As if five body styles weren't enough, Mini is adding a sixth variant to its lineup. The two-seat Roadster expands the Mini brand into new territory -- it marks the first time since the first Mini launched in 1959 that the nameplate has offered a roadster from the factory. The new models fills a tiny niche in Mini's range, bridging the gap between the open-top, four-seat Convertible and the hardtop, two-seat Coupe.
The car is essentially an open-air version of the new two-place Mini Coupe, but instead of a hard top styled after a backwards baseball cap, the Roadster wears a black fabric roof. Unlike the four-place Mini Convertible, the Roadster's roof is manually operated. Drivers simply twist a latch on the windshield frame and pull the roof back to its resting place behind the front seats. Instead of offering a pair of rear seats, the area behind the front seats is home to a shelf for carrying small items, and a 14-by-8-inch pass-through into the trunk.
The Roadster is about the same length and width as the Coupe or Convertible models. Its windshield is sloped much more steeply than on other models -- 13 degrees more than the Convertible -- and it is tapered at the top to give a trapezoidal appearance from head-on. With the roof up, the Roadster has a bubble-shaped profile that reminds us of the original Audi TT. The sloping shape and narrower windshield make the Roadster slightly more aerodynamic than other Mini models. It also rides 0.75 inch lower than the Convertible.
As in the Coupe, the Roadster's chassis is stiffened by grace of extra bracing in the rear of the car and reinforced rocker panels. The car has an electrically operated rear spoiler, which opens at 50 mph and retracts when the car slows to 37 mph. It provides a claimed 88 pounds of downforce at high speeds, helping improve the car's stability. The use of a manual roof, however, lowers the Roadster's center of gravity, and the car is lighter than equivalent four-seat Convertible models. Curb weight ranges from 2635 pounds for the Cooper Roadster, to 2800 pounds for the Cooper S Roadster.
As with other Mini products, the engine lineup is stratified into three levels. The Cooper Roadster has a 1.6-liter inline-four engine producing 121 hp and 114 lb-ft of torque. Mini says the car will hit 60 mph in 8.7 seconds with a manual transmission and reach a top speed of 124 mph. The Cooper S Roadster has a turbocharged version of that engine good for 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. Coupled to a manual gearbox, it enables acceleration to 60 mph in a claimed 7.1 seconds and a top speed of 141 mph. Finally, the racy John Cooper Works Roadster packs an upgraded, turbocharged 1.6-liter engine with 208 hp and 192 lb-ft (with 207 lb-ft briefly available, thanks to an overboost function). Mini claims a 6.3-second run to 60 mph and a maximum velocity of 147 mph.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard on all trims; Cooper and Cooper S models can also be equipped with a six-speed automatic. Fuel economy estimates for the Roadster are not yet available.
The Mini's suspension is a familiar setup consisting of MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link arrangement out back. Electric power steering is standard. Mini claims the Roadster's stiffened chassis and low center of gravity make it even more nimble and responsive on the road, claiming that a "go-kart feeling is always on tap."
The standard wheels measure 15 inches in diameter on base models, 16 inches for the Cooper S, and 17 inches for the hot John Cooper Works. The JCW car also gets a more aggressive body kit, an electronic differential lock, tauter suspension, and stronger brakes than other models.
The car's interior also will be familiar to anybody who has driven other Mini products. A tachometer sits directly in front of the driver, while the giant speedometer sits in the center of the dashboard. Other Mini cues like toggle switches, a chrome-trimmed shift knob, and circular climate-control vents are also present. The Roadster has larger storage compartments in the door panels than other models, as well as three cupholders. Trunk capacity is 8.5 cubic feet, which is better than in the current Convertible (6.0 cubic feet) but less than offered by the Mini Coupe (9.8 cubic feet).
The Roadster comes with Mini's so-called Openometer, a gauge that debuted on the Convertible and tallies how long the car has been driven with the top down. The extensive options list includes parking sensors, push-button start, heated seats, Recaro leather bucket seats, navigation, and a Harman Kardon sound system. Mini Connected also is available, which allows owners to connect their Apple iPhone and access services like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Pandora Radio while driving.
We have no doubt that the Mini Roadster will be as rewarding to drive as its sibling models, and coupled with its attractive design, we see no reason why the new open-top car won't attract buyers to Mini showrooms. Given that the rear seats in a four-place Mini Convertible are tiny, opting for the two-seat Roadster doesn't even sacrifice any real practicality. Pricing and an official on-sale date have yet to be released, although we expect the car to launch in spring 2012 at a price similar to that of the existing Mini Convertible. The car will make its official debut at the Detroit auto show in January 2012.