A Mini built for the track


(Photo courtesy of MINI)
Warren Brown
Columnist February 3, 2012

It was fun, but wanting — the motorized equivalent of a last fling. At the end of the journey, I knew we were done.

Infatuation and fantasy wear thin with real-road experience, particularly when you are driving several hundred miles in a speedster as tiny as the 2012 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works Coupe.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

It was love at first sight, which turned out to be a mistake for a long road trip. The Cooper Works Coupe was the cutest car, white body with black top and contrasting black and white racing stripes. The 17-inch diameter Black Star Design wheels gave the car a menacing look. It was a little car with a lot of muscle, perfect for a racetrack but a bit too much for a public highway.

The car, named after British racing legend John Newton Cooper, was designed to go fast. It’s short (147 inches long), it’s light (2,701 pounds), and it has a relatively wide track, the horizontal distance between wheels (66.3 inches). An NBA player standing 6 feet 5 inches tall would tower above its roofline by two feet.

Under the hood of the little front-wheel-drive car is a turbocharged, gasoline-direct-injection 1.6-liter in-line four-cylinder engine that sits at the top of the small-car world. It uses the turbocharger, an exhaust-driven impeller, to pull large volumes of fresh air into engine combustion chambers. Gasoline direct injection ensures that the right amount of required premium fuel is delivered to those chambers at exactly the right time for spark ignition.

The result is a stunning symphony of volatility yielding 208 horsepower and 192 foot-pounds of torque. Whoosh!

Yes, it was fun — made more pleasurable because the car driven for this column was shod with “winter performance” Bridgestone Blizzak tires. There wasn’t much winter to talk about, thanks to a season of unseasonably high temperatures. But the high-friction, high-performance Blizzaks provided extra peace of mind.

Peace and comfort, unfortunately, are not necessarily the same things. You can be at peace between two neighbors who are trying to destroy each other. But your proximity to the hostility makes you rather uncomfortable.

Similarly, you can smile for miles driving the Cooper Works Coupe until you hit a stretch of road that is the legacy of a Republican-vs.-Democrat spat over infrastructure. In a car with an especially short wheelbase — the centerline distance between front and rear wheels, which is 97.1 inches in the Cooper Works Coupe — it is a terribly jarring experience.

That is a real problem in a car expressly designed for the smoothness of speedways and other top-grade racing venues. Real-world roads, especially in the Washington-to-Boston corridor, tend to be poorly maintained or crippled by long-needed repair.

In cars with longer wheelbases and more compliant suspension systems, those highway bumps and potholes are absorbed and further ameliorated by the cushiness of the automobiles’ interiors. But there is nothing cushy about the sports-oriented cabin of the Cooper Works Coupe. And the car’s short wheelbase and track-oriented suspension system turn highway faults into torture.

At the end of a long run in this week’s subject car, I was hurting. I was not built for that kind of abuse, nor was the Cooper Works Coupe. It is what happens when infatuation and fantasy are trumped by reality, a beating made worse by discovery of the obvious — that there is little space for anything in the Cooper Works Coupe, except a seat for one complaining passenger.

For more On Wheels columns, go to washingtonpost.com/cars.

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