an unidentifiable rattle that mystified me the entire week I drove this car. I searched and searched, torquing my head at odd angles, trying to press my ear up to every possible surface to locate the rattle. I came up empty.
The 2012 Mini Cooper coupe has not been crash-tested by either the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As is required of all 2012 models, the Cooper coupe has standard antilock brakes, electronic stability control and traction control. Run-flat tires and a tire pressure monitoring system are also included as standard equipment.
The Cooper coupe comes standard with four airbags, including driver and passenger front airbags and driver and passenger side torso airbags.
The coupe's shape leads to very limited visibility in all directions. Rear distance-control sensors for parking are an option. They emit a beeping tone to let you know when you're approaching an obstacle behind your vehicle and then turn into a solid tone to let you know you're a foot away. I would have loved to see a backup camera and blind spot warning system in this vehicle.