Involving it may be, but, on the worst roads, the Mini’s incessant skittishness begins to grate, like a toddler replying “Why? Why? Why?” to every explanation you give. We’ve come to expect such fidgety behaviour from hot Minis, but more of a surprise is something else the Coupe shares with the hatch: its seating position.
The RCZ offers up a more languid GT experience, these tight roads bringing out a softer, more placid character to the buttocky Peugeot. Though sharing much DNA with the Mini’s engine, it’s far less rev-hungry, ambling towards the red line where the Mini charges headlong at it with a turbo rasp and a flicker of the traction control.
In the TT, by contrast, you simply point the front end where you want to end up and let
the Audi’s forgiving damping deal with the rest. Our test car is equipped with Audi’s magnetic ride (a £1,175 option), and even in the sharpest setting, the TT – which, interestingly, weighs just a few kilos more than the smaller Mini – smooths out the Moors’ rumpled patchwork with a sophistication the Mini can’t match.
On paper, the Audi is the quickest car here, pipping the Coupe a couple of tenths to 62mph and the RCZ by an extraordinary second and a half, and it feels it, planting its power on these storm-sodden roads where the Mini frenziedly spins its tyres. The Audi makes a lovely noise, a crisp rasp that’s never intrusive or pantomime, but just steely enough to remind you that
you’re driving a proper sports car.
Then again, so is sharing a sauna with a family of tetchy scorpions. Stiffly sprung and prone to turbulent torque steer, its active spoiler bobbing cheerily up and down behind the rear screen, you wrestle this thing along a B-road rather than drive it.
The Mini is so responsive to mid-corner bumps that you’re forced to manically wind the steering on and off as you tackle a bend at speed, feeling for grip, scrabbling wildly to keep the nose aiming the right way.
The roads of the North Yorkshire Moors are a chassis engineer’s nightmare. Narrow, surfaced with a grim patchwork of crudely stitched bitumen, endlessly buckled and cambered, they subject every aspect of a car’s suspension to a waterboarding-style interrogation. Threading along these unforgiving tracks requires a healthy dose of concentration and, if you want to make rapid progress, some mild bravery.
There’s no telling what you’ll find mid-corner: a devious pothole, a six-inch-high crease of tarmac, a pile of gravel or, most probably, a dopey sheep eyeing its impending death with baleful gloom. Climbing through scrubby pastures and riotous purple heather onto the lonely sweep
of Blakey Ridge, the Mini is indeed involving.
So, yes, the Coupe is an unashamedly weird thing to look at, but at least it’s small. After a dubious venture into definitely-not-mini territory with the Countryman, this is Mini returning to its heartland: compact, front-drive, lightweight.
Only, the Coupe isn’t especially lightweight. In fact, despite being shorn of two seats, the JCW Coupe weighs 25kg more than its hatch cousin, thanks to a bunch of chassis reinforcements borrowed from the JCW convertible. Still, with a lower centre of gravity than the hatch, it’s billed as the most involving Mini yet. Let’s find out...
From certain angles in the red-on-silver spec of our test car, it resembles a giant plastic tongue draped fleshily atop a standard Mini recently employed as a bar stool by an elephant that’s let itself go a bit. You’ll have your own views on its looks: possibly strong and shouty views.
We will simply say this, though: after a few days with the Coupe, we developed a begrudging affection for its cartoonish lumpishness (but then again, we’ve always had a soft spot for the gurning Lancia Hyena, so take anything we say with a pinch of salt), but there was never a point at which its strange shapes suddenly clicked into place, never a moment when we thought, “Ah, so that’s what the designer was trying to do...”
In fact, if you discount the super-limited JCW GP hatch of 2006, it’s the first production two-seater in Mini’s 50-and-a-bit-year heritage. Behind the driver is a space for a couple of coats or a dachshund stored transversely, then a whacking great lump of plastic cladding separating cabin from the 280-litre boot (bigger than the Clubman’s, no less).
The hat-wearing Coupe is certainly a more... challenging piece of design than the sleek Audi and curvaceous Peugeot (though, while we’re on the subject, when is Peugeot going to graft the 508’s far more palatable nose on to the RCZ?).
For its first-ever UK test, we’ve got the most potent Coupe in the range: the top-of-the-pile John Cooper Works version. This is the fastest-accelerating production Mini in history, capable of hitting 62mph in 6.4 seconds, courtesy of its 211bhp, 1.6-litre turbo engine. That’s a near-perfect match for the entry-level TT – which boasts exactly the same power output from its 2.0-litre turbo – and just a nose ahead of the top-power RCZ: the Peugeot’s engine, closely related to that in the Mini, develops 200bhp.
The Mini isn’t quite an on-the-nose rival for the TT and RCZ: while both the Audi and the Peugeot sport a tiny pair of rear chairs, the Mini is, to use the obligatory prefix, a strict two-seater (as opposed to what? A lenient two-seater?).
A couple of years ago, Middlesbrough was ranked as the worst place to live in the UK
– presumably only because the researchers never saw my second-year student flat – and
it provides a backdrop that would make even the Ssangyong Rodius look appealing.
Unfortunately for the Coupe, we’re judging it against rather stiffer competition than a couple of rusty cranes. More specifically, we’re judging it against the Audi TT and Peugeot RCZ. That’s some mean opposition: the RCZ is the best-looking, best-driving Peugeot in a decade (no ‘best singer in Jedward’ jokes, please) and our reigning Coupe of the Year, while the TT needs little introduction. Forget the tanning salon vibe of the original 1998 design: now in its second generation, the compact Audi is a proper driver’s car.