The appeal of a two-seat roadster goes way back in car history. Just about every company has offered one at some point in their existence, although the current market is depressingly devoid of much action. Looking to inject a little life into things comes MINI, with production versions of its Coupe and Roadster concepts from a few years back now rolling into driveways in North America.
|1. Adding a turbocharger to the base Cooper’s 1.6L 4-cylinder, the Cooper S makes 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque.
2. MINI claims a 6.7 second 0-60 time.
3. Fuel economy is 26 MPG city and 35 MPG highway.
4. Starting at $25,550 for the Cooper, the Cooper S begins at $28,550.
We sampled a mid-level Cooper S version to judge whether this all-new drop-top had what it takes to reinvigorate a slumbering segment.
SMALL ENGINE DELIVERS BIG RESULTS
Power comes from the familiar 1.6-liter direct-injection four-cylinder that uses a twin-scroll turbocharger to deliver 181 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. Thankfully, there isn’t much turbo lag to speak of, and although its overall torque figure isn’t especially high, it is available from just 1,600 rpm all the way to 5,000 rpm. One added bonus is that the wee beastie can deliver an extra 15 lb-ft of torque – or overboost as MINI calls it – for quicker overtaking when needed.
The six-speed manual transmission is great to use even though the shift-knob feels like it’s the size of a grapefruit. The nicely weighted clutch helps the Cooper S Roadster hit 60 mph from rest in 6.7 seconds and it feels plenty fast no matter the situation thanks to that turbo. Fuel mileage is pretty good given its performance with estimates of 26 MPG in the city and 35 on the highway.
Our tester included things like the optional sport package with larger 17-inch wheels and performance tires, along with the more aggressive suspension tuning setup, which is another extra cost.
STIFF: FOR BETTER AND FOR WORSE
At 2,744 pounds, the Cooper S Roadster is one of the heavier non-SUV models in the brand’s lineup, being about 100 pounds heavier than the equivalent Coupe. Besides the powered soft top, the rest probably comes from additional bracing to keep the new body from flexing too badly.
There’s plenty of fun to be found here thanks to the typical MINI focus on little body roll and super-direct steering that translates into an ultra-flingable package. The negatives lie mainly in its ability to beat up your kidneys with its ultra-stiff setup. On smooth roads, the satisfaction is obviously immense, but if at any point things get rough, you’ll pay for it later with physical therapy bills. This is no boulevard cruiser – it requires being pushed to really show off its abilities.
That kind of goes against one reason why people buy cars with removable roofs in the first place: to be seen. The MINI Roadster does have some head-turning potential. The windshield itself is more steeply raked, and is one of the most noticeable changes between the Roadster and the more prosaic Convertible. The squared-off rear deck is similar to the fixed-roof Coupe and houses the standard active rear spoiler, which not only helps with aerodynamics at higher speeds, but also improves the Roadster’s appeal when it automatically deploys at 50 mph.
Beyond the obvious, the Roadster differs from other MINI models by using a unique front fascia with more angular fog-light recesses and blacked-out grille, more vertical taillights, a different rear bumper with faux R8-style air vents and the usual center-exit exhaust.
The rear deck opens to a cargo area with only 8.5 cu-ft of storage space; it’s a good thing the roof stores cleanly behind the front seats, because the Roadster can’t reasonably afford to lose any more usability.
Although the trunk is shallow, longer items can get passed through to the cabin if needed through a reasonably large lockable load door.
Folding the roof itself is reasonably easy; it just requires manually unlatching it from the windshield header first, then an electric motor keeps the party going, retracting it into the body. Turbulence is kept reasonably in check thanks to a standard wind-blocker mounted between the roll-hoops, which is less of a concern since there’s only room for two people anyway.
CABIN DOESN’T LIVE UP TO PREMIUM CLAIMS
The rest of the interior is standard MINI Cooper fare, which means pretty cheap plastics, questionable ergonomics and that enormous speedometer dominating the dashboard.
Our tester’s cabin was livened up with things like leather-covered sport seats, but otherwise it’s pretty plain. The sole bright spot is the upgraded Harman Kardon audio system, which is part of a package that also includes a center armrest and Bluetooth hands-free.
MINI Roadsters start at $25,550 while the Cooper S is a more serious $28,550. With all the extras, ‘our’ tester topped out at $34,845. But as with any MINI, that’s without any of the dozens of personalization options that can send the price tag skyrocketing very easily.
There aren’t many ‘true’ competitors in the two-seat roadster market. In fact, there might honestly be none at all.
The most obvious choice – the Mazda MX-5 – does most of the things the MINI Roadster can do but with a more natural rear-wheel-drive balance. It weighs significantly less and the ride won’t beat you up, although the downsides include an equally dated and plasticky cabin and an engine that’s nowhere near as grunty or efficient.
The German brigade – Audi TT, BMW Z4, Mercedes-Benz SLK and Porsche Boxster – all start at least 10 grand north of our tester’s price tag. There are a few four-seat options, like the modern American muscle cars and a couple Volkswagens, but nothing that’s really comparable.
So MINI has the market cornered on performance-oriented front-wheel-drive two-seat roadsters. But that seems to be the company’s recent creed: offer an expanded selection of increasingly niche products and hope at least a few customers bite along the way.