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Top Gear drives the Mini Coupe JCW
If you saw the initial pictures of the Mini Coupe and thought, ‘Hmm, maybe it’s just one of those cars that doesn’t quite work in photos”, you were wrong. The Mini Coupe looks every bit as strange in the metal as it does on the screen in front of you.
Whether good-strange or bad-strange is down to personal taste - initially I thought the Coupe revolting, yet after a couple of days developed a begrudging affection for its unapologetic lack of sleekness (then again, I always rather liked the Lancia Hyena, so read into that what you will) - but this is an unquestionably brash, eye-challenging bit of design.
In the red-roof-on-silver-body spec of our test car, its kick-back top section (insert obligatory baseball cap reference here) looks worryingly like a huge cartoon tongue draped fleshily over a normal Mini recently been employed as a bar stool by a porky elephant. Either that, or something you’d find in a Kinder Egg. Some will love it. Some really, really won’t.
Under the strange exterior, though, this top-spec, 210bhp JCW Mini Coupe drives almost indistinguishably from its hatchback cousin. Though only a two-seater - where the rear seats live in the hatch version, you’ll find a lump of plastic cladding, a parcel shelf and a big ol’ boot - the Coupe actually weighs 25kg more than the hatch, thanks to structural reinforcements to improve torsional stiffness.
Despite this, and the fact that the Coupe has been dropped by an inch on its springs compared to the Mini hatch, you’d be hard-pushed to differentiate the two if you drove them blindfolded (this would also result in you crashing and almost inevitably dying, so please don’t try it).
Such similarity is, for the most part, no bad thing. The Mini’s posh multilink rear suspension set-up remains brilliantly involving, and combines with the Coupe’s direct, fast steering to deliver a properly hands-on driving experience.
With 210bhp coursing through the front wheels, you’ll frequently find the steering wheel making a bid for freedom under any sort of acceleration. This is a car that demands to be wrestled down a twisty lane, bucking and wriggling and seeking out every camber. When you can get all the power down on the road instead of madly spinning up the front wheels, the JCW Coupe is truly quick, turbo wastegate fizzing and exhaust popping on the overrun. No, it’s not the most relaxing car to drive fast, but on a good back road it’ll smear a grin across your face like few other cars.
Erm, apart from the Mini JCW hatch, that is. And that’s the problem. From the comfort of its cabin, the Coupe doesn’t feel… different enough to justify its £1500 premium over the four-seater Mini. The seating position is simply too high for a coupe - the pedals are way down below your knees, not in front of them - and, under the raked-back windscreen, the Coupe’s dash is a straight cut-and-paste job, albeit adorned with a few posh shiny bits.
So what, you might argue. Few ever bought a Mini hatch for its practical rear seats, so maybe hacking them out and lowering the roofline is simply a logical extension of that: converting the Mini into the impractical two-seater it always wished to be.
But coupes should offer a bit more magic dust in exchange for their higher price tag and lower practicality. Whereas the Mini’s big rivals - the Audi TT and Peugeot’s RCZ - both feel like ground-up original designs, cleverly hiding their shared bits, the Coupe emits the faint whiff of a buzzsaw-and-welder garage conversion. If you want Mini handling and quirkiness in an, ahem, distinctive two-seater package, you’ll love it. But as an opportunity to distill Mini’s best bits into a more exotic, sporty package, the Coupe seems to be an opportunity missed.