With a reputation for sheer driving fun, both of these nimble, gas-sipping MINIs are sure to bring an enthusiastic smile behind the wheel and at the pump. But one costs $16,400 more than the other, so the big question for a 250-mile per week commuter is... Is the 2012 MINI JCW Coupe worth it?

Here are a few specs to illustrate how they stack up:

Base MSRP

MINI Cooper: $20,200

MINI JCW Coupe: $32,050

As Equipped

MINI Cooper: $21,950

MINI JCW Coupe: $38,350

Included Options

MINI Cooper: Sport Package

MINI JCW Coupe: Leather, Navigation, Sport Suspension, Xenon Headlamps, Harman-Kardon Sound

Horsepower

MINI Cooper: 121

MINI JCW Coupe: 208

Price Difference

Why the big difference in price? - Two reasons.

First, MINI models come in three basic trims: Cooper, Cooper S, and John Cooper Works (or, JCW). The basic Cooper, like our green hardtop, is a nicely equipped vehicle, but without significant convenience and performance upgrades. On the other hand, the JCW, like our long-term Coupe, comes with top-of-the-line equipment including a turbo-charged engine, larger wheels, limited slip differential and more aggressive exterior styling.

Secondly, MINI supports many customization options to appeal to a wide range of potential customers. In fact, we are comparing a very basic Cooper Hardtop against a tricked out Coupe with $6,200 of options added onto its $32,050 MSRP. With added options, a JCW trimmed Hardtop can easily climb into the high $30k range, as well.

Power & Fuel Economy

You'll also notice a significant difference in horsepower due to the turbo-charged power plant in the JCW Coupe.

So, just how does this power difference feel when your foot pushes the pedal? Let's just say if the base Cooper with 6-speed could be described as peppy, the JCW Coupe is downright aggressive! If you're used to driving a typical large sedan or SUV, the Coupe may feel shockingly quick. Add extraordinary agility to that quickness, and the high sticker price suddenly seems sort of reasonable.

As for fuel economy, the weeklong test drive in the manual transmission JCW Coupe netted exactly 30 MPG. The Cooper (also manual) yields a few more miles per gallon at around 33. The daily commute involved both light, and stop-n-go, city traffic on multi-lane roads. Shifting gears on a manual transmission in heavy traffic can be tedious. So, if shifting isn't your thing, you might prefer to sacrifice 1 MPG and $1,250 for the convenience of an automatic transmission.

Interior & Cargo Space

At 5 ft 10 in, I had no trouble getting into the driver's seat of either car as long as the door is wide open. However, in a parking lot, with another car on the driver's side, both cars requires a bit of finesse to ease down into the seat while preventing a door ding in the other car.

The interiors of both cars felt roomy enough with plenty of headroom. One might expect the two-seat Coupe to feel a bit tight with its raked-back windshield. But it actually felt no different than the Cooper for headroom, legroom and shoulder room. The main complaint against both vehicle interiors is the amount difficultly reaching back to grab the seatbelt, which forced an uncomfortable amount of twisting.

As you might expect, the Cooper holds much more cargo with its two flip-down rear seats. But Coupe provides a pass-through opening so longer items can be stored in the hatch. For example, this makes it possible to load a leaf blower and some tools.

Visibility & Instruments

Visibility in the Cooper feels pretty good forward, back and side-to-side. But the Coupe forces the driver to rely heavily on side mirrors due to the tiny rear window. And above 50 MPH that slim rear visibility is cut in half again by the spoiler that automatically raises a few inches above the rear hatch.

MINI has their signature instrument and control styling, which gives both interiors a cool, high-quality feel. Instruments are readable and controls are reachable, though not always intuitive to use. For example, you'd be looking in the wrong place for the window controls if you hoped to find them on the driver's door. Also, the Mini's power one-touch down windows are counter-intuitive. A quick click of the window control makes the window go all the way down, while holding the control briefly brings the window down until the control is released.

Controlling the navigation and display system in the Coupe is done via a small joystick between the shifter and parking brake. Operation is relatively straight forward, though selecting music from an iPhone seemed to require an inordinate amount of steps. And here's a hint: The radio mute button just below the navigation display area is also the pause button for other media. It took this driver several days to figure that out.

Commuting

Both cars feel a bit similar when the goal is to get one driver and zero passengers 25 miles from home to work five days a week. The Coupe and Cooper are on par in terms of providing a satisfying level of driving ease, physical comfort, and useful features for commuting.

What differentiates them for commuting are the things that one might expect when comparing the sportier Coupe with the Cooper hardtop - things like visibility, fuel economy, ride comfort, and road noise.

The JCW Coupe has a stiffer ride than the Cooper, which could become tiresome for long daily commutes over poor roads. And the additional road and engine noise in the Coupe is significant. Granted, the terrific engine sound of the Coupe adds to the fun factor, but it could make talking on the phone a bit challenging without the smart phone integration made possible by the "MINI Connected" option. With this optional feature, a caller's voice is piped through the car audio system, making them easier to hear. Then again, you probably shouldn't be talking on the phone while driving a car.

The Coupe does have a few commuting advantages over the Cooper, not least of which is sheer driving fun. After all, if you have to drive 50 miles/day to work, why not enjoy it? The Coupe is also super nimble and maneuverable in traffic so speed adjustments like merging into traffic or handling abrupt off-ramps seem effortless.

Worth It?

But, do these advantages make a loaded up 2012 MINI JCW Coupe worth the premium price tag? It depends on who you are and why you'd buy a MINI. For the average commuter, it's probably not worthwhile, the Cooper S is plenty of fun. For someone who wants the ultimate MINI, it's worth test driving any of the JCW versions of the MINI. The basic hardtop or Cooper S seems like the best balance of price, fun, handling, and cargo space for daily commuting to work. A Cooper S, with a 181 horsepower turbo-charged engine is priced around $25,000 depending on which options you pick. 

author photo

Lon Hetrick spends his 50-mile commute each day dreaming of his next BMW. He also blogs about life's ups and downs from a spiritual perspective at AverageUs.com.

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