Pros: Great engines; impressive fuel economy; nimble handling
Cons: Only two seats instead of the Cooper Convertible's four
The 2012 Mini Cooper Roadster is closely related to the two-seat Cooper Coupe. The Coupe may be an unloved member of the Mini lineup, but we have a greater appreciation for the Roadster. That's because there's something undeniably romantic about a droptop two-seater, and the world needs more affordable examples. It's no secret that the Mazda MX-5 Miata has ruled this roost for years, with virtually no competition to speak of. So whenever a fresh, reasonably priced roadster comes along, we consider it cause for celebration.
Well, that's not quite true-we didn't celebrate the Pontiac Solstice. In other words, the new arrival has to be pretty rewarding to drive, because the Miata is one of the all-time champs in that department. Fortunately, the Roadster is every bit a Mini Cooper from behind the wheel, which means it offers hyper-responsive handling, available turbocharged power and a generally rambunctious nature that's hard not to love. It also boasts excellent fuel economy, which is no small thing in this day and age.
Yes, Mini Cooper Convertible offers a very similar list of virtues, along with a cramped back seat, so the Cooper Roadster no doubt does leave some versatility on the table. Also, although Mini certainly has a strong enthusiast following, the rear-wheel-drive Mazda Miata will likely continue to hold sway among the track-day faithful. But the main point here is that the 2012 Mini Cooper Roadster provides plenty of roadster virtues at a price that won't break the bank, and that's something that any fan of al fresco driving can appreciate.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Mini Cooper Roadster is a two-seat softtop convertible that comes in three trim levels: base, S and John Cooper Works. The equipment roster is almost identical to that of the Cooper Coupe.
Standard features on the base model include a manually operated soft top, 15-inch alloy wheels, height-adjustable front seats, leatherette upholstery, power accessories, a leather-wrapped tilting and telescoping multifunction steering wheel, keyless push-button ignition, a sport button that enhances steering and throttle response and a six-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input and HD and satellite radio. The main upgrade over the four-seat Cooper Convertible is the Roadster's standard retractable rear spoiler. The Roadster also borrows the Convertible's Openometer gauge that tracks how many hours you've had the roof open.
The Cooper S Roadster adds 16-inch alloys, a turbocharged engine, a hood scoop, a black mesh grille, foglamps, dual center-outlet exhaust tips, sport front seats and alloy pedals.
The John Cooper Works Roadster gets a bunch of performance-oriented upgrades, including a more powerful turbocharged engine, 17-inch alloy wheels, Brembo brakes, an electronic limited-slip program called Electronic Differential Lock Control (optional on lesser Roadsters), a special sport-tuned suspension and various exterior and interior styling flourishes.
A major Mini selling point is the ability to have your new Cooper Roadster built to spec at the factory, so, as you'd expect, the options list is enormous. Some of the highlights for the Cooper and Cooper S models are 17-inch alloys, a sport package with a stiffer suspension, xenon headlamps, Bluetooth and iPod/USB connectivity, a navigation system with a 6.5-inch display, leather upholstery, Recaro sport seats and a premium Harman Kardon audio system.
The base Roadster's standard front seats are unremarkable. We suggest upgrading to the optional sport seats (standard on the Cooper S), which feature more satisfying contours. The available Recaros are brilliant, of course, but they also cost about three grand. However, no matter what chairs you choose, we love the Roadster's driving position. The raked-back windshield gives the Roadster a sportier feel than other Minis, but you still get the familiar upright seating posture, perfectly placed pedals and a compact, grippy tilting and telescoping steering wheel that falls low and straight above your lap.
Alas, we can't claim the same appreciation for the audio and climate controls, which are laid out haphazardly and frequently use stylish but frustrating toggle switches rather than proper knobs or buttons. Materials quality is also hit or miss. We're fans of the enormous center-mounted speedometer, though; for us, it's part of the Mini's personality, and we'd hate to see it phased out in favor of something more conservative.
The Roadster's vinyl roof includes a glass rear window, but it lacks the Convertible's power operation and unique sunroof-style half-open position. When you want to go topless in the Roadster, you unlatch the top and toss it over your shoulder, Miata style.
The Roadster's trunk is measured by Mini at 8.5 cubic feet.
Like other Minis, the Roadster makes you pay extra for Bluetooth and iPod/USB connectivity, which we find mildly insulting in 2012. We're not fans of the optional Harman Kardon stereo, although the base stereo is considerably worse, so it might be worth upgrading anyway-especially given the extra wind noise you get in a convertible. On the bright side, there's a cool option called Mini Connected, which adds a fun-looking information and entertainment interface in the middle of the center speedometer. It also gives iPhone users access to an app that can integrate Facebook, Twitter, Internet radio and a variety of other services.
Navigation can be added to Mini Connected if you want, but if you've already got a smartphone that works with Mini Connected, you already have access to Google Maps and the like, so you probably don't need to pay extra for Mini's own maps and directions.
Performance & Fuel Economy
All Cooper Roadsters feature front-wheel drive and start with a six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic is optional on all but the John Cooper Works model, which is manual only.
The base Roadster is powered by a 1.6-liter inline-4 rated at 121 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque. Like most BMW engines, this one's peppier than the numbers suggest, making the standard Roadster an entertaining performer. Stick with the enjoyable manual shifter, though, unless you want to let the automatic slow you down. Fuel economy is 27 mpg city/35 mpg highway with either transmission.
The Cooper S Roadster upgrades to a turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-4 that cranks out 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque, which climbs to 192 lb-ft on temporary overboost when you're flooring it. This is one of our favorite engines in any car, delivering strong acceleration all the way to the redline with virtually no lag to speak of. The exuberant noises are almost as fun as the power, especially with the top down. Fuel economy is a remarkable 27/35 mpg with the manual and 26/34 mpg with the automatic transmission.
The manual-only John Cooper Works gets an upgraded version of the 1.6-liter turbo with 208 hp and 192 lb-ft of torque (207 on overboost). You'll feel the extra power, for sure, but fuel economy drops a bit to 25/33 mpg.
The 2012 Mini Cooper Roadster comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and four airbags (front and side).
The Cooper Roadster had not yet been crash tested stateside as of this writing.
The Mini Cooper Roadster drives like a proper Mini, which is to be expected. It has the same hair-trigger reflexes as the similar Coupe, especially when you hit the Sport button to sharpen the throttle and steering. It's extra fun to experience the usual Mini traits in a top-down two-seat package. As with other Minis, though, we recommend avoiding the optional sport suspension: the one thing the base suspension doesn't need is a stiffer ride.
Other Cars to Consider
FIAT 500c - The 500c isn't nearly as dynamic as the Mini Roadster, but it's considerably cheaper, and it has a similarly memorable style.
Mazda MX-5 Miata - The rear-wheel-drive Miata is the quintessential affordable roadster, and it gives the Mini a run for its money across the board while adding classic rear-drive handling.
We see the Cooper Roadster as a versatile droptop that should appeal to a variety of shoppers. Our choice would be the turbocharged S, but we could also imagine opting for the cheaper base model; its relaxed pace would give us more time to work on our tans.