Tiny topless two-seater big on fun
NEWMARKET, Ontario - Wouldn't you know it? After a month of unseasonably warm weather, Mother Nature had the last laugh - subjecting us to a surprise lashing of stinging snow the very day we were to spend top-down cruising in the new 2012 MINI Cooper Roadster.
But we'd shown up with the intention of going topless, and we weren't backing out now. Bracing ourselves against the sharp wind, we folded back its cloth lid, set the bum-warmers on high, and pulling down the brims of our MINI caps, set out for the open road.
The Roadster is the latest in the ever-expanding lineup of MINI variants, developed alongside the recently released Cooper Coupé. Both are based on the MINI Convertible, but the two-seat configuration creates a semblance of trunk space for the first time. It's also the very first two-seat roadster MINI has ever produced.
The wheelbase remains the same but overall length increases by 7 mm thanks to an enlarged lip spoiler. Adding a trunk increases cargo space to 240 litres, and there's a pass-through to accommodate long objects such as snowboards.
Of course, eliminating the top does away with the most controversial element of the coupe's design - the notorious "baseball cap" roofline. And without the bad case of helmet-head, this is one cute little MINI indeed. Keeping costs down, the roadster's only available with a cloth roof, rather than a pricier retractable hardtop. Standard is a manually operated version which, with a simple pull and twist of the grab handle, stows away in a neat little tonneau behind the rear seats - without compromising trunk space. An optional power roof is available for another $750.
Anyone who's ever driven a MINI will find the cabin instantly familiar. There are all the traditional MINI design cues - the circular theme that's established by the huge art-deco speedometer is repeated in the vents and chrome roll hoops behind the seats. Our tester, a dark grey Cooper S, is finished inside with toffee brown leather and carbon fibre trim.
The base Cooper and Cooper S are available with either 6-speed manual or automatic transmissions, while the potent John Cooper Works is available in manual with the auto coming later. Our tester, thankfully, is blessed with a lovely short shifter with perfectly placed throws and a clutch that's neither too grabby nor too soft. Steering is quick and nicely weighted, with plenty of feedback through the fat little wheel.
The Cooper S is powered by a turbocharged 1.6L 4-cylinder that puts out 181 hp, with 177 lb-ft of torque - 192 lb-ft with overboost. This gives it a ten-second burst of power - sufficient for most highway passing manoeuvres.
Our route takes us through the farmlands of Durham County and the winding roads of the Kawartha Lakes.
Removing the roof, of course, necessitated extra body-stiffening with a torsion bar running the length of the chassis and extra bracing underneath. The stiffness was evident on the rough cottage country roads - although the roadster's suspension is more compliant than that of the coupe. We noticed a fair bit of cowl shake over the pothole-strewn country roads.
MINI's touting the roadster as the weekend toy to the Coupé's track monster, yet the roadster is equally joyous and athletic to drive. Its short wheelbase and perfectly composed suspension make it wonderfully tossable on the tightly winding roads. Adding extra downforce is a rear spoiler that automatically deploys at 80 km/h, and tucks away again once the speed drops to 60 km/h.
Throttle response is quick - and there's enough grunt that you're not constantly shifting to stay in the powerband. Depress the Sport button, and steering and throttle response tighten up measurably, and the exhaust erupts in pops and burbles. It's a wonderful sound to be sure, but comes at a cost: it's achieved through extra fuel being dumped into the system.
Already having proven our bravado, we opted half-way through to continue with the roof up - which took us roughly 15-20 seconds. Top up, it's nowhere near as claustrophobic for lofty passengers (such as my 6-ft+ co-driver) as the Coupé, but there's a fair bit of wind and road noise. One can always crank up the 10-speaker Harman/Kardon audio system.
Without the Honda S2000, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, the 2012 MINI Cooper Roadster really has only one competitor - the mighty Mazda MX-5. Although slightly cheaper at $28,995 than our $32,900 Cooper S (and the same price as the base Cooper) the Mazda's far thirstier. While the MX-5 consumes 9.2L/100km city and 7.1 highway, the Cooper S uses only 7.6/5.6.
Stylish, engaging and just plain fun, the MINI Roadster has a lot to recommend it to fans of alfresco cruising.
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