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2012 Mini Cooper Road Test Review by Martha Hindes

2012 Mini Cooper Road Test Review

by Martha Hindes

2012 Compact Car Buyer's Guide - Top 10 Picks

Chevy Sonic


Fiat 500 C

Mini Cooper

Nissan Versa

Honda Civic Si

Hyundai Accent

If you're looking for a mini car with a max attitude, try the one that wears the name that tells it all. MINI by itself would suggest there's something special about this auto. Add the full moniker -- 2012 MINI Cooper ‘John Cooper Works’ edition coupe -- and legend enters the equation.

MINI isn't a recent designation, with a half-century of performance and passion under its fabled beltline. Its more recent appearance in the U.S. brought a lot of transitions in what MINI stands for -- with various guises from spunky basics that first teased interested "Drivers car" types (AKA gearheads), to droptops, to nearly mid-size four-door Countryman versions. With a wealth of MINI iterations from which to choose, we'll stick with the latest breathtaker here -- a two-seater, front drive powerhouse designed for the rally road roar -- so we don't get lost in traffic.

JWC for the curious, stands for "John Cooper Works," the spiffed up performance group that puts the heart-pounding max into their junior-sized MINI progeny named for yesteryear's fabled MINI designer.

Our first look at the 2012 JCW was intriguing at the least. A small, roundish but husky body dressed in British Racing Green split evenly by a black racing stripe from stem to stern set the tone before we even tried the weird key fob that cradles into a well in the dash to start.

A canopy on the rear of the roof is intriguing as well, with twin elliptical portholes designed to funnel airflow. It's half of a two-part spoiler system that feeds downforce air against an active spoiler on the rear liftgate that goes airborne at about 50 MPH. "Oh, that's how it works," was our reaction when we first saw it perk up through the smallish rear window. (We never got close to the 149 MPH max speed it can muster that would require such a system to stay glued to the ground.)

Lots of super shiny chrome touches sparkled from perfectly placed spots -- door handles, surrounding the headlamp orbs, encircling the pouty grille "mouth" that's uniquely MINI. And it shines throughout the inside, surrounding the bulbous, round gauges stashed in pods or plate-sized circles, or tiny chrome buttons that activate every function. Delicious Harman Kardon sound augments the effect.

It's time to drive a legend. So, as we look down when opening the door, we see the John Cooper Works and checkered flag trim etched atop the sill plate. Talk about announcing your intentions. So did the well-bolstered bucket seats. Scooped out ceiling hollows and a long, long seat track suggest the ideal driver is at least six feet tall. The six-speed manual confirmed that the 208-horsepower 1.6-liter inline four would be something special. It didn't disappoint.

You get the sense behind the wheel that the MINI can do anything; take a sandy hilltop that crests into a turn at speed, do a hairpin curve without much slowdown, blast past an opponent in a wide road section. Dreaming does have that impact. We had to keep alert, however, as it wanted to simply run away with the merest touch on the accelerator pedal and zip in and out of traffic with such ease it might outmaneuver America's finest in the rear view mirror (for a while). We wondered, however, about an annoying rattle in the rear and whether that would dampen a real rally venture on less than smooth roadways. We also wondered if the navigation screen version that pivoted with the slightest touch on the steering wheel would make a co-driver seasick during an agile rally run.

Getting down to basics, some lesser MINIs actually start in the reasonable $20K range. The cost of our $38K test version could have dampened our spirits if this were any other car. But consider its ownership by BMW that resurrected the Brit
MINI tradition and it's not as surprising. BMW, after all, has a premium car performance legacy that by itself could demand such a membership fee. And we can't complain about the 33/25/28 mileage rating either.

Despite that legacy, this latest iteration of the MINI marquee seems to be a no middle ground contender. Those who see it either love it or hate it. We had several serious, silent observers walk around to check it out while obviously debating mentally which side they were on.

And virtually every space both inside and out, except for the adequate trunk area, seems to get the round treatment on this MINI. That includes door insets, tach pod that sits directly behind the steering wheel in race car fashion (with superimposed digital speedometer readout inside) or the IP's centered speedometer-map-entertainment cluster in the round. I guess we could call this the most well-rounded vehicle we've ever driven.

Visit the Mini Cooper website, click here.