Try to think of a focused, two-seater sportscar with a free-revving four-cylinder engine, short chassis, broad footprint on the road and the sort of terrier-after-a-rat dartiness that has its driver beaming from ear to ear… chances are there’ll be a fair bit of head scratching before you settle on the Mazda MX-5 as the weapon of choice and you’d be right. These days, everyday practicality and “lifestyle” – accommodating anything board-related outside of an office setting – are key attributes in our choice of wheels. Cars meeting these specific provisos are like hens’ dentistry and largely relegated to a past where “lifestyle” denoted trips to the local hop for a spot of dancing with your squeeze, or free love and recreational pharmaceuticals; when the likes of MG, Austin Healey and Triumph had taken fun two-seater motoring to an art form. Before such rose-tinted reverie can take hold, it bears mentioning a modern car that embodied all of those virtues but fell off our radars too soon: the Mini Coupé. Its niche appeal, stiff ride and challenging styling meant this pint-sized ball of fun wasn’t a sales hit and was dropped, along with the even quirkier Paceman, after a four-year production run. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but if you’re in the market for some serious off-the-wall fun with a premium badge, it’s worth revisiting the once divisive Coupé.
A bit of history
Previewed as a concept vehicle at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show, the production Coupé arrived in SA in late 2011, spun off the same FWD platform as the hatch. The Coupé had a sharply raked windscreen and a novel staggered glasshouse with that distinctive backward-facing baseball-cap roof. A small rear deck with an electrically folding spoiler that popped up at 80 km/h rounded off the tail. The entry-level Cooper sported a naturally aspirated 1,6-litre engine with 90 kW and 160 N.m on tap, while the turbocharged S brought things up to 135 kW and 240 N.m; good enough for a 0-100 km/h time of less than 8 seconds and a 230 km/h top speed. The range-topping John Cooper Works (JCW) turned up the wick to 155 kW and up to 280 N.m of torque with overboost, bringing the 0-100 km/h sprint time down to 6,4 seconds and the top speed up to 240 km/h. Six-speed manual and automatic transmissions were offered on the Cooper and S, with the JCW sticking to the self-shifter like any dyed-in-the-wool compact performance car should.
With its wide footprint, short wheelbase, precise steering and a kerb weight of around 1 100 kg, the Coupé is one of the most entertaining cars in its bracket. The S impressed with its agility on a specially constructed gymkhana course on our 2012 Performance shootout, while our JCW long-termer’s combination of an even tighter chassis, great power-to-weight ratio and gunfire-aping sports exhaust backfire endeared it to many CAR team members in its 12-month tenure.
What to watch out for
By and large, Minis are fairly robust little cars; although, given this model’s sporting bent, it is wise to check for any signs of abuse. Being largely town-bound means minor scrapes, bumps and curbed alloys could indicate a less-than-careful previous owner. Like most R56-generation Minis, the interior trim can become creaky with age.
The timing chain has intermittently proven a weak spot in R56 Minis. Check the oil pump is in good working order and the oil level is correct. A noisy pump or hydraulic lifters at idle from a cold start suggest low oil pressure that could starve the chain of oil on start-up, potentially stretching it. There have also been occasional reports of oil leaks from the timing chain tensioner. It was traced to a dislodged O-ring in the oil filter’s non-return valve that has found its way into the filter housing; if you find said O-ring during an oil change, you may want to fit a slightly larger ring. Our JCW long-termer fell victim to an uncommon issue with the electric steering pump. Overly stiff steering could indicate a leaking hose, while difficulty in turning the wheel in a certain direction suggests a false reading from one of the directional relays.
These issues with early cars were subject to recalls in 2013, so check if these components have been repaired or replaced under the original warranty. This list is off-putting but most of these problems are fairly uncommon and cars that are regularly serviced and well maintained will have plenty of life left in them.
Despite its limited production run, a trawl through the classifieds will turn up a few examples, most commonly the Cooper S. The less powerful Cooper models can be had for around R140 000 with prices rising to as much as R220 000 for a clean JCW. Their status as urban runabouts and weekenders means mileages are low, with a couple broaching the 150 000 km mark but check for the usual town-driving wear to items such as the clutch. Their premium placing indicates most have been well looked after… anything less than a full-service history should raise questions. They’re not common but you can afford to be choosy when shopping. Go for one in the best condition within your budget.
Mini JCW Coupé
Power: 155 kW at 6 000 r/min
Torque: 260 N.m at 4 250 r/min
0-100 km/h: 6,4 seconds
Top speed: 240 km/h
Fuel index: 8,98 L/100 km
CAR test: June 2014