MINI Roadster review
by Sue Baker (25 April 2012)
Fun. That is the key ingredient expected of a small two-seater roadster. It is not enough for a dinky little sports car to be a useful form of transport, it has to be entertaining, an eye-magnet that paints a smile on your face behind the wheel.
But first there is another question to be answered at the launch of the MINI Roadster, staged at an achingly cool Cotswold hotel decorated in colours as vibrant as the extrovert array of cars lined up outside: is this really the sports car that the men in Munich (running MINI under BMW ownership) would have us believe?
Well they certainly think so on the other side of the Atlantic. The MINI Roadster has just come in at number six in the list of affordable sports cars chosen for the 2012 Best Cars for the Money awards - the only British-built model in the rankings, behind (predictably) four American muscle cars and the Mazda MX-5. The diminutive two-seater from Oxford was warmly praised for its nimble handling and stylish drop-top looks, and judged "a fitting rival to the Mazda Miata", as the MX-5 is known over there. Praise indeed.
The Roadster is the newest member of a rapidly growing MINI family. It is the sixth model to join the clan – after the hatchback, four-seater Convertible, Countryman, Clubman and Coupé - and its range of versions swells to a remarkable 108 the total number of variants now in the MINI family line-up.
It is essentially a 2012 drop-top variant of the Coupé, launched in 2011. With a price range of £18,020 to £24,860, the Roadster is priced from £1120 to £1375 more than Coupés with the same engine and similar specification.
Not that any two MINIs are ever exactly similar. Customisation is the key mantra of MINI ownership, and when there was only one body shape, the boast used to be that there were a million possible colour and trim combination for buyers to choose from. The scope for individuality has now expanded to 15 billion possibilities, or so we are told. Oh dear, too much choice. How does anyone ever decide which to go for?
Happily the bewilderment of choice had already been whittled into a smart red Roadster Cooper S with contrasting black trim for the car I wanted to drive. Surely only the foremost petrolhead version could be truly deemed a sports car? But no, sporty diesels are what discerning company car user-choosers want these days for their taxation benefits, so snazzy blue two-litre turbodiesel Roadster Cooper SDs also awaited appraisal at the launch venue. They do have one tempting advantage: fuel consumption of 62.8mpg on the combined figure, compared with 47.1mpg from the petrol version.
I drove the dervhead's delight first. It was deliciously enjoyable, pert and pointy with informative feedback through the steering wheel, and that go-kart handling for which modern MINIS are famed – like their smaller, lighter, iconic old Mini ancestors grown up for 21st-century drivers. It felt justifiably described as a sports car. With two seats and a small boot the Roadster has the skeleton practicality of any sports model, but it is certainly fun.
But hang on a minute, more is to come, and it is even better. With a 1.6-litre 181bhp turbocharged petrol Cooper S engine under that snub-nosed little bonnet, the MINI Roadster really comes alive. Equipped with a lighter engine between the front wheels, and the steering unleashed from its noose of diesel weight, the Roadster delivers purer handling joy and the driving pleasure smile that erupts on your face morphs into a silly grin. Within seven seconds (a second quicker than the diesel) you have shot off down the road past 60mph, with a throaty burble from the exhaust as music for the drive.
The more you drive the more of a hoot the car feels, with its grippy handling poise, lack of lean on the corners and pin-sharp steering giving a very direct, razor-edge feedback. The six-speed manual gearbox has a very slick action and the sports-firm suspension has just enough cushioning to preserve your spine while communicating very intensely what is happening under the wheels.
Having that much fun does not come cheap. The list price of the Roadster Cooper S is £20,090, and £6010 worth of extras including a Media Pack and Sport Pack plump out the car's final price to a tidy £27,000. No wonder the Audi TT is viewed as one of its closest rivals.
Hood-up, the Roadster is a tight little cocoon with fairly abysmal rearward vision, and you have to contend with quite a lot of noise reverberating through that tiny cabin. At any opportunity you want to whip back the top, and this is a motorised action once you manually unlatch the front edge from the top of the windscreen.
Even with that initial handiwork, the entire operation of hood shut-to-open takes just eight seconds, and can be achieved at speeds up to 20mph. There are two little half-hoop rollover bars behind each seat, and a tiny mesh screen slots between the two to quite effectively deflect wind rush through the open-top cabin, so long as you drive with the windows raised.
MINI's engineers have done a stunning job: the hood design is clever enough to concertina into the back of the car below a click-shut cover without either leaving a pram-hood bulge or intruding into the boot space.
Remarkably, the Roadster is said to be capable of carrying a full-size set of golf clubs, through-loaded via the luggage hatch behind the seats, though why anyone staid enough to be a golfer would choose a car as exuberantly unstuffy as this little flyer is quite beyond me.