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2012 MINI John Cooper Works Coupe

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MINI hasn’t always lived up to its name. Just check out the automaker’s Clubman and Countryman models to see how far it has managed to stretch the definition of the moniker in recent years.

Its latest effort, however, is not only the smallest new car that the automaker has introduced under the stewardship of BMW, but perhaps the strangest.

From the waist down the 2012 MINI Cooper Coupe is pure MINI, using the heavy-duty platform of the convertible version of the company’s iconic three-door Hardtop as a starting point. After tearing out the rear seats and strengthening the chassis even further, MINI adds one of the most unique styling features ever created, something it calls a “helmet roof.”

Looking more like an automotive bottle cap, or perhaps a yarmulke approved for Major League Baseball batters, the rounded top sits low on top of a wraparound-style greenhouse and recasts the Cooper in the role of hunkered-down sports car. An automatic spoiler that rises at speed further enhances the image.

Some will love it, others most certainly will not, but it definitely gives the car a new feel outside and in, where from the driver’s perspective the now-clipped view through the windscreen lends the car a more aggressive mien.

Otherwise, changes are few. So perfectly ported over is the front cabin that you under the armrest will still find the cupholder that once served the now non-existent back seats. In their place is a bulkhead separating the passengers from their luggage, which, despite MINI’s use of the word “Coupe” to describe the car, sits under a sloping hatchback.

If this seems like a roundabout way to go about designing a new model, I’ve left out the best part. The Cooper Coupe is just a way station on the way to the upcoming Cooper Roadster, the two-seat drop-top version of it that comes later in the year and explains all of the extra reinforcements that were used to bring this car to life.

Which one really came first in the collective mind of MINI’s engineers? Ask your local chicken.

Regardless, the Coupe is out to make a name for itself on its own merits. As with most MINIs, three front-wheel-drive versions of the car are available: a $22,000 base model that can deliver 37 mpg on the highway, the more potent but not much thirstier 181 hp Cooper S, and the top of the line JCW edition powered by a 208 hp turbocharged engine that just happens to be the one tested here and starts at $31,900.

Aside from the top and the Viagra applied to its underpinnings, the only major difference between the Coupe and other Coopers is a one-inch lower ride height. So what’s the point?

More than you’d think, in fact. On the move the Coupe proves that it isn’t just a fashion statement, but a livelier car than the already nimble Hardtop, particularly in its willingness to shake its booty on command. Lift off the throttle, turn a little harder and the rear wheels are more than eager to oblige. This could be the first front-wheel drive car that could seriously challenge for the Formula Drift title.

And I didn’t even mention what the handbrake is capable of doing. Just look at it and the Coupe turns into a top.

As always, power in the John Cooper Works model is both grin-inducing and excessive enough to mandate a firm two-handed grip on the wheel. Retro levels of turbo lag and torque steer upping the fun factor. Acceleration and top speed are each a couple of notches better than the Hardtop, and even boring roads are made interesting by the level of feedback on offer.

You’ll rarely find your mind wandering from the driving experience, but extremely idle ones can get the distraction they crave from the recently introduced MINI Connected infotainment system, which can piggyback onto an iPhone signal and integrate with Facebook, Twitter and other web-based features. However, the dinky little joystick used to control it doesn’t make this easy to do at speed. That’s probably a good thing.

Autocrossers, to whom MINI’s hold near deity status, will surely embrace the coupe with open socket wrenches in the quest for those extra thousandths of a second they hold so dear. They should. Compared to the original it’s a slightly better driver’s car.

Unfortunately, they might need two in order to get all of their gear to the track. Even though the Coupe has a larger “trunk” than the original, with the sloping roof and no rear seats to fold down its maximum cargo volume is less than half that of the Hardtop’s.

Form over function, or function over form? In the case of the MINI Cooper Coupe it depends on what you’re looking for. Either way, you won’t have any problem picking it out in a parking lot – especially one littered with orange cones and other MINIs.

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2012 MINI John Cooper Works Coupe

Base Price: $31,900

Type: 3-door, two-passenger hatchback

Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 208 hp, 192 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

MPG: 25 city, 33 hwy