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Resuscitated and reinvented by BMW in 2001, the Mini Cooper line has grown and proliferated beyond the expectations of its parent company, and far beyond the vision of Sir Alec Issigonis, who designed the 1959 original.
The 2012 Mini Roadster is the sixth and most recent addition to the modern Mini lineup, a soft-top front-wheel-drive two-seater that's a first-ever model for the brand, BMW revival or original. It brings affordable sports car fun to a segment that previously consisted of one car, Mazda's MX-5 Miata. Although the Mini Roadster's price range soars higher than the Miata's, pricing for the next group of roadsters, all German brands, begins well over $40,000.
All the revivalist Mini variants were developed from the 2001 three-door Hardtop. However, the Roadster, as well as the recently introduced Mini Cooper Coupe, is more directly descended from the 2+2 Convertible. Coupe and Roadster were designed simultaneously, but the Coupe preceded the Roadster in the U.S. market by about four months, and immediately drew mixed reviews for its awkward looking roofline.
The Mini Roadster substitutes a conventional folding soft top for the Coupe's hard roof, yielding a look that's a little more conventional and distinctly more appealing. With the soft top stowed in the well behind the seats and the rear decklid spoiler deployed (automatic at 50 mph or more, but manually operable as well), the Roadster becomes a brawny little sports car with the active persona of a Jack Russell terrier.
Like other entries in the Mini Cooper collection, the Roadster offers three levels of engine power, all delivered by the same 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. With direct fuel injection and variable valve timing, it's on the cutting edge of current internal combustion technology. The basic version is naturally aspirated, whereas turbocharging adds thrust to the variations offered in the higher-performing S and John Cooper Works (JCW) models.
Two transmissions are available for the basic and S versions, a 6-speed manual and an optional 6-speed automatic. The latter offers a manual operating mode, but is a conventional automatic. The more powerful JCW model is limited to a manual transmission.
Respectable fuel economy is a strong suit for all Minis, and the Roadster is no exception. Standard and S models both carry EPA ratings of 27 mpg City, 35 mpg Highway or 26/34 mpg City/Highway for the Mini Roadster S automatic. The numbers fall only slightly with the JCW version, to 25/33 mpg.
The Mini Roadster's soft top is stretched over a span of sheetmetal at its leading edge, which serves as a tonneau cover when the top is snugged down behind the seats. Top stowage doesn't subtract from trunk capacity, which is respectable by small roadster standards. The top secures to the windshield header with a single latch, and is easily raised and lowered by hand, though a power option is available.
Even in larger scale versions such as the Clubman wagon and Countryman crossover, Minis place a high priority on fun-to-drive, and the Roadster arguably delivers more of it than anything else in the growing lineup. It's quick on its feet, responsive, and eager, and the snug two-seat cockpit provides the sense of intimacy, driver engagement, and open air motoring that make roadsters so entertaining.
There are caveats, practicality foremost among them. Like any small two-seat convertible, the Mini Roadster's strong suit is driving entertainment. Considered as an all-around automotive implement, though, the elements that make it appealing as a driver's toy limit its usefulness for more mundane motoring chores such as hauling multiple passengers, bulky cargo, or both.
The suspension tuning that makes the car a blast to drive on a smooth stretch of twisty country road renders its ride quality distinctly unpleasant when the pavement is punctuated by warts, potholes, and sharp bumps. Also, wind noise stifles conversation above about 60 mph with the top up.
Nevertheless, the Mini Roadster rolls onto the sports car stage as an appealing new entry at the affordable end of the two-seat spectrum, with the same blend of sassy styling and snappy handling that separates all Minis from the herd.
The 2012 Mini Roadster is presented in three trim levels based on engine performance: the Mini Roadster ($24,350), the turbocharged Roadster S ($27,350), and the high-performance JCW ($34,500). (All prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices, which do not include destination charge and may change at any time without notice. Destination charges add $700.) A 6-speed manual gearbox is standard; a 6-speed Steptronic automatic transmission is available for the base and S models ($1250).
Standard equipment in the Mini Roadster includes air conditioning, an AM/FM/CD audio system with MP3-compatibility and a one-year satellite radio subscription, power windows and mirrors, a trip computer, leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels with run-flat all-season tires, ABS, stability control, front and seat-mounted side airbags, reinforced windshield framing, and two fixed rollover hoops behind the seats.
Besides a healthy horsepower increase, the Roadster S adds a fancier set of 16-inch wheels, sportier seats, and foglights. Opting for the JCW adds even more pace, plus 17-inch wheels, aero body add-ons, piano black interior surface trim, and traction control.
A huge range of styling options allows owners to personalize their cars, and it's a major component of Mini's appeal. The choices cover upholstery style, material and color; exterior graphics; trim pieces; exterior paint, including contrasting colors for the roof. Functional options include high-end extras like adaptive Xenon headlights, and rear obstacle warning, a helpful feature when the Roadster's top is up. Leather seat options range from $1000 to $2250. A power top is an option ($750), and a wind-blocker is available ($250) for top-down motoring.
Safety features include front and seat-mounted side airbags, the rear rollover hoops, a reinforced windshield frame, electronic stability control, and antilock brakes standard. Dynamic Traction Control with electronic locking differential and rear park assist are optional.
Although it has only two seats, the Mini Roadster has the same wheelbase and foundations as the four-seat Mini Cooper convertible. Its width-to-length-to-height proportions give it a scrappy, action-ready look. The summit of its soft top is about three-quarters of an inch lower than that of the 2+2 Convertible, and a smidge lower than the Coupe, making it the lowest roofline of all Minis.
While the rear deck seems to end abruptly, there's more room in the trunk, 8.5 cubic feet, than in the cargo compartment of the Convertible (6.0 cubic feet), though the Convertible's rear seats fold forward to expand capacity. The Roadster's trunk features a square pass-through opening that allows occupants to stash small items without having to stop and go around to open the deck lid.
The front end is unmistakably Mini, and the steeply raked windshield, shared with the Mini Coupe, contributes to the Mini Roadster's sports car chops, as do the twin stainless steel rollover hoops behind the seats. They're in fixed position here, as distinct from the pop-up hoops in the Mini Convertible. As with the Coupe, the a wing pops up from the rear decklid when the Roadster hits 50 mph, re-stowing itself below 37 mph. The wing generates rear downforce, lending stability as speeds climb, but in our opinion its contribution to the car's appearance is just as significant. The wing can also be deployed at the driver's command, mitigating the chopped-off look of the rear end.
A set of 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels is standard on the basic and S versions of the Coupe, with 17-inch wheels optional and standard on the JCW.
Inside, the Roadster maintains the retro Mini look that's part of the brand's success. The center of the dashboard is dominated by a speedometer the size of a serving platter, with the speed indicator tracking around its rim and the center devoted to an info screen, as well as a nav system in Minis so equipped. The tachometer straddles the steering column, which is adjustable for both steering wheel rake and reach.
There is a substantial quantity of plastic, but the interior materials are of high quality. Like the speedometer and tachometer, a bevy of toggle switches help the Mini retain touch with its distinguished past. The standard seats are comfortable, although the S and JCW models offer more lateral support and a sportier feel. There's a good range of adjustability, manual in all models, and several upholstery options.
The Mini forsakes a conventional ignition key for a round plastic fob that docks in a slot next to the steering column, and the driver fires the engine by pressing an adjacent a start/stop button. The advantage of this system is hard to perceive. This could also be said for the standard ambient LED lighting in the door panels and footwells. The driver can change the color across a spectrum from soft orange to crisp blue.
Heating and air conditioning controls reside beneath the speedo, well marked and easy to use in the basic Roadster, and automatic climate control is available.
Audio controls aren't quite as straightforward. The tuning knob is centered with most other audio buttons at the bottom of the speedometer, but the volume control is lower, closer to the HVAC controls. The standard audio system is good, but inevitably Mini offers a premium upgrade, one of a vast, almost bewildering array of optional features available for all models.
Elbow room is limited, but head and leg room are plentiful, even for tall occupants. Like most convertibles, the Mini has substantial blind spots in the rear quarters with its top up, and the smallish glass rear window limits vision directly astern.
If there's any disappointment inside, it's with the single-layer top, whose support bows are exposed. It seals well, but at speeds above 60 mph or so, wind noise becomes obtrusive.
Of course, the Mini product planners equate open top motoring with fun, and seem to think the only time it's acceptable to cover the cockpit is during monsoon weather. To that end, the Roadster, like the Convertible, is equipped with a gauge called an Openometer, which measures the time the car has been operated with top down, as an index of enjoyment. A piece of kit that might be useful for top-down motoring is a wind blocker, a Mini accessory that straddles the rollover hoops and mitigates but does not eliminate cockpit turbulence when the top is down.
Removing roof structure to create a convertible inevitably requires compensatory stiffening in the chassis and body shell. As a consequence, the Roadster weighs in about 90 pounds heavier than the Coupe, model for model, though it's lighter than the Convertible. This may diminish acceleration by a tenth of a second or so, but the effect will be basically undetectable to owners and in any case the sense of speed always seems higher in an open car.
The chassis stiffening measures, while extensive, don't quite bring the Roadster's structural rigidity up to the level of the steel-roofed Minis. There are occasional quivers in the chassis, dashboard, and steering column on rough or bumpy pavement, present in all models but more apparent in the S and JCW versions, with their stiffer suspension tuning. However, the chassis tremors are minor and don't seem to have any real effect on the Roadster's brisk responses.
Ride quality is another matter. Firm suspension components, combined with the standard run-flat tires (there is no spare tire), add up to limited suspension compliance, sending notification of every bump, ripple, or freeway expansion joint directly to the occupants.
This becomes tedious in very short order. Ride quality can be markedly improved by discarding the run-flats in favor of a conventional tire. Many Mini owners have made the switch, and the difference in ride comfort is dramatic.
Ride issues notwithstanding, the Roadster's responses are pure Mini: eager and athletic. The electromechanical steering is sports car quick with good road feel, the brakes are powerful with excellent pedal feel, the manual transmission delivers positive shift engagements, and throttle response is brisk, turbo and non-turbo alike.
The 6-speed Steptronic automatic includes a manual operating function via a set of paddle shifters. Though not as quick as the dual-clutch automated manual offered in some BMWs, it's reasonably satisfying. The 6-speed manual transmission makes the most of the engine's output, particularly in the non-turbo Roadster, and also makes the driving more fun. Which is the whole point of this car. So we recommend the manual.
Aside from suspension tuning, the principal distinction between the three trim levels is power. The naturally aspirated version of the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine is rated for 121 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. With the standard 6-speed manual transmission 0-to-60 mph takes a little over eight seconds, and a little longer with the optional 6-speed automatic. That's not notably quick nor notably slow.
The pace picks up with the turbo versions. In the S model, the engine produces 181 horsepower and 192 pound-feet of maximum torque, and 0-to-60 drops to a quick 6.7 seconds, according to Mini. The hot rod JCW, with its revised cylinder head and higher turbo boost, produces 208 horsepower and 192 pound-feet. It's capable of hitting 60 in just over six seconds, with a top speed of almost 150 mph.
The Mini Cooper Roadster is agile, visually unique, and in S or JCW trim, a brisk performer. Its appeal begins to diminish when options send the price up to and over $40,000, where it begins to compete with Audi's TT roadster. But with a little restraint in ordering, it offers a high fun-for-the-buck index. There are purists who insist a front-drive car can never be regarded as a proper sports car. We suggest that an afternoon spent with the Roadster on a serpentine back road will convert even the most entrenched traditionalists.