Parting with the Mini Coupe isn't such a sorrow after all - 26 December 2012
So after 23,598 miles, the Mini has gone. Like a gauche but nonetheless entertaining houseguest on the verge of outstaying his welcome, the red-and-black-striped eyesore is no longer part of my daily routine. In many ways I’m glad the good people at Mini came and took it away. As you’ll know from previous reports, there was a great deal about this car that I didn’t get on with. There was some good stuff in the mix – it wasn’t all bad – but I didn’t bid it farewell with anything that came close to regret.
Let’s get the biggest issue of contention out of the way at the start: I didn’t like the way the Mini looked. A coupe should be rakish, svelte and lithe. The Mini was dumpy, lardy-arsed and bulbous – a black-polar-neck-and-big-watch design opportunity missed by mile. Viewed from the side, the way the roofline meets the shoulders looks plain awkward and ensures minimal rear visibility, and the hatch looks like a huge steamer trunk had been grafted onto the rear.
What the design created was a spacious if dark two-seater cabin and a vast boot. The cabin may have initially wowed with its combination of leather, chrome and technology but its overall design felt tired and more than a little forced. Most of the plastics were hard and brittle to touch and after just a few thousand miles the cabin began to creak and chirp, an on-the-go soundtrack no doubt enhanced by the punishingly hard ride quality.
Maybe I’m getting a bit soft but I found the Mini’s unforgiving and unnecessarily hard ride its biggest dynamic drawback. There’s a yawning chasm between taut body control and a spine-jarringly hard ride. It’s a crying shame that despite being built in Britain, it wasn’t set up to handle our roads. This point was reinforced on a drive through France down to the Mini United festival – on fast and incredibly smooth autoroutes the Mini was quiet and comfortable. It was like driving a different car.
Switching to standard tyres mid-way through the Mini’s test made a tangible improvement to the ride quality, softening the brittleness and injecting some compliance into proceedings. The summer tyres also seemed less susceptible to changes in road surface. Where the harder cold-weather runflats deafened you with an unremittingly intimate commentary of the conditions underfoot, the standard rubber was quieter.
The Mini’s big 2.0-litre turbo diesel was never anything but vocal and coarse. It thrummed and rattled loudly at idle and low speeds before settling down to a tiring conversation-culling drone at motorway pace. But what it lacked in decorum it made up for in serious overtaking punch combined with decent real-world economy. It returned an overall average of 46mpg – way off its 65.7mpg official figure but not bad given it was always driven hot-hatch hard. And keeping the engine in its torque-band was a delight with the long throw but precise and machined feel of the gear lever.
So will I miss the Mini? Well, parts of it, yes. The pointiness of the chassis, the superb brakes, the responsiveness of the steering and mid-range muscularity of the engine all combined to make it a hugely satisfying car to pour along a fast and familiar country road. Despite a surprisingly big and heavy old lump over the front wheels, the nose simply did not comprehend the concept of understeer and when taken by the scruff of the neck the agile little car could be hurtled around corners and over roundabouts at ridiculous speeds.
The Coupe may not be a massive sales success, but its presence in the Mini range has done little to dent my enthusiasm for the marque as a whole. Viewed as a brand rather than a concept, the Mini is a success story from every angle. Would I recommend it? No. I can think of far more rewarding ways to drop £25k on a fast and engaging coupe. But do I applaud Mini for making it? Hell, yes.
by Ben Whitworth
Weighing up the Mini's shortcomings - 23 November 2012
With the Mini’s departure imminent, I’ve been thinking about exactly what it is that appeals about it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots to dislike. Believe me, I don’t have the word count here to even make a start on that list. But for all its faults, shortcomings and compromises, there is something about the Coupe that I know I will miss when they take it back. And that one thing is the tail-up attitude the Mini’s chassis has towards any bit of road.
Sport button engaged to sharpen throttle response and add weight to the steering, the Mini never feels anything but frisky and biddable, revelling in being taken by the scruff and hurtled down a winding road. It throws itself into corners cleanly and flatly, baring its teeth at understeer and wagging its tail in direct response to throttle action. Lovely stuff. At 100% it feels formidably quick, like a flyweight keen to take on a heavier component. At anything less it feels truculent and turgid.
This agility is complemented by steering more direct than a piqued Eddie Mair. There’s no trickery in the Coupe’s rack-and-pinion layout – it’s just very quick. Pity the electrical assistance tries to pass off heft for feel, but the keenness of the Mini’s nose when peeling into corners is more than decent compensation.
That the chassis can twinkle so brightly is a miracle in itself, given the unforgivingly hard suspension it carries at each corner and the slow-witted motor cradled in its engine bay. The ride is simply too stiff and uncompromising to allow it to flow and surge down UK roads. It might do better on smoother German blackstuff.
The big-capacity 1995cc diesel is gruff unit, and despite its rangey bicep, decent economy and tax-friendly cleanliness, it feels out of sorts with the rest of the dynamic package. This chassis zings and should be powered by a whipcrack engine. Unfortunately instead of singing, the diesel powertrain drones, vibrates and rumbles. There’s decent go here, but frustratingly little pleasure in deploying it. The more miles I cover in the Mini, the more sharply focused its shortcomings become.
By Ben Whitworth
Mini Coupe: 1, Badger: nil - 9 November 2012
I hit a badger the other night. That’s not some dogging euphemism – I was driving home late, and halfway through a long, fast left-hander the suicidal stripy-nosed git decided my approach marked the opportune moment to cross the road. I just caught sight of it in my peripheral vision and, despite standing on the brakes with both feet so that the anti-lock had the tyres chirping, and swinging as far to the left as I could, there was badgery contact.
It was a bone-crunching impact, one that sent a thunderous jolt through the car and launched me in to a spin, leaving me facing the way I came. I gingerly pulled over and inspected the damage. Despite the massive crunch both heard and felt, all I could see in the dark was a flapping bit of bumper and a dislodged front fog lamp. No puncture, no burst radiator, no damaged alloy. And no badger. Typical. I’d wanted to swap insurance details.
Fortuitously, the Mini was booked in for its first service – covered under Mini’s five-year TLC plan – that week at Vines of Guildford. As before when the Coupe went in for bodywork repair, the friendly staff there jumped around and got the car fixed asap, lending me a specced-to-the-limit Mini Roadster JCW, complete with dubious reg plate and scuttle shake, while the Coupe was fixed. It was a pretty expensive impact – all in, the bill came to hefty £938.71. That’ll teach me for working late at the office…
By Ben Whitworth
Racking up 20,000 miles in the Mini coupe - 22 August 2012
I racked up my 20,000th mile in the Mini this month. It’s probably the highest mileage I’ve accrued in a long term car over a six month period.
Despite my 100-mile a working day commute, I’m still no closer to working out how I feel about this car. Some days I love it – I revel in its twitch-and-you’re-in-the-ditch steering, its gutsy mid-range acceleration and its outright effervescence. Some days I loathe it – gritting my teeth at the brittle and jarring ride, the poor visibility, the creaking and rattling interior and the poor refinement levels. Most days I simply use it as a form of transport. I get in it and drive to work in the morning, and then get back in it at the end of the day and drive home. Job done.
Which made me think this - surely Mini’s sharpest and meanest offering should dish up more complete and rounded experience, rather than a polarising set of qualities? Shouldn’t there be much less of both the utilitarian and dislike, and a lot more of the love and enjoyment? I have about a month left with the Mini, and I hope in those four weeks, clarity comes to the fore.
By Ben Whitworth
We drive to France for Mini United - 8 August 2012
Last month I drove the Mini down to the South of France for the 2012 Mini United, a sprawling weekend-long festival for Mini drivers from around the world. This year’s extravaganza was based around the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Castellet, not far from Aix-En-Provence where we made our base.
For a 1700 mile trip, the Coupe may not strike you as the perfect European tourer, but the Mini relished the role of fast half-pint cruiser. It’s huge boot swallowed out luggage and camera gear without problem, the diesel engine struck a fine balance between economy and performance, the iPod-playing stereo pumped out our retro playlist loud enough to drown out the tiring wind noise from around the top of the doorframes (Supertramp, Hall and Oates, Thin Lizzy and so Depeche Mode, anyone?) and on France’s mirror-smooth network of autoroutes, the Mini rode with a relaxed and flowing gait.
I wasn’t too sure what to expect of the festival. Half of me thought it was going to be a very German affair, one horribly stifled by enforced jollity, but I could not have been more wrong. In the scorching 35degree heat, Le Castellet buzzed with the good will and good vibes of thousands of Mini drivers from all four corners. Young, old, smart, scruffy, bohemian and geeky – the event brought together a truly eclectic crowd united only by their love of all things Mini.
There was a contagious enthusiasm throughout, enhanced by an engaging mix of events – yoga, tightrope walking, track racing and live music – and excellent catering. Think German efficiency with French flair and you’d be on the right path.
While many displays featured original Mini models, there were very few pre-BMW Minis in car park. It seems the relationship between old and new is still chilly. Which is a pity because while it hasn’t been perfect, BMW’s resuscitation of the Mini brand is a lesson in how to use your heritage to power you in to the future. I think they-don’t-build-them-like-they-used-to detractors that harp on about how Minis aren’t small and have lost the Issigonis spirit suffer from acute commercial myopia. I’ll get off my hobbyhorse now…
The Mini United trip to France was a delight. A car in its elements, superb en-route food and drink, fine weather and excellent roads. So it was with almost comedy timing that we arrived back in the UK to cold and wet weather, a clogged M20, lousy Clacket Lane catering – and the Mini’s unforgiving thump and bump ride reminding me how out of sync this car’s suspension set-up is with our roads. In four days we covered 1685.5 miles in total, economy was 42.4mpg, and we clocked up a 70.7mph average speed.
By Ben Whitworth
Mini's boot is to mini to lug around fence panels
Yesterday, after a fortnight’s break, I got back behind the wheel of the Mini. I’d spent the last two weeks on not so much as a holiday but on a rather enthusiastic DIY extravaganza that took in insulating and flooring the loft, putting up new fencing and a myriad of minor jobs around the house and in the garden. So while the Mini’s boot is pretty big, I had to rely on the family Volvo V70 to lug about rolls of loft insulation, fence panels and posts, sheets of MDF and vats of paint. Which meant the dirty Mini sat silently and ignored in a corner of the driveway for 15 days.
Getting it back on to the road as I headed back to work was a bit of a revelation. It may not have turned a wheel for a bit, but the Coupe felt fresh and raring to go from the moment its diesel engine thrummed into life. It felt faster than I remember, punching harder in the mid-range, spinning more keenly to its redline and scything through corners with an appetite that verged on the rabid. All the driver touch-points – steering, brakes, gearshift and throttle – felt ultra responsive and in tune with each other, working together to create a seriously appealing dynamic unity. A cracking drive, in other words.
There were a few beneficial factors here, it must be said. It was a gorgeous morning - warm, dry and still. And as I had a made a pretty early start, the snaking West Sussex roads were mercifully free of traffic. So not exactly a motoring epiphany – more of a subtle shift in appreciation of the Coupe’s qualities – but enough to make me feel a lot warmer towards this flawed Mini. Oh, and after 18,746 miles, the central display went into overdrive and demanded the car be serviced.
I still stand by my main criticisms of the Coupe – the ride is uncompromisingly hard and abrupt, the diesel engine too vocal and the visibility is too limited. I won’t mention the looks, because I was sitting in the car – if you’re having a superb time behind the wheel of car on a brilliant bot of road, does it matter if you’re car looks like it’s been badly beaten by the ugly stick? Not really…
By Ben Whitworth
We switch our Mini Coupe off its run-flats on to ‘normal’ tyres. Does it improve the ride? - 16 May 2012
Everyone that has been a passenger in the Mini has quickly commented on how hard and unyielding the ride is. Yes, I know the Coupe is pitched as the sportiest model in the Mini range after the hotshoe GP, but an unyieldingly harsh ride quality doesn’t automatically deliver sporting dynamics, something many manufacturers can’t get their head around.
So here’s the good news. On ‘standard’ Continental Contisport 3 205/45 R17 tyres – ie non-runflats – the Coupe’s ride quality has significantly improved. The brittle jaggedness that had the Mini crashing and thumping over every intrusion on runflats has been rounded off. There’s a welcome degree of compliance and give in the way the suspension now absorbs ruts and ripples. Yes, the ride can still only be described as very firm but it’s now less aggressive and harsh.
The handling hasn’t been adversely affected by this step up in compliance and comfort either. Body control remains exceptional, and the Mini can still be whipped through corners at silly speeds with the slightest flick of the wrist. The Coupe never feeling anything but taut, alert and agile. Superb brakes, too. So if you have the choice, opt for the standard tyres and get a tin of puncture foam. Your spine and filings will thank you.
With the UK being such an important market for the Mini brand, I’m surprised that a hefty chunk of the Coupe’s development didn’t take place over here. If Mini’s engineers could have created a car better equipped at dealing with our crappy craggy roads as well as delivering exceptional handling, I’m convinced we’d see more Coupes on the road.
By Ben Whitworth
The Mini survives a collision - 1 May 2012
Some idiot drove into me last week. The optically-challenged octogenarian obviously didn't see me – the Coupe being tricky to spot being bright red with twinkling daylight running lights and all – because he entered the mini roundabout and tried to drive straight through me. The offside rear took the full brunt of the collision, but despite it sounding like a grenade had detonated in the Coupe’s boot and resulting in the nose of the retiree’s Civic looking mashed and mangled, damage to the Mini was visually superficial. The rear left wheel was deeply scuffed and the black plastic wheelarch lining was lightly scratched. And that was it.
After we swapped details, which took a while as the Honda driver had difficulty juggling his pipe and my pen, I gingerly attempted to complete the rest of my trip home – less than a few hundred yards – at walking pace, fully expecting the car to crab sideways and the cabin to fill with wince-inducing graunching and grinding noises.
There was no such anticipated ruckus and no wayward dynamics. The Mini rode and handled exactly the way it had done before the collision, but I was absolutely livid. The Mini had just been fitted with winter tyres – hence the switch to standard alloys – and was absolutely immaculate after a meticulous valet, but the Honda-Mini interface now meant I wouldn’t be able to drive the Coupe until the damage was repaired and the tracking was realigned.
The next morning I inspected the Mini thoroughly. Apart from the kerbed alloy and marked wheelarch lining, there was nothing I could see or detect that looked out of place. A few slow runs up and down the road further convinced me I would be able to trundle it up to Vines of Guildford – the Mini bodyshop closest to my office in Godalming – without further damage to the car, myself and the West Sussex and Surrey countryside.
Vines were very good in all respects. I dropped the car off later that week for them to assess and repair. I was offered a courtesy car – something the other driver’s insurance was very keen for me to have – but as I was only a few miles down the road and the job would take a day at most, I took Vines up on their offer to drop and collect me from their premises using their customer shuttle service – a Volkswagen Caravelle driven by an plummy avuncular chap who used to work in advertising. The alloy was replaced, as was the black wheelarch lining and despite the impact, the checked suspension and tracking were found to be fine. All a bit of non-event after a rather dramatic end to a day’s commute.
By Ben Whitworth
Pros and cons test on the Mini - 27 March 2012
Flip through to the comments section of the notebook stashed in the Mini’s cubby and there’s an interesting mix of the good and the not so good.
Let’s tackle what I believe is the Mini’s biggest stumbling block – its looks. I don’t think its cap-backwards proportions work. Not in the slightest. Every time I see that counter-intuitive upward swing of the roofline and the flat and frumpy boot I can’t help thinking that Mini’s design team missed a huge trick. How much cooler would this car look if it had a much lower roofline that flowed tightly over the driver’s head before plummeting down behind the driver’s head to meet the leading edge of the tailgate with kicked-up integrated lip? Imagine the back end of a 1973 911 2.7 RS, and you’ll know what I mean.
Next key issue is the ride quality. Or lack of it. The combination of run-flat rubber and the ultra-stiff set-up of the Mini’s suspension results in a punishingly hard and unforgiving ride that has me wincing and cursing on anything but the smoothest of roads. Rather than being a dynamic aid, the rock-hard ride actually acts as a very effective killjoy, forcing me to back off, rather than push on.
The Mini’s 1995cc twin-scroll turbo engine is gruff, but some of this lack of deportment can be forgiven when it readily delivers such useable dollops of overtaking go. Keep the vocal engine spinning between 1750 and 2700rpm and a chunky 225lb ft of torque is available to rocket-sled the Mini down the road and past slower traffic. And the crisp gearshift quality is a delight with a fine, machined feel to each gear change. Meaty and gutsy brakes add plenty of foot-flat confidence. Pity the hapless front wheels fight and fidget when trying to handle all that muscle.
There are a number of other smaller likes (huge boot, powerful bi-Xenons, good audio system) and as many dislikes (creaky centre console, cheap plastics, poor ergonomics) that I’ll flesh out in my next report, but it’s fair to say that overall, there’s a lot less on the plus side to Coupe ownership than expected. I can think of a lot of other £25k two-door cars I’d rather have in my garage than this one.
By Ben Whitworth
Mini Coupe Cooper Hello - 17 February 2012
If you read my farewell to the Honda CR-Z you will know that despite its dinky size, it majored on slinky and sleek style, foot-flat feel-good factor and bleeding-edge technology. It was missed the moment the collection man from Honda drove it down my road and out of sight. So any replacement keen to receive the same level of adoration has its work cut out.
Which might explain why there was a distinct pause on the line when road test editor Ben Pulman suggested a Mini Coupe. I love the way BMW has revived the Mini brand, the way it has keenly balanced accessibility and aspiratio,n and the manner in which it has expanded the range. But the Coupe? When I saw the first pictures of the Coupe concept ahead of its debut at the 2009 Frankfurt show I grimaced. Awkward, ungainly and frumpy. It was bound to look better in the metal, wasn’t it? No. It was what Mini people politely call challenging. And the rest of called ugly.
The production version was little different. There was none of the cute pocketability of the hatch, but no replacement aggression or athleticism, either. What was going on with that roofline and that broad flat rump? I had dinner with Gert Hildebrand, head of Mini design and the man responsible for the Coupe, on the eve of the 2009 Frankfurt show. He talked about the importance of not creating a set of models that followed the matryoshka doll school of design – touché Audi – and the need to capitalise on the Mini brand’s outright sporting intentions. Sure, but with a car that looks like Quasimodo wearing a back-to-front peak cap?
Opting for the Cooper SD version was a bit of a no-brainer. While the diesel Coupe loses out on the power front to its petrol-powered cousin (143bhp versus 184bhp) it clouts it for torque (a chunky 225lb ft at 1700rpm against 177lb ft at 1600rpm). And in everyday driving, high levels of low-rev torque is king. A 7.9 second dash to 62mph and a 134mph top speed means the Coupe will feel spectacularly quick after the Honda. And a claimed combined economy of 65.7mpg (the petrol Cooper S returns 44.1) sealed the deal for the diesel.
That was the limit of our input when it came to speccing the Coupe – the rest was left to Mini, who handed over one of the cars directly from the car’s launch. I say that here rather than after describing the Mini, for reasons that will soon become apparent. Our Coupe Cooper SD weighs in at an eyebrow-raising £20,510. That’s a lot more than some other small sporting three-door hatches such as Alfa’s Mito Quadrifoglio (£18,755), the Citroen DS3 DSport Plus (£17,895) Renaultsport’s Clio 200 Cup (£17,120) and the Vauxhall Corsa VXR (£18,900).
To that Mini has added £4,490 worth of the following options…
Chili Pack: £1,865
Media Pack: £1,015
Leather Lounge (Carbon Black): £700
Heated front seats: £215
Sun protection glass: £160
Chrome Line interior: £120
Colour Line, Rooster Red: £110
Auto-dimming rear view mirror: £105
Alloy Wheels in Black: £80
Run-flat tyres: £75
Warning triangle and first aid kit: £45
17" Conical Spoke alloy wheels: No-cost option
Black headlight trims: No-cost option
Interior trim, Piano Black: No-cost option
Interior World, Carbon Black: No-cost option
Roof and mirror caps in black: No-cost option
Sport front seats: No-cost option
Black exterior sports stripes: No-cost option
I'll explain what most of that means next time, but together it brings up YK61LLZ’s on-the-road price to a not insignificant £25,000. Or £350 more than VW’s hot 168bhp Golf GTD. So is this money well spent on a red and black striped three-door diesel hatch? I have six months to find out.
By Ben Whitworth