Mini would prefer it if you saw the 2012 Coupe as a pure sports car, so much so that its boss Kay Segler felt the need to conduct the press conference at its launch wearing fireproof overalls.
And it's true that in its two-seat configuration and three-box design, its outline has far more in common with traditional purpose-built sports cars than any other to wear the Mini badge.
So how different is it really? We drove one of the first examples to find out.
Style or Substance?
It's hard to tell whether the 2012 Mini Coupe's styling is a landmark of modern design or an approximation of what the hatch might look like if you could persuade an elephant to sit on one. For what it's worth, I didn't like it at all when I first saw it, but after a day in and around it, I did at least get used to its looks.
In essence, the Coupe is almost an inch lower than the hatch and features a windshield with 13 degrees more rake. At the back a new opening has been designed to give the car a three-box shape and integrate a deployable rear spoiler into its deck. Thanks to the removal of the rear seats, the trunk has been substantially enlarged.
Inside, the architecture will be familiar to anyone who knows Mini but if you look up, you'll see scoops in the roof lining like the one Dan Gurney used in his GT40. They won't help you win Le Mans, but they do mean the Coupe offers just as much head space as the taller hatch, which is a neat trick.
Mechanically, however, very little is different. The engines are cut and paste from the hatchback and if you want go for the John Cooper Works model, you can say the same for the suspension, too. Standard coupes get stiffer dampers and thicker roll bars compared to their hatchback counterparts, but the springs are the same.
Don't expect that lower roof line and the lack of rear seats to result in less weight. That's because all the extra bracing to increase torsional rigidity and the weight of that rear spoiler system actually put on an extra 50 pounds or so.
The Moment of Truth
It doesn't take long before I realize that despite having no more power and a little extra weight, it feels faster than the standard hatchback. Sadly, it's not, at least not by much. Mini says the Coupe cuts a tenth off the 0-62-mph time only because the new shape has shifted the car's weight balance even farther to the front (though by how much it would not say) to provide a touch more traction off the line. And its 2-mph gain in top speed comes courtesy of the slight aerodynamic advantage conferred by that more acute windshield.
But let's not be delayed by the details. Fact is, whether its top speed is 148 or 150 mph, or whether it takes 6.4 or 6.5 seconds to reach 62 mph, this is one fast, little car. The more time I spend with its pint-size 1.6-liter engine, the more impressed by it I am. For such a small motor, 208 horsepower is a huge output even with a turbo attached. But what really impresses is that this power is delivered so evenly and smoothly across the wide power band, with no lag or slack throttle response.
And the way the 2012 Mini Coupe handles a twisty road shows again how well BMW understands how to translate the values of the original Mini to the 21st century. The steering is quick, the tires grippy, and when you really start to fling it, the balance impressively neutral for a front-drive car.
Far From Perfect
Which might lead you to think all was well with the new family member. But it's not. Whether this coupe is going to amuse or infuriate depends rather more on where you live more than it should.
The surfaces around Munich are impressively smooth, but even here the Germans have not been able to eliminate every rough road. And when you find one, the ride quality deteriorates quickly from satisfactory to unacceptable. It's not just your comfort, which you might not care about so much in a two-door sports car, but the fact that progress can get so jittery it spoils your enjoyment of the car's otherwise fundamentally good handling.
There are other problems, too. Just as you think the rear screen might be just a touch too small, the rear spoiler pops up and robs you of much of what little rearward vision was there. And that vast and silly central speedo works no better in here than in any other Mini.
A Tough Sell
But none of these things explains why the 2012 Mini Coupe disappoints. It's not about what it does, right or wrong. It's about what it does not do, namely provide you with a single serious reason to choose one over the standard hatchback. For all Mini's posturing about it being a sports car and however much Nomex its boss chooses to wear, the Coupe offers no more real-world performance over the standard hatchback, nor is it notably better to drive.
Then there's the fact that the hatch is cheaper and more practical. You can turn the hatch into a two-seater with more than double the trunk capacity of the Coupe by simply folding the rear seats. And you can get four people in one should the need arise. Not going to happen with the Coupe.
Even so, don't escape with the idea that Mini has produced a bad car, as it's still fast, fun and well finished. But Mini has missed a trick with it. If it had paid even half as much attention to the way the Coupe drives as it has to the way it looks, its claim to have built the brand's first proper sports car could have been credible.
It wouldn't have taken a complete reengineering, just some detail tuning: a little more power that the chassis could take with ease, a thoughtful retune of the suspension, a shorter final drive — that sort of thing. Then it could have been as good, or even better to drive than it looks. As it stands, however, there is one reason only to choose it over a Mini hatchback, and it has nothing to do with driving.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.