Attractive New Roadster Prepares To Cannibalize Convertible

2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster

For a brand that's only about 11 years old (since its modern rebirth, anyway), Mini is doing quite well for itself. Since the launch of the 2001 Mini Cooper, the BMW-owned automaker has now sold over two million vehicles in 100 markets, and over the course of the past decade, has expanded one front-wheel-drive platform into six models with a grand total of 39 different variants. The fact that Mini has hit the big time is in no way breaking news.

What's really interesting is how each new model continues to be supported and loved by the Mini faithful. Perhaps the most controversial addition came in 2010, when Mini first debuted its bigger, four-door Countryman – the most un-mini Mini. Now, though, it has grown to account for 30 percent of the brand's sales here in the United States, perfectly coexisting with its Hardtop, Convertible and Clubman brethren. Nicely done.

But this story isn't all loveliness and perfection: Enter the Mini Coupe, a car that we can't quite give our seal of approval. It's heavier than the iconic Hardtop, less functional, more expensive and frankly, less attractive. Sure, it stands true to the brand's core values of fun, tossable driving dynamics and cheeky style, but at the end of the day, we don't downright love it like we do the other models.

Now meet the Roadster. Immediate comparisons to the Coupe are indeed warranted (we'll get to that), but if any car in the Mini portfolio should be worried, it's the Convertible. The Roadster is less expensive than the aging Convertible, looks better (arguably) and has a more capacious boot. No, this new Roadster doesn't seat four, but then again, the Convertible doesn't exactly do a fantastic job of that, either. And after driving the new Mini Roadster along the sunny Portuguese coast, our impression is that this sixth Cooper variant isn't so much another niche product for a niche manufacturer, it's instead a better droptop than the current Cooper Convertible.

2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster side view2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster front view2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster rear view

As much as we don't necessarily care for the Mini Coupe, arguing that Mini should have just created one car with a folding hardtop or only gone with the Roadster is really a moot point. Both cars debuted in concept form at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show, and after receiving lots of attention from both the press and public alike, both cars were were immediately given the green light thereafter. We spoke with Horst Radivojevic, project manager for the Mini Coupe and Roadster, and he told us that there was never a question about doing just one model – we would either get two or none at all.

We can't help but cock our heads to the side and look slightly puzzled whenever we see the Coupe, but that's definitely not the case with the Roadster. Its design is identical to the Coupe in every way, except for the awkward off-color helmet head of the hardtop and oddly designed rear greenhouse, all of which has been ditched in favor of a simple black folding cloth top. The lack of a full rear window and tiny bits of glass behind the B-pillar make for poor visibility with the top up, but it's just like what you get in any other two-seat roadster, and honestly, it's not really any worse than what you get in the Coupe.

2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster front 3/4 view2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster rear 3/4 view

A word about that roof – a manual folding top is standard, though we highly recommend shelling out $750 for the semi-automatic power unit. The amount of weight that the power top adds is very, very minimal (about 10 pounds), and it makes for substantially easier operation. Twist the knob in the middle of the A-pillar to unlock the roof, hold a button, and the soft top is stowed behind the roll bars in a matter of seconds. But if frugality is your thing and you just can't swing that extra three quarters of a grand, the manual top isn't tough to operate. It's not as easy as the unlatch-and-toss soft top of a Mazda MX-5, but it's not even remotely close to the archaic get-in-get-out-swear-and-get-in-again obnoxiousness of the now-departed Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky twins.

Other design notes? Our Cooper S test car came equipped with standard 16-inch rolling stock, but you'll be smart to opt for the Sport pack and its more eye-pleasing (and road-hugging) 17-inch alloys, especially if the roads around your house are in decent nick. Also, that cute little rear spoiler from the Coupe carries over untouched, still deploying automatically at 50 miles per hour and then stowing itself once you slow below 37 mph. If we're honest, we somewhat surprisingly prefer the look of the convertible with the little wing standing at attention, and there's a toggle switch in the A-pillar that allows you to raise and lower the spoiler at your own discretion.

2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster headlight2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster hood scoop2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster wheel2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster taillight

Step inside the Roadster and you're greeted with the exact same interior that you find in the Coupe (and in every other Mini model, for that matter). We're growing tired of the dinner plate-sized speedometer – but continue to be impressed with the graphics and user interface of the new Mini Connected infotainment system. (Click here for a proper grand tour.) New additions for 2012 include things like a Lounge leather package that you can get on the rest of the 2012 Mini models, though the smart money is on the (admittedly pricy) $2,750 Recaro buckets. Our test car didn't have these, but we were able to sample them on a different, stationary car during our time in Portugal, and really, they're the bee's knees.

The only other major interior change is the addition of fixed roll bars behind the two seats, with an optional flip-up windscreen filling the gap between them. On the Convertible, these roll bars are fitted behind the back seats, and automatically deploy when needed. By having them fixed and integrated into the torsion bar behind the front seats, this eliminates weight and, frankly, makes this Mini look like a proper roadster (we never could get used to the way the roll hoops sit behind the back seat on the Convertible). The fact that the windshield lies 13 degrees flatter than the one on the Convertible certainly adds to that sleek appearance, too.

When it comes to weight, the magic number here is 66. At 2,745 pounds, our Cooper S Roadster is 66 pounds heavier than a Cooper S Coupe, but is actually 66 pounds lighter than a Cooper S Convertible. Combine that with a body that's stiffer and slightly lower to the ground than the Convertible, and what you have is a droptop Mini that's definitely more engaging when driven on backroads.

2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster interior2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster seats2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster tachometer2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster mission control display

For the sake of comparison, let's bring one of our favorite two-seat roadsters into the mix – the Mazda MX-5 Miata. In top-level Grand Touring soft-top spec, the rear-wheel drive Miata is still 234 pounds lighter than the S Roadster, but it's down on power by 14 horsepower and 37 pound-feet of torque. All in, this means that the Mini Roadster has a power-to-weight ratio that's nearly identical to that of the MX-5: 15.2 lb/hp versus 15.1 lb/hp, respectively.

Power in the Cooper S Roadster comes from the same 1.6-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder that we love in the rest of the Mini range, putting 181 hp and 177 lb-ft to the front wheels through either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. A less-powerful Cooper Roadster model is available with a naturally aspirated 1.6-liter, offering up 121 hp and 114 lb-ft with both transmissions, and at the top of the spectrum is the super-hot (and super-pricey) John Cooper Works Roadster, boasting 208 hp and 192 lb-ft routed exclusively through a manual gearbox. This mix of small-displacement and turbocharging comes good at the fuel pump, too – the Cooper S Roadster is estimated to achieve 27 miles per gallon in the city and 35 mpg highway.

Fun as the JCW Roadster will no doubt be, we were only able to test the S, which is in no way a bad thing. There's plenty of power available throughout the rev range in each gear, with the torque thrust coming on strong at 1,600 rpm. Like all Mini S models, there's a bit of torque steer off the line under hard acceleration, and the car will understeer itself into a ditch if you're not easy on the throttle while cornering hard, but the excellent suspension and superb steering allow for immediate driver correction and a truly playful nature out on the road. Again, standard Mini stuff here.

2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster engine

So, let's bring up the Miata again – after all, it's the one car that we kept mentally referencing while pushing the Mini hard along the seemingly endless S-curves on the backroads outside of Lisbon. The one demerit to the Mini here is its front-wheel-drive architecture, as the Mazda's perfect front-engine/rear-drive balance and lightweight construction are what make it so darn good to drive. The Mini feels great in a similar fashion, though heavier – not in a fat sort of way, it's stable and solid, but perhaps a bit less tossable.

The same can be said in reference to the heavier Cooper S Convertible, too. It's a fun droptop that we've enjoyed for several years now, but the Roadster's lower stance and stiffer body truly make it a more engaging steer. Mini is confident that there's still room for both convertibles to exist within its portfolio, but for our money, we'd choose the Roadster, hands down, and we think most enthusiasts will agree.

Top-down driving in the Roadster is quite pleasant, and with the wind deflector between the headrests in place, it's easy to hold a conversation with your passenger even at highway speeds. Should you need to drive with the top up, things do get a bit noisy because Mini has employed a single-layer cloth top with exposed support bows. This saves weight, but raises noise levels. Simple solution: Don't drive with the top up. Ever.

2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster rear 3/4 view

Pricing starts at $25,050 for the Cooper Roadster – $600 less than the base Cooper Convertible – and goes as high as $35,200 for the JCW Roadster. Our mid-grade Cooper S Roadster stickered at $28,050, but like all Minis, you'll want to go easy on the options list or you'll be well into the high-$30K range. Max out a JCW Roadster and you'll be pushing an astonishing $50K (yikes!). Mini executives said they like to think of the Roadster as a step below the BMW Z4 – more of a replacement for the smaller, four-cylinder, first-generation Z3. And while we can't help but note that a Miata is indeed a better bargain, the Mini comes packed with a whole lot more equipment, not to mention a better powertrain on top of it all.

Mini is intent on growing its brand even further throughout the next couple of years, with new additions like the John Cooper Works Countryman and two-door Paceman coming within the next year. Sooner or later, this gaggle of Mini models is going to start cannibalizing each others' sales, but if it keeps money within the walls of the same dealership, we suppose it can't be all bad. This new Roadster certainly strikes us as a more rewarding purchase decision than the Coupe, though we realize that not everyone wants a convertible. For those who do, however – you can forget about the Cooper Convertible. Trust us: The Roadster is everything you really want.