First Drive

2012 MINI Roadster

Topless two-seater is the sixth variant in fun-filled MINI lineup and it doesn't skimp on fun

2012 MINI Roadster - Front

BOBCAYGEON, ON – The MINI family continues to grow with yet another sibling – the 2012 Roadster – joining the clan. This drop-top two-seater, the first in the MINI lineup, is the sixth variant on the original second-generation model, which made its debut at the 2001 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

MINI management promises there are more variations to come within the next year or so.

While the new Roadster is as cute as a button, don’t look for it to be a volume leader for the brand. BMW Group Canada officials acknowledge that the Roadster will be more of a niche model, compared to the hatchback, which continues to be MINI’s top seller.

There’s already one convertible MINI in the family, the Cabrio four-seater, and sales volumes for its new stablemate are expected to be comparable. However, MINI marketers anticipate the topless pair won’t be competing against each other for the same buyer – the Roadster is more likely to be cross-shopped with sporty two-seaters such as the Mazda MX-5, which starts at about $29,000.

It’s expected these buyers aspire to someday letting the wind blow their hair in a more upscale model, such as a BMW Z4, Audi TT or Porsche Boxster. For now, however, they’ll be content with this topless MINI.

Three variants

The Roadster is offered in three variants, all powered by MINI’s peppy 1.6-litre four-cylinder with direct fuel injection and variable valve management.

The Cooper Roadster, with a base price of $28,900, gets a naturally aspirated version that generates 121 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 114 lb-ft of torque at 4,250 rpm. It can launch the Roadster to 100 km/h in 9.2 seconds while consuming premium-grade fuel at the rate of 7.4 litres per 100 km in city driving and 5.7 on the highway.

This engine is paired with a six-speed manual transmission that’s buttery smooth to stir around when one feels playful. If you prefer, a six-speed automatic transmission is also available.

The next step in the Roadster lineup is the Cooper S ($32,900), which adds a twin-scroll turbocharger to boost output to 181 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 177 lb-ft of torque at just 1,600 rpm. The Cooper S can hit 100 km/h in 7.0 seconds, while its combined fuel consumption is 6.7 litres/100 km (7.6 city, 5.6 highway.)

If you’re looking for ultimate performance, choose the John Cooper Works edition ($39,900.) Its turbocharged four-cylinder is enhanced with a host of tweaks lifted from MINI’s motorsports program, resulting in an output of 208 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 192 lb-ft of torque starting at 1,850 rpm. The JCW Roadster can scoot to 100 km/h in just 6.5 seconds, while fuel consumption is rated at 8.2 lites/100 km in city driving, 6.0 on the highway.

Snug inside

My time in the Roadster was limited to the base Cooper and, unfortunately, it was all top-up driving – it rained the entire day. However, the lousy weather conditions did provide an opportunity to notice how snug the cloth top fitted. Wind noise, even at highway speeds was minimal, and not a single raindrop seeped into the comfy cabin.

What did surprise was how roomy it was inside this two-seater. I’m not exactly a small person, but I had no issues getting in or out, even with the top up, and I had plenty of room to stretch my legs once I was planted in the snug-fitting, heated bucket seats.

The toffee leather coverings with contrasting black piping in my ride added a classy – and distinctive – look to the interior, while the large gauges – a MINI staple – were easy to read, even on the dull day.

I did notice one issue with the top, however – when it’s up, the wide C-pillar portion creates a large blind spot that makes rear visibility very difficult, especially when backing out onto a roadway.

The MINI Roadster isn’t alone in this regard – the lack of a rear side window in most roadsters amplifies the issue – but a reminder that this obstruction does demand more awareness by the driver when doing reversing maneuvers and shoulder checks. Of course, the solution is simple – put the top down. Just don’t do it in a downpour!

And don’t bother looking for the power top button, at least in the base Cooper. In an effort to keep the price point competitive, the roof is manually operated. It is, however, no big deal – you can lower or raise the top in a matter of seconds. Just twist a hoop handle to release the roof from the windshield header, then flick the top back. It tucks itself behind the seats, locking with a simple push on the framework.

There’s no cover to snap in place as the whole thing fits neatly in the well, providing a tidy, finished look. Raising the roof is just as easy. However, if that’s too much fussing, a power top is available as a $750 option.

Rigid structure

The Roadster is based on the same platform as the Coupe, that new two-door variant with the love-it-or-hate-it ball cap roof that landed in showrooms last year.

Both models share their chassis roots with the Cabrio, which was specifically stiffened to go topless. However, the Roadster’s rigidity has been strengthened further with the addition of stiffer rocker panels connected to a torsional bulkhead.

Because there is no rear seat – or the possibility of occupants sitting there – the Roadster’s rear shocks and springs have been softened slightly compared to the Cabrio, which is about 40 kilograms heavier.

The Roadster also has an active rear spoiler that pops up at 80 km/h and retracts automatically at 60 km/h. The spoiler, which also has a manual release, is actually functional, adding about 60 kg of downforce on the rear of the car.

On the road

The stiffness of the Roadster’s chassis and its refined rear suspension settings made the MINI’s trademark great handling capabilities even better. It stayed glued to the road, enabling me to push it through curves on our rain-soaked route with complete confidence, yet the level of ride comfort was high despite the MINI’s relatively short (2,467-millimetre) wheelbase.

When it was necessary to grab a gear, the manual gearbox responded smoothly, while the engine never disappointed, always eager to please. The speed-sensitive electric power steering was precise and provided decent feedback to the sport steering wheel, while the brakes were firm yet easy to modulate.

Overall, the MINI Roadster comprises nothing in road manners. It’s typically MINI in every sense, a topless two-seater that’s a hoot to drive.

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