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mini-roadster

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km : First Drive

words:

7 February 2012

Kindchenschema. It may be a German word, but the idea is universal. Humans are intrinsically attracted to small things with large features — like a puppy or a baby. These things disarm us and give us a warm, happy feeling. According to the Mini Design team, that’s the idea behind every Mini, and perhaps never better exemplified than with the Mini Roadster.

However, it’s not just the puppy dog looks that make the new-for-2012 Roadster so attractive, but rather one neat little word: simplicity. Step into the familiar cabin, flip down the top and just toss it over your head. There is no pretense, no step two. This is a car that strips away the unessential and gives you the most pure experience possible.

Mini figured the best place in the world to experience the Roadster in late January was the coast of Portugal. They were right. Glass-smooth roads, light traffic, and every kind of corner imaginable. So with the Atlantic disappearing behind me, I headed up into the hills of the Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais, where the smooth, sinewy roads quickly revealed the more buttoned-down nature of the Roadster compared to the two-seat Coupe — a car that can be a handful at the limit — on which it’s based. Where the Coupe delivers lift-off drifts at will, Mini smartly dialed in more neutral handling at the Roadster’s limit.

Then again, perhaps it was the 16-inch wheels and standard suspension that made for such a surprisingly perfect match to the winding Portuguese roads. The combination allowed the car a slightly more relaxed attitude, without necessarily limiting grip or speed — exactly what the moment called for.

I’ve never been a convertible person; the lack of chassis rigidity has always been a dealbreaker. But corner after corner I grew to realize that Mini may have actually cracked the formula for an open top car without those typical sacrifices. The massive rear bracing found in the Coupe is also built in to this car, giving the Roadster remarkable rigidity for an open-top car. The Roadster’s stiffness is such a revelation that it makes the four-seat Mini Convertible seem wobbly. The Convertible’s shuddering rearview mirror and overabundant cowl shake are banished in the Roadster. Sure, it lacks the lively, on-the-limit handling of the Coupe, but not by much.

Unlike the Convertible’s fully finished multi-layer roof, the Roadster’s top is a simple, single-layer fabric piece that doesn’t hide any of its mechanicals from the car’s occupants. The structural parts of the top are on full display. The benefits, of course, are less weight, lower cost, simpler operation, and more headroom. The downside of it being only a single layer is more noise at highway speed. Polished, genuine metal roll bars (as opposed to the plastic ones in the four-seater) add back a touch of quality.

With a lighter top and two fewer seats the Roadster is 66 pounds lighter than the R57 Convertible (2,745 lbs and 2,811 lbs, respectively). In fact the Roadster is only nine pounds heavier than the Coupe on which it’s based.

The manual version of the top will be standard in most markets (including the US) with a semi-automatic top offered as an option. Simple as the fully manual top may be, many buyers may find it easier to simply push a button, particularly when the weather changes suddenly. While it’s technically feasible to lift the manual top from the driver’s seat, it’s an awkward operation at best, and requires long arms at least. For an extra $750 (and 11 pounds of additional weight) the semi-automatic option requires only that the driver latch the roof when the motor finishes lifting it into place.

With the top up, rear visibility in the Roadster is as good as in the Coupe, which is to say lousy unless you’re looking forward or directly left or right. Seeing anything behind can be an enormous challenge given the very large fabric B-pillar and rather small glass rear window in the top. Unlike the Convertible, rear parking sensors are questionably not standard.

The Roadster can be ordered with an optional windscreen that slides between the two roll bars. It’s a slick design that folds down for access to the top and doesn’t detract from the look of the car. However, it’s not quite as effective at reducing buffeting as the four seat convertible’s much larger version.

The most obvious difference between the new Roadster and the Mini Convertible is the lack of rear seats. Deleting the rear seat not only allowed the designers to create a better looking car, it also allowed for a much larger trunk, if 8.5 cubic feet can be considered large. Unlike many other convertibles, the roof doesn’t intrude on luggage space when folded down. As in the Mini Coupe, the Roadster boasts a 14” x 8” pass-through from the passenger compartment to the cargo area.

The Roadster, like the Coupe, features a larger rear spoiler that deploys above 50 mph. When the car’s speed drops back below 37 mph the spoiler drops back inline with the trunk. It can also be operated manually using a button in the control panel on the front windscreen frame, and it provides up to 88 pounds of additional downforce at maximum speed.

Inside, the Roadster is typical, familiar Mini. Color and trim options are exactly the same as found in the other R5X models, and the instruments are identical as well — including the gimmicky Openmeter that’s found in the Convertible. The big news is the addition of Recaro seats, a first for the US market. Long-legged drivers often find the standard Mini seats lacking in thigh support, but the Recaro option eliminates that concern and adds extra lower cushion and side bolstering as well. These optional seats feel fantastic and, quite simply, are a must for more aggressive drivers. They come dressed only in black, trimmed in a mix of leather and Dinamica — a material similar to Alcantara but with a shorter nap — and will be offered on all Minis with the exception of the Convertible and Countryman.

Of course, from the outside the Roadster, while still instantly recognizable as a Mini, looks like nothing else in the lineup. Unlike the Coupe, which, in a strictly visual sense, requires some work to understand, the Roadster is immediately attractive. Even the most jaded design critic will find it hard to not like this car in person.

But what the Roadster does best is move the wind through your hair and the exhaust through your ears, an experience not to be undervalued in the world of motoring. In the race for refinement, we often isolate ourselves inside a cocoon of metal, leather and soft-touch plastics, slowly signing away some of the very qualities that once made driving so much fun. The Roadster gets back to the basics, in a way that only a British roadster can. Better still, it drives like a modern Mini and the top doesn’t leak. Throw in those adorable looks and really, what more can you ask for?


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