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Coupe-tastic: Mini Cooper Two-seater Packs Practicality With Pleasure and Precision

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The Mini Cooper Coupe is a glove. Put your hand in and go out for some fun. It is just that kind of car and it's how it fits the driver. But this is not the typical point-and-shoot two-seater; this coupe actually has decent trunk capacity by a liftback design.

Sold in three performance levels, starting prices range from $22,000 for the base 121-hp Coupe with six-speed manual transmission, $25,300 for the 181-hp Cooper S manual and $31,900 for the John Cooper Works, which is sold only with a beefed-up six-speed manual. Pricing includes the $700 freight charge from Oxford, England.

My tester was a JCW with a sticker price of $38,850, including $500 for British Racing Green paint. That's a significant sum for a car that is 12-feet long and about five-feet wide, but it packs enough precision with pleasure to pacify the price (which includes three years or 36,000 miles of free scheduled maintenance).

The coupe is small but the width and ride height do not seem as death-defying as when riding in a low-slung roadster while looking at the lug nuts on truck wheels a few feet away in the next lane. And there is excellent calibration to the electric steering and electric throttle for a sporty, mechanically connected response. There is no delay when hitting the gas (some electric throttles emphasize fuel economy), and the clutch is light and gear engagement smooth and clean. I'd gladly pay for a brattier exhaust note, but that's about the only accessory not offered.

Roll on the power and the 2,701-pound JCW scoots and keeps pulling to near redline. The turbocharged, 1.6-liter engine has an overboost feature that on hard acceleration raises the 192 foot-pounds of torque to 207 foot-pounds from 2,000 to 5,100 rpm. Mini claims 0-60 acceleration in 6.1 seconds and it just feels quicker with the overboost.

Braking is Porsche-like absolute from 12.4-inch, vented Brembo calipers at the front and 11-inch vented rear discs.

There is no scrambling pull from the front tires as they grab for traction, and the car zings along winding roads as if it were all-wheel drive. Heel-toe shifting is a snap, and not just a racer technique. Angling your right foot across the accelerator (heel) and brake (toe) helps give controlled shifts to slow the car faster, maintain balance and be in the correct gear to get out of harm's way if needed.

With some six-speed manuals, the driver is continually rowing through all the gears to stay in the power band. In the JCW, I tooled around town in second, third and fourth. The turbo uptake is quick and Hill-Start Assist gives a few seconds of braking for a reassuring launch from the light.

More horsepower is always more fun in a Mini, but I expect the Cooper S is just as much fun in daily driving without the JCW's stiff suspension. The firm ride is ideal for competitive driving, but hitting potholes or broken pavement gives a direct punch and wince.

I never sensed engagement/interference from the dynamic traction control and I did manage some squeals from the 17-inch, run-flat performance tires.

With 9.8 cubic feet of trunk/cargo space, this Coupe has decent function.

I got carried away on a stock-up trip to Target and spent $250 on groceries and supplies, including a 20-pound bag of dog food and a max-pack of paper towels. It all fit in the hatch area, which seemed like a magic act. And there's a pass-through for long items to poke into the front-seat area.

The interior comfort is good but with some awkwardness from the Mini theater. I appreciated the digital speed readout in the tachometer right behind the steering wheel because the large speedometer is to the right, in the center of the instrument panel. The engine starting sequence is a bit of a procedure; insert key fob, then push start button, instead of leaving key fob in pocket and going straight to the start button. The thumb wheels for adjusting fan speed and temperature are clumsy and I do recommend the center armrest, a $250 accessory.

The Mini Coupe was the most fun I've had testing a simple, sporty car in years. Sometimes we forget, driving should be enjoyable.

Specs box: 2012 Mini Cooper Coupe John Cooper Works

—Body style: subcompact, 2-seat, front-wheel-drive hardtop.

—Engine: 208-hp, turbocharged, direct-injection 1.6-liter 4-cylinder; 192 foot-pounds torque from 1,850 to 5,600 rpm.

—Transmission: 6-speed, manual.

—Fuel economy: 25/33 mpg city/hwy.; 91 octane.

—Fuel tank: 13.2 gallons.

—Trunk space: 9.8 cubic feet.

—Front head/leg/shoulder room: 38.4/41.7/50.3 inches.

—Length/wheelbase: 148/97.1 inches.

—Curb weight: 2,701l pounds.

—Turning circle: 35.1 feet.

—Standard equipment includes: remote locking, active rear spoiler, tilt-telescopic steering wheel, three-spoke (leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio phone controls, 6-speaker CD audio system with HD radio, air conditioning, 6-way adjustable sport seats, red Brembo front brake calipers (12.4-inch vented front, 11-inch vented rear), 17-inch alloy wheels and 205/45 run-flat performance tires

—Safety features include: 4 air bags, 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, corner brake control, brake-force distribution, traction control, electronic differential lock

—Base price: $31,900, including $700 freight charge; price as tested $38,850

—Options on test vehicle: British Racing Green $500; Carbon Black/Beige Punch leather $1,500; Mini Connected with navigation $1,750 (includes voice command, Bluetooth and USB/iPod ports); sport suspension $500; 17-inch Mini Yours alloy wheels $500; chrome line interior $250; black sport stripes $250; chrome mirror caps $100; center armrest $250; xenon headlights $500; Harmon Kardon audio $750; white turn signal lenses $100.

—Where assembled: Oxford, England.

—Warranty: 4-years/50,000-miles bumper-to-bumper with roadside assistance; 3-years/36,000-miles free scheduled maintenance.

Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at mark.maynard@utsandiego.com. Find photo galleries and more news at Facebook.com/MaynardsGarage. To find out more about Mark Maynard and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2012 THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM




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