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Car reviews - Mini - Roadster - Cooper S

Our Opinion

We like
Punchy engine, exhaust note, exterior styling, steering, surprisingly decent boot space
Room for improvement
All-round visibility, firm ride, counter-intuitive paddle shifters, pricey extras, lack of sound deadening on roof

11 May 2012

TAKE a Mini Cooper S, stretch it, lower it and rip out the rear seats. Add a manual-folding fabric roof and, hey presto, you have the Mini Roadster.

A gross over-simplification perhaps, but apt to describe Mini’s latest model, which it claims offers the driving thrills of a go-kart and inspires memories of British cabriolets of yesteryear.

The sporting intentions are obvious the second you clap eyes on the car, with its stubby proportions and almost non-existent overhangs.

Finished in evocative British Racing Green, our Roadster was a thing of real beauty, combining modern spunk with classic Mini design cues.

The simple and lightweight manually folding fabric roof harks back to classic British roadsters of the past, but requires a degree of dexterity to open. It’s light and swift, but some may wish to tick the box on the semi-automatic roof, even though it’s rather pricey at $1200.

Inside the cabin, you are immediately confronted by a major downside of the low-slung styling – visibility. The top of the raked windscreen sits partially in the eye-line of taller drivers, and with the roof up there are big blind spots to the side and rear.

With the fabric roof in place, the interior seems to shrink around you, and the result is a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere somewhat akin to looking out from the inside of a post box, or so we imagine.

The instrument fascia is just like all Minis, with an oversized central speedometer, a busy dashboard and a modicum of quirkiness (an optional analogue dial next to the tacho that measures how long the roof has been retracted, for instance).

We like the interesting textures and contrasting colours in the cabin, but there are some ergonomic headaches to contend with. The seatbelt is positioned too far back and is a pain to reach, and the digital speed readout is tiny.

Still, everything feels solid and of good quality (except the cheap audio controls on the leather steering wheel) and gives a nice cosy ambience.

The Roadster is Mini’s first two-seater (along with the mechanically identical Coupe version launched concurrently), and it’s all the better for it.

There are no concessions made to practicality by fitting a rear seat and, considering the amount of cabin space Mini designers had to play with, they would have been nigh-on useless anyway.

Instead, you get a nice little storage nook behind the front bucket seats complete with speakers and a convenient hatch to access the surprisingly capacious 240-litre boot, which is not compromised by the retracted roof.

Our test Cooper S model came with an alarming $8000 worth of extras, including a potent $1300 Harmon Kardon sound system, beige leather seats with very effective heating, and ‘Dynamic Traction Control’ from the hotter John Cooper Works version.

All faults aside, a long jaunt down a winding ocean road with the drop-top stowed away, wind in the hair and sun on the skin, the Mini Roadster makes perfect sense.

A perverse kind of sense, no doubt, for there is nothing particularly sensible or compromising about this snub-nose, snug-fitting and bratty little beast. But then you’d be hard-pressed to find a car that bursts with so much verve, either.

The Roadster has the same kind of firm – almost heavy – steering as the rest of the Mini range, coupled with superbly direct turn-in, although the electric power steering felt a touch artificial and lacking in feel off-centre.

This is a car that practically demands to be thrown into corners, with a low centre of gravity keeping it nimble and full of grip – unless, of course, the overly firm ride has caused it to skip off-line mid-corner.

Should the front wheels finally acquiesce to a heavy right foot and give way to slip, the timely ESC unobtrusively taps the car back into line with little fuss.

The abrasive ride was most evident when the Sport button was engaged, although we might also apportion some of the blame onto the optional run-flat tyres fitted to our car.

While not too overbearing, there was a noticeable degree of road noise from the low-profile tyres, while bumpy roads also coaxed several annoying creaks and squeaks from the cabin trim.

A degree of noise also entered the cabin through the fabric roof courtesy of a lack of sound-deadening.

Despite the car’s tiny proportions, there was a degree of scuttle-shake over harsher corrugations.

We’re not sure how much the automatic spoiler – which deploys electrically at 80km/h – helps with downforce, but its sure looks nifty, and can even be manually adjusted via a dashboard switch.

Like most such systems, this Sport mode not only firms the suspension, but also prompts the automatic transmission to hold onto gears for longer and is programmed to induce delightful pops and snarls from the little turbo engine under braking.

As promised by its raucous note, the 135kW/240Nm 1.6-litre turbocharged engine is a punchy unit devoid of lag and showed strong power delivery throughout the rev range.

It’s quite frugal, too, and even though we were a little shy of the claimed 6.8L/100km combined fuel economy figure, it seems an achievable one with more subdued driving.

The six-speed semi-automatic transmission was well-matched the engine, with quick and decisive shifts and an ability to hold a lower gear when Sport mode is engaged.

More is the pity, then, that the self-shifter is let down by its counter-intuitive paddle shifters, which require you to push down on either the left or right paddle to shift down a cog.

Despite its flaws, we still can’t help but give the Mini Roadster a big tick of approval. For all that it gets wrong, it gets many arguably more important things right.

Few cars in this price bracket are more grin-inducing on twisty roads, and not many can claim to be as stylish and chic. The pert little Roadster is almost made all the more charming because of its quirks, not in spite of them.

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