NASHVILLE, TN – BMW’s Mini brand has enjoyed spectacular growth during the past 10 years, but it knows it has to keep offering a steady flow of new products to keep expanding.

“We don’t think we’re slicing the salami too thin here,” says Mini USA President Jim McDowell. “We’re always doing something new and that’s allowed us to grow.”

He’s right. While purists may complain, if the Countryman cross/utility vehicle had not been introduced last year, Mini’s U.S. sales would have dipped 7% instead of jumping 26.7% through August, according to WardsAuto data.

The latest model, hitting showrooms Oct. 1, is the Mini Cooper Coupe, a lower, 3-box version of the basic 2-box Mini hardtop design. The coupe seats only two and is touted as the fastest Mini in history.

An extra-stiff chassis powered by Mini’s 1.6L DOHC I-4 give the coupe serious sports-car performance and handling. The turbocharged 181-hp Cooper S and 208-hp John Cooper Works versions offer top speeds in excess of 140 mph (241 km/h) and 0-60 mph (97 km/h) acceleration of 6.5 and 6.1 seconds respectively. The turbo engine was named one of Ward’s 10 Best Engines for 2011.

Mini touts the Coupe as a car for young males who aspire to a Porsche Cayman, Audi TT or BMW Z4 but can’t yet afford them.

While the Mini costs half as much as these entries, it’s as much fun or more to drive. And it also is worthy competition to similarly priced vehicles in the WardAuto Medium Specialty Segment where the Coupe resides, which includes the Mazda MX-5 Miata, Nissan Z and Ford Mustang.

The Coupe’s only real drawback is its polarizing exterior design. Those who don’t like Mini styling to begin with won’t find this version any more appealing. Mini fans might find it unusual at first but likely will learn to love this new look after spending some time behind the wheel.

Based on the Mini Cooper convertible platform, which has reinforced side rails and sills, the Coupe’s overall length, width and wheelbase are almost identical to the Mini Hardtop, but it sits 1-in. (2.5 cm) lower.

In the convertible, the stiffer body compensates for the lack of roof structure. In the Coupe, which has a steel roof, the added reinforcement creates more torsional rigidity that translates into more agile handling than its siblings.

The windshield angle also is more steeply raked in contrast with the more upright Mini Hardtop’s glass.

The most controversial aspect of the car is its “helmet roof.” With a large, integrated spoiler at its trailing edge, the roof resembles a backwards-facing baseball cap.

Mini USA Product Planning Manager Vinnie Kung says the rooftop spoiler is part of an aerodynamic concept that includes a second active rear spoiler on the tail that automatically extends at 50 mph (80 km/h).

’12 MINI Cooper S Coupe
Vehicle type Front-engine, FWD 2-passenger coupe
Engine 1.6L Turbocharged DOHC I-4, aluminum block/head
Power (SAE net) 181 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Torque 177 lb-ft (240 Nm) @ 1,600-5,000 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Overall length 146.8 ins. (372.8 cm)
Overall width 66.3 ins. (168.4 cm)
Overall height 54.6 ins. (138.7 cm)
Base price $25,300
Fuel economy 30/35 (7.8-6.7 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Mazda MX-5 Miata, Nissan Z, Audi TT
Pros Cons
Precise handling “Helmet” roof design
Ward’s 10 Best engine Chintzy headliner
Spacious cabin Busy interior design

The rooftop spoiler has an opening in the center that directs air flowing over the roof down to the rear window and, depending on the speed, to the second spoiler. This reduces rear lift and improves driving dynamics. It also prevents dirt from accumulating on the rear window, eliminating the need for a rear-window wiper, Kung says.

Inside, the coupe is surprisingly roomy, visibility is good and there is loads of headroom and legroom, even for drivers over 6 ft. (1.8 m). Unlike many small coupes, there is plenty of room for storage, too. A large, high-opening hatch accommodates 9.8 cu.-ft. (280 L) of cargo volume.

Love it or hate it, the coupe’s bright contrasting colors and bold exterior lines are impossible to ignore, and it definitely is the most fun-to-drive Mini yet. That’s saying a lot, considering the go-kart-like handling of Mini vehicles already makes them among the most entertaining on the road.

The Coupe really does drive like a go-kart on a tight Autocross course set up at a stadium parking lot here by Mini officials, yet its suspension still is supple enough to be comfortable on a long drive around the Nashville area.

Along with the surprising roominess of the cabin, we find the seats in both the John Cooper Works and Cooper S versions we tested comfortable and supportive during both spirited Autocross driving and long-distance cruising.

Interior design is a bit busy and cluttered, like all Minis. Switchgear functions and location are not intuitive unless you are well-acquainted with the brand. The headliner material is a bit chintzy, but the quality of the interior materials and general fit and finish is on par for the segment.

The car is available in three variants: the entry level naturally aspirated 121-hp Cooper, which starts at $22,000; the turbocharged 181-hp Cooper S, priced at $25,300; and the turbocharged, 208-hp John Cooper Works version, which starts at $31,900. All prices include a $700 destination fee.

A 6-speed automatic is available on Cooper and Cooper S versions, but manual shifters enjoy a surprisingly high take rate among Mini customers. While the average take rate for manual transmissions is about 5% in the U.S., more than 30% of Mini buyers choose manuals, a spokesman says.

A long list of electronic and infotainment options also are available, including in-car access to Web-based social networks and a subscription Internet radio service. Facebook and Twitter posts can be made inside the car and can be displayed on the on-board monitor or read aloud by an optional voice function.

Mini officials decline to forecast sales volume for the car, but they say it is not expected to match larger-volume vehicles such as the Countryman or Hardtop. However, we can predict it will be No.1 in Mini’s fun-to-drive ranking.

dwinter@wardsauto.com