First Drive: 2012 Mini Cooper Roadster

If you're puzzled, as we are, by what the new Mini Roadster is supposed to be that the existing Mini Convertible is not, the folks from Mini offer this explanation: "It's the return of the British roadster."

Uh, we know it's been a while since actual British roadsters -- MGs and Triumphs and the like -- zipped along America's back roads (and broke down on their shoulders), but we remember them as quite a bit different than this Mini. The slender sports cars followed a classic formula seemingly laid down at the dawn of time, with a longitudinally mounted engine up front driving the rear wheels. The Mini Roadster, on the other hand, follows the formula of other Minis, with a transverse-mounted engine and front-wheel drive.

Soft-top sibling to the hardtop Coupe The Roadster is essentially a softtop version of the two-seat hardtop Coupe, which went on sale last fall. In both cars, the back seat area is given over to a bulkhead that has a lockable, 14-by-8-inch pass-through to an 8.5-cubic-foot trunk -- which betters the 6.0 cubic feet you get in the Convertible. As in the Coupe, the deck lid here incorporates a pop-up rear spoiler that deploys automatically at 50 mph to provide additional downforce (or flip it up manually with a switch on the windshield header). The Roadster also has the Coupe's reinforced body structure, lower ride height, and deeper front spoiler.

Yep, it drives like a Mini
These are not exactly transformative changes. And indeed, the Roadster drives pretty much like any other Mini. Mostly, of course, that's a very good thing. The Roadster will be available from launch in all three strengths: 121-hp Cooper; turbocharged 181-hp Cooper S; and full-tilt-boogie, 208-hp John Cooper Works. We drove the Cooper S version, and it is a lively performer (6.7 seconds from 0 to 60 mph, according to the manufacturer). Turbo lag is not an issue, and this engine gleefully zings the Roadster down urban freeways and rural two-lanes, accompanied by a snarling exhaust note -- and the occasional racy popping through the exhaust on throttle lift-off.

The six-speed gearbox is exceptionally nice, with short, precise throws. In contrast to our long-term Countryman, we found the clutch here to be easy to modulate. Typical for a Mini, the electric power steering is extremely well weighted and even provides a bit of feel. (Perhaps Mini could provide a tutorial in this area to other carmakers that are just now switching to electric assist.)

And, of course, given the ultra-short wheelbase and firm suspension tuning, the Roadster loves to blast around corners. It was lots of fun on the serpentine two-lanes in the Portugese countryside.

As with other Minis, however, the downside is very sharp impacts over bumps. The ride is harsh, and despite additional chassis stiffening, minor cowl shake is evident. Our test car, by the way, did not have the optional sport suspension, and was riding on sixteen-inch wheels, so this was the mellowest chassis setup.

Top talk
The Roadster's convertible top is a do-it-yourself affair, although a power top is a $750 option. The manual roof can be tossed back pretty easily from the driver's seat. Raising it up again takes a bit more effort and it's a long reach. Surprisingly, the fabric roof is unlined, and its metal bows are visible inside. Perhaps as a result, the raised roof seems to do little to block wind noise, which at highway speeds is pronounced.

Seeing out with the top raised is a bit of a challenge. Rear-quarter visibility is predictably awful, and rear park assist, which is standard in the Convertible, is missing here (it's a $500 option). In addition, the Roadster -- like the Coupe -- has a lower, more raked windshield. Overall, it's not as closed in as, say, an Audi TT convertible, but it's not far off.

What you're looking at inside, though, is quite nice. The interior of our test car was dressed up with the Lounge Leather upholstery (at $2000, the penultimate of four available leather seating options), and was also dolled up with extra-cost chrome bits and aluminum trim. The net affect was a high-quality look. The absence of creaking plastic -- another pronounced contrast with our Countryman -- helped bolster that impression.

Car talk
The Roadster we drove was further equipped with the Mini Connected system, which allows the car to use apps that you download onto your iPhone (but not a Droid). In addition to allowing access to web radio, Facebook, Twitter, and RSS news feeds, there are Mini's Mission Control and Driving Excitement apps. This was our first experience with both, although they're available throughout the lineup.

The Driving Excitement app plays a variety of what could be described as movie-soundtrack-type music (in a dozen or so different styles), which then varies according to what the car is doing, i.e., speeding up when you're going faster, or playing a sound only out of the right speakers when you have your right turn signal on. We didn't notice a whole lot of change in sound or tempo while we were driving, and the continuous-loop nature of the music began to drive us nuts after a while.

But that was nothing compared to Mission Control. Here, drivers get various messages of cheerful advice and encouragement. The vaguely British-accented voices, a male and a female, sound sort of like theater actors as they burst out with things like, "Remember, always be Mini!" Uh, roger that.

2 seats vs. 4
Compared to the four-seat Mini Convertible, the Roadster carries 66 pounds less weight. Its body is also a bit stiffer. Of course, there are the fewer seats but the slightly larger trunk. The Roadster is also less expensive, by $600, although the Convertible has more standard equipment.

Slightly cheaper, lighter, and stiffer, the Roadster is a subtly different riff on an open-topped Mini. Even with its two seats and stubby little trunk, however, we have a hard time thinking of this as a sports car. More sports-car-like? Yeah, okay -- I mean, roger that.


2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster

Base price: $28,050
On sale: February 25th

Powertrain

Engine: 16-valve DOHC turbo I-4
Displacement: 1.6 liters
Power: 181 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 192 lb-ft @1700-4500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive: Front-wheel

Chassis

Steering: Electrically assisted
Suspension, front: Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes: Vented disc/disc, ABS
Tires: Bridgestone Turanza ER300 II tires
Tire size: 195/55R16

Measurements

L x W x H: 147 x 66.3 x 54. 7 in
Wheelbase: 97.1 in
Cargo space: 8.5 cu ft
Fuel mileage: 27/35/30 mpg (city/highway/combined)
0-60 MPH: 6.7 sec

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