Sunday, February 19, 2012

2012 Mini Roadster Cooper S Road Test

With the launch of the 2012 Mini Roadster Cooper S, the company has officially transitioned from making the purely versatile to the mostly fashionable. It's the first time Mini has ever offered a two-seater convertible, and it sits alongside the new two-seat Coupe in a six-car lineup.
Built to squeeze more life from an aging platform, the 2012 Mini Roadster Cooper S is being put forth as an alternative to the Mazda MX-5 Miata. That's no small task given the Miata's history, but Mini has plenty of history of its own.
Like the recently introduced Coupe, the Roadster is less an all-new model than another reinterpretation of existing themes. It's fractionally shorter and just under an inch lower than the familiar, four-seat Mini Convertible, and the Roadster shares a nose with the Coupe. Priced from $24,350 for the Cooper to $34,500 for the John Cooper Works, it's just a smidgen cheaper than the four-seat ragtop but seeks to score a new audience with its charm and exclusivity.
Why Choose the Roadster?
There are two key reasons why people will choose the 2012 Mini Roadster: the way it looks and the fact that it's more exclusive than the Convertible. Mini would add, "the way that it drives," too, but we'll come to that.
First shown at the Frankfurt auto show in "concept" form in 2009, the Mini Roadster has barely changed for production. The only obvious addition is a pop-up rear spoiler, which rises above 50 mph and retracts below 37 mph.
The "three-box" shape with the flat trunk lid echoes that of the Coupe. To our eyes, though, the canvas hood is more aesthetically pleasing than the Coupe's inverted baseball cap. It's nicely integrated, too, avoiding the Convertible's awkward hump when the roof's folded down, although the absence of rear seats is a high price to pay.
Familiar Chassis
The Roadster's suspension has been plundered from the Mini parts bin. The dampers are from the Convertible, while the springs are from the Coupe. Otherwise, it's the familiar setup of MacPherson struts at the front and a multilink rear. A sport suspension with changes to the dampers, springs and antiroll bars is available as an option.
Mini is offering three versions of the Roadster in the U.S.: the 121-horsepower Cooper, the 181-hp Cooper S and the 211-hp John Cooper Works. All feature a variant of the 1,598cc engine, while the "S" and "Works" also boast a turbocharger. We drove a Cooper S on modest 16-inch rims and the standard suspension.
Mini claims that the addition of a steel bulkhead behind the seats has increased the rigidity of the Roadster by 10 percent compared with the Convertible. On the road, that makes a huge difference. While the sportier versions of the convertible have an awkward tendency to flex and torque steer, the Roadster feels impressively solid. The steering is suitably quick-witted, and while the electric system is not overburdened with feel, it delivers a level of agility matched by few other cars. The performance of the Cooper S — Mini claims zero to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds and a 141-mph top speed — also feels nicely suited to this car.
The trade-off, though, is a ride quality that remains on the firm side of acceptable. It's as if to differentiate the Roadster from the standard hatchback, Mini has seen fit to deliver a "sporty" ride, by which it means solid. Mini is justifiably proud of its "go-kart" handling, but it shouldn't have to be accompanied by a go-kart ride quality. And this is the standard suspension. Overall, the rear-drive MX-5 remains the purer, more rewarding driving experience.
No Abundance of Refinement
In a bid to reduce the cost and complexity of the 2012 Mini Roadster, the fabric hood now has just a single layer, compared with the Convertible's dual-layer setup. On the road, this has a significant bearing on refinement. The Roadster is, to put it bluntly, crude. Wind noise at highway speeds feels like a '90s throwback, and the exposed roof elements hardly smack of premium appeal. Moreover, with the roof up, the over-the-shoulder visibility is dreadful.
Another throwback of questionable merit is the absence of electric assistance. It is possible to raise the hood from the driver seat, but only if you have arms that combine the length of Mr. Tickle with the forearms of Popeye. At $750, the semiautomatic soft top is a must-have option. You still have to twist a handle to lock it into place, but at least it rises and falls without human help. In the U.K. it's standard, but U.S. buyers are forced to cough up extra for it as an option.
With the roof down, the Roadster ensures you're at one with the elements. That steeply raked roof line also generates more buffeting than you'll find in the Convertible, although the problem can be alleviated with the purchase of a wind deflector. That's another ($250) option and another must-have.
At least the underpinnings have afforded the Roadster decent practicality. In common with the Coupe, the Roadster has a broad hatch that links the cockpit with the trunk. The latter has a capacity of 8.5 cubic feet, which compares more than favorably with the Miata's 5.3 cubic feet.
Worth the Sacrifice?
The Roadster is a logical extension of the Mini brand, but is hardly the last word in originality. The big challenge for the Mini types in Munich is to conjure something more imaginative without offending its more traditional fans. The handsome, innovative Rocketman looked like the way forward, but has now been cancelled.
We have no doubt the Roadster will find a willing army of fans who must have the latest Mini. It is fun to drive and, to our eyes, better-looking than the Coupe, but the ride quality is still questionable and the roof is crude. For $28,000, we expected more.
After considerable seat time in the 2012 Mini Roadster Cooper S, we couldn't help but think that we still find the original Mini (the modern one) the best of the breed. The constant tinkering over the years has brought about some different looks, yet the dynamics of that first hatch were spot-on from the start. The Roadster's funky styling scores it some points, but it's not enough to make up for its other notable shortcomings.

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