I've gotten a little cynical about MINI. With a new model introduced every ten minutes, MINI is milking the Cooper like a Jersey cow*, and I figured the 2012 MINI Cooper Roadster was just another useless variant. Well, I was wrong -- in fact, the 2012 MINI Cooper Roadster may well be my favorite MINI.
* Apologies if I am wrong about this. I have no idea if Jersey cows are milked, eaten, used for pest control, or all three. Dammit, Jim, I'm a writer, not a farmer!
First Glance: An honest MINI
Why do I love the Roadster? Because it's the most honest car MINI makes. It doesn't pretend to a be a four-seater like the Cooper Convertible, which has a trunk like an envelope and a back seat like a medieval torture device. It doesn't pretend to be cool like the Cooper Coupe, which is silly looking and useless. It doesn't even pretend to be English. No, this is a straightforward little car: Two seats, a reasonably sized trunk, and a roof that folds down. Full-stop and end of chat, as the British say.
In terms of hardware, the MINI Roadster is identical to the Coupe but with a folding roof. Like the Coupe, it's a bit ridiculous looking with the lid on; if the Coupe looks like its roof was stolen from the Mazda Miata hardtop, the Roadster's soft top looks like it came from an old Geo Metro convertible. Top down it looks quite a bit better, natch.
In the Driver's Seat: Come all, short and tall
From the inside, the view is great -- at least for us short people. Most convertibles have a windshield that stretches back over the passenger compartment in order to provide some extra rollover protection. Those of us who sit close to the steering wheel are in the eaves of the roof, and sometimes driving a convertible doesn't feel that much different than driving a coupe. Not the MINI Roadster: The abbreviated windshield is set far forward, so even us pipsqueaks feel like they are out in the sun. My test car had the standard manually-operated top, which requires pretty strong arm muscles to raise (and more than you'd expect to lower). By the end of my test week, I was wishing for the optional ($750) power top.
If you're tall, like Jason Fogelson, our 6'2" Guide to SUVs, it's a differrent story. You'll find the Roadster a lot easier to get in and out of than the Coupe; even with the roof on, there's a lot more headroom, and plenty of seat adjustment for long legs. But the view isn't so great: Jason found his view partially blocked by the top of the windshield. And the tiny footbox and pedals didn't give his size 11 feet much room to work.
From the window-sills down, the Roadster is standard-issue MINI: Same dash with the same useless center-mounted speedo ringing an exceptionally useful LCD screen; same steering-column-mounted tach with its own digital speedometer; same silly A/C controls which are hard to use with gloves (and not much easier with bare fingers); and the same nifty airplane-cockpit toggle switches. Like the convertible, the Roadster has a separate gauge that tells you how long the top has been down. Call me a curmudgeon, but I'm sure this space could be put to better use. And speaking of space put to good use, the Roadster's 8.5 cubic foot trunk is bigger than the Cooper Convertible's (5.7), with a big opening that makes packing easy.
On the Road(ster): Same thrills as always
Like a moody partner who is unfailingly fantastic between the sheets, the Roadster, like MINIs, is exceptionally good to drive. My test car was a Cooper S model, which paired the 181 horsepower turbocharged 1.6 with a 6-speed automatic transmission. I prefer manuals, but going the two-pedal route doesn't sap too much of the fun -- the engine feels nearly as eager, though torque steer (the tenancy of a powerful front-wheel-drive car to pull to one side under hard acceleration) seemed a bit more pronounced than it did in the manual MINI Cooper S Coupe I tested recently. Another automatic annoyance: The engine makes a low-frequency booming noise between 1,000 and 2,000 RPM. Guess where the auto trans likes to keep the revs when you're driving around town? Yup, you guessed it -- between 1,000 and 2,000 RPM. But I did average 27.6 MPG, and that with less freeway time than most of my test cars get. Impressive.
Out on the Top Secret Curvy Test Road, all is bliss: The Cooper S has tight, responsive steering, outstanding grip, and nearly flawless manners. Big, big, big fun. Around town, though, it's not so pleasant. The S model's ride is really rough: If you buy one, prepare to become intimately familiar with every bump and pothole in your neighborhood. The base-model Cooper provides a slightly softer ride, but not much. (There's also a 208 hp John Cooper Works version if you want even more speed and grip.) That said, visibility out the back is infinitely better than the four-alleged-seat Cooper Convertible, and with nothing but the trunk lid behind the rear seats, parking couldn't be any easier; my car had a backup assistant, which made things even easier.