Remember the original Mini? When it first came out in 1959, it was hailed as a car of the people. With a basic but ingenious design for its time, it became an instant classic and could be found in the driveways of royalty and the upper class, yet its low price meant it was also popular with the regular folk. Top that off with astounding handling and a pedigree of winning rally races around the world and it was one of the few cars that could offer almost everything to everyone.
Despite its simple design, the low cost also meant that whoever was building it - be it Austin, Morris or the eventual Mini company (it went through many hands) wasn't making a lot of money on each car. In fact, some say every car lost money.
Fast forward to 2001, and BMW, now owner of the Mini name, decides to put into production a new Mini, a modern version designed by Frank Stephenson, who just recently penned the McLaren MP4-12C. It is a huge success. The new Mini hatchback has already sold more than two million units around the world and is just as popular as the first version, an urban city car with go-kart handling and a cute, appealing design.
But you can bet the German company isn't losing any money on these cars; the new Mini was designed to be an upscale urban runabout, and its higher costs reflected the fact that this was not intended for the masses. And that upscale, premium taste is reflected in the latest addition to the Mini lineup, the Coupé.
Sure, its build quality is top-notch, it's one of the most stylish (controversially so) little cars on the road today and its handling is just about unmatched by anything out there. But would you pay Dh160,000 for a little urban runabout with little practicality or versatility? Would you spend that much money - the same as a 3 Series or an A4 - on something that limits you to a single passenger? What exactly does that price get you?
The Coupé does offer a lot; the new look for the marque sees the rear hatch lopped off in favour of a notchback design, though the rear boot still lifts up like a hatch. Cargo space is a reasonable size and larger than the hatchback, though you can't put the rear seats down for more room - did I mention there are no rear seats? The notchback has a strange lip at the back that makes it look like the car is wearing a baseball cap on backwards and the design limits rear and side visibility, especially when the spoiler is deployed (anytime after 60kph). It makes for, shall I say, a cosy interior.
Luckily, that passenger space (the front two seats only, of course) carries over the same fun and creative design as the hatchback. It's a tiny car, but there is a surprising amount of room for two passengers, and there isn't a car out there that has a more interesting interior layout than a Mini. It is forward thinking while still giving a nod to the old Minis. The layout is dominated by a huge centre-mounted speedometer/infotainment system that incorporates just about everything you need to know, save for the engine revs (counted on a clock in front of the steering wheel). I love it, but at night the speedo needle can be a little lost - it's the same orange colour as the numbers and doesn't jump out immediately.
That infotainment system, by the way, shows BMW's obvious attempt at luring the young, hip crowd to the Mini brand. To engage all of its functions, you have to download software from iTunes that allows you to incorporate your smartphone into its system fully. This Mini Connected system is supposed to give you access to Twitter and Facebook feeds on the mid-mounted screen, as well as use the accelerometers on your iPhone to provide performance information while you're driving. As if we didn't have enough to do on the road - I have enough problems drinking my coffee while behind the wheel.
The performance of the car, though, is all Mini. The Coupé retains the go-kart handling of the hatchback for a fun ride through the corners that just can't compare with any other car. It stays flat and poised almost regardless of your speeds, with the ability to change direction so quickly it could pose a problem for your neck muscles. Yes, this car is fun to drive.
The only problem with its handling is how it affects the general ride of the car; with such a short wheelbase, any bumps or asphalt cracks are amplified through the seat, and a long journey on even the smoothest of motorways can get a little exhausting after a while.
Power in this upscale S version comes from a 1.6L, turbocharged four cylinder, and the 181hp makes the Coupé very zippy. With such a light car, that power pushes the Coupé up to 100kph in about 6.5 seconds, and it's perfect for darting in and out of traffic, as the power is there whenever you need it. And that tiny engine not only provides good power but also excellent fuel economy, two things that normally don't go hand in hand. The only thing I felt lacking was the six-speed automatic; the only way to shift on your own is through the lever, with no paddle shifters like other cars. The fun factor with this Coupé would benefit immensely from having a manual gearbox, but they won't be available out here.
There is a lot to like about the Mini Coupé and it does feel like a premium car, save for the buckboard ride, but I just can't get over the sky-high price of it. I can think of plenty of small cars that offer the same sophistication, similar performance and much more versatility and room than the Coupé, for a much lower price - how about the Volkswagen GTI or Scirocco, to start? Or, for the same price, you can move up to those previously mentioned luxury saloons or other larger, more luxurious cars. I'd have a big problem forking over that kind of money for such a small car.
Ah, but BMW is banking that others will find the Mini lure too great, and it has history - and sales - on its side to back it up. The Coupé will be a niche car, but don't be surprised to see a few of them on city streets in the next year.
Base price / as tested Dh150,000 / Dh160,000
Engine 1.6L turbocharged four cylinder
Gearbox Six-speed automatic
Power 181hp @ 5,500rpm
Torque 240Nm @ 1,600-5,000rpm
Fuel economy, combined 7.6L/100km