The MINI style is unmistakable. Nothing looks quite like these small, British cars, and, although MINI's six models have obvious differences, they share a unique look. Under the skin, similarities continue. Models from the two-seat Roadster to the four-door Countryman share mechanicals, and interior styling is consistent, just like exterior designs. So, on the annual MINI Takes the States road trip, our long-term 2012 MINI John Cooper Works Coupe fit right in with the big crowd of little cars.
The fourth annual cross-country trip started in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, at MINI's U.S. corporate headquarters and ended in Los Angeles two weeks later. A total of 6,000 people joined the fun, some for the whole 3,900-mile trip, others for a city-to-city segment or two. We did the latter, driving our long-term Coupe to Charlotte to catch up with the rally, then on to Nashville. Despite being a relatively small two-seater, the Coupe made an excellent road trip vehicle to drive solo, thanks to a comfortable cabin with plenty of features, great economy and excellent performance when we left the interstates for the roads less traveled.
The first leg of the trip was a 244-mile, all-interstate drive to Charlotte to meet up with the group. Because the Coupe has a short wheelbase and the John Cooper Works trim adds stiffer suspension, its ride is less than ideal on the highway. But it doesn't take long to get used to driving it. And with the cruise control set and the iPod-capable Harman-Kardon audio system cranking out a road trip soundtrack, it's easy to forget that other, less sporty vehicles provide a more comfortable highway ride. Plus, its highway fuel economy is tough to beat.
On that first city-to-city jaunt, the MINI achieved nearly 36 mpg according to the trip computer. For a car with the JCW Coupe's performance, that's noteworthy and impressive. With some spirited back-road driving thrown into the mix on the following day, economy remained excellent, averaging 34 mpg.
In Charlotte, MINI Takes the States organizers arranged a drive on the Charlotte Motor Speedway to start the day. Although it was no full-speed charge around the NASCAR track, it was exciting to hit the high-banked asphalt in the Coupe. And seeing all of the MINIs lined up in the infield-each with its own, personalized look-provided my first taste of the people and culture that surround these unique cars.
The trip from Charlotte to Nashville included some highway driving, but we also left the beaten path for the back roads where MINIs really shine. The 208-horsepower JCW Coupe is thrilling on twisting mountain roads like the section of U.S. 129 called The Dragon that straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Pressing the sport button alters throttle and steering settings, and even adds some exciting exhaust pops just for kicks. The Coupe performed beautifully on The Dragon. Front-wheel drive makes it easy to control, and its tight dimensions means it's never unwieldy, even on a narrow mountain road. The turbocharged engine is responsive and shift feel with the six-speed manual is excellent.
We continued on to Nashville where MINI Takes the States participants enjoyed an evening on the famous strip and autocross event in the morning. I turned south to head home and the group continued west, with sights on their final destination on west coast. I dare say that, if I had the time and the permission, I'd have gladly logged a few thousand more miles on the 2012 JCW Coupe. Between the exciting cars and the friendly and enthusiastic people who drive them, a few days in the Coupe with MINI Takes the States wasn't quite enough.