Car reviews - Mini - Roadster - Cooper S
11 May 2012
A LITTLE over a year ago, Mini Australia had just three model lines – the Hatch, the Hatch-based Cabrio and the stretched Clubman. Then it added – of all things – the quirky Countryman compact SUV, with some commercial success.
Now come the two latest additions, the twin-under-the-skin Coupe and Roadster – the first Minis to feature just two seats and also the first to feature a ‘three-box’ design, meaning clearly defined engine, passenger and luggage compartments.
Each is slightly lower and wider than the Hatch/Cabrio, but they share the same compact length and wheelbase, and each is pitched as a more sporting and youthful alternative to well-heeled and conspicuously style-conscious clientele.
But before we delve into our drive impressions, we first need to address that roof design on the Coupe.
The distinctively ‘levelled’ C-pillar is a love-or-loathe proposition. BMW-owned Mini itself calls it ‘helmet-headed’ – or should that be Helmut-headed? – and it certainly does give the car a unique road presence.
The downside of such a design is forward visibility. When combined with the more sharply-raked windscreen, the cabin can feel claustrophobic for tall drivers like me, even though Mini has carved two ‘scoops’ from the roof to accommodate us.
While we like that Mini has made the Coupe intentionally polarising, the Roadster is simply a thing of beauty, with the right blend of modern spunk and classic Mini design to put a smile on even the most dour of dials (especially presented in classic British Racing Green).
We have no problem with the manual roof-folding operation – it can be raised or lowered in only a few seconds and doesn’t impinge on luggage space – but a semi-automatic version can be bought as an $1200 option if you prefer.
Honestly, unless you need the Cabrio’s super-tight rear seat for a baby capsule, we cannot fathom why you would pay the extra $3300 for the alternative Hatch-based soft-top.
A cruise through winding roads gave us a chance to test the sporting prowess of the pair of cars that Mini has positioned as its most performance-oriented, and they did not disappoint.
We drove an automatic Cooper S coupe and a manual JCW Roadster, and both felt equally accomplished through the twisty stuff, embodying the same distinct modern Mini feel.
Like most new Minis, the BMW influence shows, with firm – even heavy – steering that provides crisp turn-in and high levels of feedback. The steering set-up instilled us with the confidence to really punt the things around, aided by reassuringly strong brakes.
Body control is exemplary, with barely a hint of roll through the turns, but the trade-off is the firmness of the ride, which goes beyond hard to plain uncomfortable when the roads become corrugated.
This inability to absorb bumps means the car is also prone to skipping off-line mid-corner, which can be disconcerting.
The Roadster body felt stiff, with no noticeable scuttle shake, even on rough roads, indicating that Mini’s efforts at strengthening the bodyshell have paid off.
We don’t know how effective the nifty automatically activated boot-mounted spoiler is at boosting downforce, but it certainly looks the business when it deploys at speed.
Power for both the Cooper S and JCW comes from Mini’s familiar turbocharged 1.6-litre engine – albeit in different states of tune. Both are gutsy, with plenty of torque across the rev range and strong power delivery that pins you back into the seat.
The less-powerful Cooper S sounds a little rough and raw – a good thing in our books – but the JCW sounds truly menacing, emitting a barrel-chested burble at idle, then popping and snarling with rapid downshifts when motoring.
Both the six-speed auto and manual are slick affairs, although the self-shifter is certainly the go for purists. The clutch has a quick take-up and the ratios are well-spaced and engage exceedingly smoothly.
Turbo lag is more readily noticeable in the auto at take-off, though once at speed the changes are fast and decisive.
However, the paddle-shifter configuration – push to downchange and pull to change up – seems daft. Why not just make the left paddle the down-shifter and the right the up-shifter? The set-up as it stands is counter-intuitive and provides distraction at the limit. We ended up leaving it in D mode more often than not, letting the clever transmission do its own thing.
If you have seen or experienced a Mini hatchback interior before, the Coupe and Roadster will offer no surprises. Apart from the lack of rear seats – replaced by a storage area and speakers – things are very familiar.
The comically oversize central speedo and old-school fascia switches remain, as does the unfortunate occasional squeak and rattle, but the range of colour inserts available on the doors and dash add a nice personalised touch.
Sound insulation was decent on both models, only a steady hum from the tyres intruding.
While neither model could be called practical, both feature acceptable luggage space and removing the rear parcel shelf in the Coupe creates a surprisingly commodious rear hatch area.
The new Minis are textbook ‘statement’ cars and they do it very well.
Both the Cooper S and JCW variants are equally competent at tackling the twisties or turning heads. Their relative lack of space, overly firm ride and the Coupe’s visibility shortcomings mean they are not a practical choice, but they are not designed to be.
Good standard equipment levels, eye-catching styling, strong engines and go-kart dynamics make them attractive for their price, especially the Cooper S Roadster.
More importantly, each lives up to its brief to be as fun and personable as possible – plus the Coupe’s styling creates a real talking point – and for this reason each are worthwhile additions to the rapidly expanding Mini line-up.
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