Drive story : MINI Coupé 1.6T John Cooper Works
Coupés are cramped, impractical, noisy… and a whole lot of fun. That’s the whole point of them, yes?
MINI obviously thinks so, and has introduced a crackerjack Coupé to prove it. Keith Adams takes one up to Yorkshire and experiences something even more cramped and noisy.
Coupés, trains, and the Coopermobile
It’s fair to say that AROnline readers ‘enjoy’ something of a love/hate relationship with MINI. Some see it as the product of a company that’s cynically manipulated the precious Mini name for its own ends… while the majority more sensibly see it as a modern-day remix of an all-time classic. And it’s built in Britain; nailed together in Oxford; powered by Birmingham engines; and packaged in bodies pressed in Swindon. In an increasingly international industry, it’s pretty much as British as it comes. The recently launched MINI Coupé further divides opinion – and not just with you guys, going from the reactions from other road users during our recent drive. But that’s a good thing? We think so!
As an engineering exercise, the MINI Coupé makes all kinds of sense. As a driver’s car, the hatchback is still near the top of its class as it nears the end of its production run so, given that it’s 23mm lower, structurally more rigid, more stiffly suspended and has a lower C-of-G, the MINI Coupé should be sheer genius on the road – even if, disappointingly, it’s 25kg heavier. We’ve been handed the keys to a John Cooper Works prepared Coupé to find out just how true that is… and, for us, it makes sense to head north, where the roads are more open, the traffic lighter and… the trains have a BL slant to them.
Regular readers will, of course, know all about the famed Class 141 Pacers that rattle around our northern branch lines. But for those who don’t, here’s a quick run-down. British Rail needed a lower, cheaper and more cramped loco to serve its low-profit lines and, when offered a Leyland National bus with train wheels beneath it, they couldn’t say ‘no’. Of course, that was over 30 years ago now… who would have thought that these stop-gaps would be still in use today? What would we think of these sporting little numbers?
However, a bigger question hangs in the air though: do we like the way the MINI Coupé looks? Actually, yes. For one, it is nothing if not distinct in a mid-market that seems to have lost the bravery that set apart the early-to-mid 2000s. You’ll either love or hate that roof, which literally looks plonked atop the car, but then at least it’s different. The JCW kit combined with stripes and red-roof on our car might just be a little overdone, though. Seeing a Coupé in more sober colours is infinitely more satisfying.
First we had to drive north, and jumping into the MINI Coupé is a strange, yet familiar experience. Inside, it’s almost pure R56-generation MINI, with that same endearingly retro interior, dish-sized speedometer, funky switches and roomy cockpit. Now it’s a pure two-seater, there’s no pretense of practicality, and that’s largely a good thing. Just like the Triumph TR7 before it, there’s a lot of good in designing a roomy two-seater. And we approve. Especially when we sling our camera gear in the roomy boot. Here’s a MINI that makes sense for two-up adventurers.
There’s a little less headroom and the three-quarter visibility is abysmal but, other than that, the Coupé is hard to fault before you set off. Being a JCW – and a kitted one at that – there’s lots of gadgets to play with. Adjustable mood lighting might be the answer to a question we’ve yet to ask, but the rest of the equipment set it easy to use and the body-coloured dash and door trims are a quaint nod to the past which we approve of. The integrated sat/nav/infotainment/’phone is easy and logical to use – driving it with MINI’s interpretation of the iDrive controller – and, within minutes, our ‘phone is synched up and the destination dialled-in. It’s time for the off.
Fire it up, and the noise from the 211bhp four-pot up-front is undistinguished – smooth and anodyne. Very modern… But once underway, it develops a nice rasp that vaguely reminds one of a classic A-Series (we wonder if MINI would thank us for saying that). The difference is that, when you push the throttle hard and then hang on to it, the thing literally flies forward and impresses with its lack of turbo lag. Six nicely stacked ratios mean there aren’t too many interruptions in the flow and the big numbers come quickly: 0-100mph in 16 seconds and a top speed of 150mph. It sounds great too, though the rev range but, oh boy, is it noisy when on throttle.
On the B-roads that get us to the motorway, it’s an absolute laugh, once we’ve acclimatised yourself to how edgy if feels. It seems well-damped for such a roll-free car on smooth roads and the super-quick steering gives you oodles of confidence to really crack on. It’s a shame, then, that as we pile on to the motorway, we now have 150 miles of pretty much straight-line motoring. Like all MINIs, the Coupé feels planted and solid on the motorway and the miles tick off quickly. Once we’re on to cruise, and off the throttle, it’s not offensively loud either. That three quarter blind-spot remains a nuisance for those who like a ‘lifesaver’ over-the-shoulder look before lane changes, but we soon get used to it.
By the time Leeds rolls onto the horizon, we’re more than happy with the MINI Coupé – pleasantly bolstered by the 35mpg average we’ve clocked up too. Not bad for a 150mph car… As we roll through the city, it’s hard to avoid the stares the car’s attracting – are they positive or negative? Hard to say, but at least it’s good not to fade into the background once in a while.
It’s an absolute change of pace once we’ve abandoned the car and are into Leeds railway station, though. A Day Rover ticket costs us £7.00 and allows us all the hot Pacer action we can stand – we hand over our money, asking the question, ‘which lines have those class 142 Pacers on? You know, the really crap ones.’ It’s hard not to smile at the information desk attendant’s eye-roll. Why on earth would someone ride on one of these for fun? Why, indeed?
We head down to a platform with a train heading for Blackpool. We’ve been told these can sometimes be Pacers but, as we head for the line, we see a Sheffield-bound train that makes the heart skip a beat! Yes, it’s a Pacer, and it’s just about to be whistled off. A quick run and we’re on. And it’s standing room only – which is fine, as I want a good look at the inside of this tobacco-coloured interior without necessarily wanting to sit down in it. The train’s attendant steps on behind us, opens a roof-mounted flap and locks closed the doors.
The passengers look unbelievably cramped, with their knees touching their ears in some cases. Not one is smiling and perhaps they’re wondering why the hell we are. The diesel motor fires up and we’re off. Slowly and noisily… It’s far worse than I’d hoped for and a real insight into how the idea of a rail-bus was (and remains) far less appealing than the reality. At the first stop, a handful of passengers jump off. They look relieved. We grab a seat and are amazed at how uncomfortable they are… as the train sets off again, its engine roaring ineffectually away, it really does feel like we’ve embarked on the last ride of the damned. The scenery outside is yet to compensate for this truly miserable experience and, as we arrive in Wakefield, our only thoughts are of a quick exit…
In truth, the Pacer’s not actually that bad – but it’s far from goo, and you do have to pity those poor souls who rely on them day in, day out. Rather like an old East European car, you know they’re good at what they’re designed for, but at no point in the design brief were the words ‘enjoyment’ or ‘comfort’ mentioned. We can only hope they’re cheap to ride on.
There’s no choice for it, but to make sure we enjoy the rest of the day by avoiding the Pacer and so that’s what we do. The day then actually becomes a pleasant reminder that rail travel really is quite nice if you’re not in a hurry or crammed in on some commuter service into London. Sitting back, watching the world go by – as well as mawkishly peeking into other people’s back gardens – is really quite satisfying. And that has us thinking about Motorail and possibilities for the future.
However, for now, it’s back to the MINI Coupé and a quick dash back down to the crowded and unfriendly south. First thoughts? Aside from being a huge contrast to those Pacers? Well, back on the M1 and on the lit stretches, we’re still not sure if the constant slowing down and speeding up of other drivers while they take a look at the MINI is a good thing or not. On the whole, we think it is – it proves that many people out there do care about cars and aren’t afraid to show their curiosity. In time, as more MINI Coupés get out there, things might change – so buy one now if you’re craving attention!
Anyway, before we plunge back down the M1, it’s time for some more fun in the Peak District, and some of England’s finest roads. Once again, the go kart-like MINI can’t fail to raise a smile although, as the roads get rougher, the stiff suspension set-up sometimes gets confused by the worst of those inevitable irregularities. Once you mix some rain into the equation, keeping things on the straight and narrow becomes a real challenge. Clearly, it’s a little too stiff for these conditions and the thought is hard to shake – a standard MINI would be quicker on its more compliant spring/damper set-up. Still, it’s most definitely fun.
Time waits for no man, though, and it’s soon time to leave the hills and get back onto the dreaded M1. The miles roll by and that gives us a little more time to ponder the day. Would we choose to ride on a Pacer again? Not on your nelly… not unless the alternative was walking and, even then, the decision would be tough. However, as for the MINI Coupé – we loved its irreverence and sheer exuberance but, truth be told, it’s not different enough – styling aside – from the hatchback. It’s a case of original is best – but we admire the thinking behind its conception and the sheer fact it exists. Unlike that bloody awful rail-bus…