Mini Roadster - Front Side

Mini Cooper S Roadster Review

Rating: 6.0
$45,500 $47,850 Mrlp
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Mini's latest convertible combines drop-top motoring with two-seater styling.
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Just in case one convertible Mini wasn't enough, buyers can now opt for a Mini Cooper S Roadster.

Mini's Cooper S Roadster is the iconic, Anglo-German brand's sixth new model in just over a decade, following right behind its hardtop brethren, the Mini Cooper S Coupe. Like the Coupe, and in contrast to the four-seater hatch-based Mini Cooper Cabriolet, the Mini Cooper S Roadster is a two-seater-only proposition. This means if you considered the Coupe to be a niche within a niche, then the Roadster is another step closer to having an even more specific market and another step further away from practical.

Eliminating a roof typically comes with some downsides, most notably a reduction in body rigidity. The Mini Roadster, however, maintains the family genetics.

It’s a sharp, agile, crisp-handling little unit with steering that’s direct but never darty. It falls short of being truly communicative or visceral but it’s a more than adequate balance between shopping centre car park fiend and back-road devil. Turn into a corner too quickly though and, like most front-wheel drives, it will understeer but drive it well and the Mini Roadster will reward you.

Australian roads are notorious for having odd stretches of smooth blacktop dwarfed by constant road joins, potholes and generally sub-standard driving surfaces. But while these are definitely noticeable when behind the wheel of the firm-riding - if a little crashy - Roadster, it feels like the problem has been acknowledged by BMW’s suspension tuning boffins, then mostly ignored for fear of dulling the Mini’s signature positive handling feel.

As in the fixed-roof version, the Roadster base car starts with the spirited Cooper S, meaning a turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder squeezing out a respectable 135kW of power at 5500rpm and 240Nm of torquey goodness between 1600-5000rpm. It’s enough punch to see it off the line and to 100km/h in 7.2 seconds (7.0 in manual), all while delivering frugal numbers like 6.8 litres per 100km (6.4 in manual) – we managed 8L/100km – and 149g of CO2 per kilometre.

The engine can feel a little tight and strained higher up in the rev-range but its low-down pulling power is effortless, avoiding the need to buzz the tower in every gear just to keep up with traffic. There’s always going to be more engine noise when driving roof-less but the engine is never loud, top up or down, though it can develop an audible, deep drone at a steady cruise.

The Mini Cooper Roadster gets the same active rear spoiler as the Coupe, deploying automatically above 80km/h, for improved aerodynamics and handling balance. But considering it only produces its 40kg of downforce at its maximum speed of 227km/h, it’s probably more Mini style-trinket than much else ... at least with local speed limits anyway.

Driving within those limits can be both entertaining and rather infuriating in the pint-sized Roadster. The six-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle-shifters does a solid job when driving around town, much like the brakes, but when you decide to go after it a bit or take it out for a blast through the hills, you discover it’s almost good enough, but not quite.

From the plain silly dual-way paddles (both paddles can shift up and down gears instead of the conventional right is up, left is down approach) to the gearbox not letting you hold a selected gear for anything longer than a fraction of a second, the yearning for a traditional manual gearbox is inevitable (and luckily a six-speed manual is standard).

On the plus side, when you push the magical ‘Sport’ button, you unleash a setting that not only delivers sharper throttle response but allows fuel to be dumped out of the exhaust via not-so-subtle pops. When every time you squeeze a paddle to select a gear less, and it sounds like a Kalashnikov firing out the back of your seemingly-tame Mini, you’ll be grinning like an idiot.

Less likely to make you smile is the lack of vision from the driver's seat. With the Mini Coupe already receiving criticism for poor vision compared with the bigger Mini hatch, things only get worse with the Roadster. With the roof up that is.

While the mirrors do their best to keep the driver aware of what’s around, the task is simply too great to inspire any semblance of confidence. A head check over your left shoulder results in seeing nothing but the cloth roof from between your passenger’s right ear, to the letterbox rear window.

A blending of B- into C-pillar to this degree can definitely make things a challenge, particularly at night or in the rain - both likely times for the roof to be up. The trade-off of course is the wind-in-your-hair, open-top fun that only a convertible can deliver.

Whatever your budget, though, pay the $1200 difference and get the semi-automatic roof rather than the manual set-up. Simply put, the DIY manual roof is a pain. It’s a far heavier thing to operate than others, like the Mazda MX-5's, and as if to prove the point, the owner’s handbook even suggests getting out of the car when putting it up or down.

Fortunately once in the car, it’s not a bad place to be; comfortable seats with a good range of adjustment allow even six-footers to find a good seating position. A 240-litre boot, large door pockets, and a deep glovebox join other storage areas to guarantee a place for phones, drinks, keys, even chewing gum. The space behind the seats is particularly useful, too. There’s also a little elastic mesh pocket in the passenger foot-well so loose items aren't left to slide around the floor.

The gear leaver can feel clunky and a bit stiff but the handbrake feels excellent and solid. The door handles haven’t been blessed quite as much, feeling flimsy along with the electric mirrors’ switch.

The dash, as always on a Mini, is dominated by the trademark oversized central speedo. While a classic trait, it's often ignored in favour of the smaller digital speed display at the bottom of the tacho - positioned more conventionally in front of the driver. The central speedo also takes up so much space, that other areas of the interior are left lagging far behind most modern cars. The small, plain-black stereo looks dated, feels cheap and makes for a poor interface for the user - not what you’d expect in a car that reaches this deep into wallets.

The $47,850 automatic Mini Roadster is $2350 dearer than the $45,500 base manual, itself up $2510 over the equivalent base Coupe. Standard features include front and rear fog lights; automatic bi-xenon headlights; Bluetooth connectivity; 17-inch alloy wheels and electronic stability control (which can't be totally switched off). Our test car also had optional seat heaters ($490) and a 10-speaker harman/kardon stereo ($1300).

So, as has become traditional with Minis, the Roadster isn’t cheap. A Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet, for example, starts at $36,990 and includes two extra seats. But while the big speedo, toggle switches, circle theme and general Mini quirkiness may not be everyone's cup of English Breakfast, the Mini Cooper S Roadster does deliver fun, open-air motoring.