When we first saw the 2012 Mini Roadster Cooper S, we wondered is there now one Mini too many?
After all, the Mini lineup is getting pretty diverse. You have the traditional 3-door hardtop. And there’s also a Convertible version of that. There’s the stretch version of the 3-door, called the Clubman. The mini-SUV Countryman, and don’t forget high-performance John Cooper Works versions of all the above. And then, we recently tested the new 2-seater hardtop Coupe, and had a ball. And now we have the drop-top version of that, the Mini Roadster. And more models are on the way.
See what we mean?
Well, we can’t blame Mini, who are, after all, in the business to sell Minis. But will this newest model find a welcome reception?
It certainly makes a fine first impression. Whereas the Coupe has proven to be a bit polarizing with its baseball-cap-on-backwards look, the Roadster is more classic sports car, reminding us of a stubby version of the first Audi TT, with a top-up roofline that calls to mind the early Porsche Speedster. It just looks special. Our Lightning Blue Metallic tester looked especially tough hunkered over its 17-inch, multi-spoke alloy wheels.
The Roadster looks even better with the top down. Getting there’s an easy process; ours had the manual top, and you can raise and lower it from the driver’s seat after you twist a lever to unlock the header. That is, if you’re in reasonably good shape – and don’t have rotator cuff issues. If not, get out of the car and it’s an easy push to open or close. A semi-power top (you still have to twist the lever) is available too.
One note – the Roadster features a one-layer top compared to the Convertible’s two-layer version, and it lets in more noise. However, it does fit in with the Roadster’s more sporting mission in life.
The top stows away behind the front seats, and the front portion becomes the cover. It’s a far more elegant solution than the Mini Convertible that forms a hump behind the rear seats. That said, the Convertible’s neat little trick of opening part way as a sunroof can’t be done on the Roadster. You win some, you lose some…
Like the Coupe we drove, the Roadster is tuned more to true Sports Car than just sporty car and responds like a sharp-edged driver’s tool. Our tester was the turbocharged S model, and with 181 horsepower in such a small vehicle, it’s a pocket rocket. Ours was equipped with the optional 6-speed automatic, and we were quite surprised how well it snapped off shifts, especially in Sport Mode.
Handling is superb, with instant response to the steering wheel, tenacious grip, and the added fun of the rear end being willing to coming around slowly if you pop off the gas mid-turn. It’s probably one of the best handling and most fun front-drivers we’ve ever been in.
The body structure is impressively solid for a convertible, and we noticed hardly a quiver and never a squeak even over the bumpy stuff.
There is a price to be paid for that awesome handling though, and that’s a firm… er, very firm ride. If you live in an area with heavily abused road surfaces, the Mini Convertible with its more supple suspension may be a better choice for top-down fun than the Roadster.
On the bright side of that equation, the Roadster’s sport seats are superb, supportive for longer drives, and real hip-huggers in the turns. The more upright seating position compared to lower slung sports cars was very beneficial on some our drivers’ less than compliant backs. Also adding to the usability factor, the Roadster has a surprisingly large trunk, with a convenient pass through to the passenger compartment.
The rest of the Mini interior should be familiar to anyone who’s spent some time in the brand – it’s unique, stylish and fun – with a huge oversize center-mounted speedo and a row of toggle switches replacing the buttons you find just about everywhere else. Some love it, some don’t. (Count us in the love it group.) You’ll pretty much know which camp you’re in after a few minutes of drive time.
What price fun? Our Roadster started at $29,250, and nicely equipped, including Navigation, automatic transmission and wheel upgrade came in at just over $34,000. Not feeling the need for speed? The non-turbo model starts at $26,250. Need the ultimate? The 208 hp John Works Cooper comes in at $36,400.
Competition wise, if you want a more traditional, rear wheel drive small roadster, there’s the Mazda Miata. Load one up, and it’s about $30,000. The nearest Euro-competitors are far more expensive: getting a foot into an Audi TT Roadster starts at $41,650, and the BMW Z4, a princely $47,350.
So does the Mini Roadster deserve a place at the table? Absolutely. It’s a great urban cut-and-thruster. An excellent fine weather cruiser. It would be great for a getaway weekend, especially if you kept things within a couple hours’ drive. It also has a different vibe than the Convertible – a little more daring, a bit more style statement. And most notably, a few days after we returned our tester, we really missed it. And there are only a handful of vehicles we drive every year that makes us feel that way.