Pros: Great engines; impressive fuel economy; nimble handling.
Cons: Only two seats instead of the Cooper Convertible's four.
What's New: Power roof operation, wind deflector and Bluetooth all standard; JCW model adds automatic transmission option.
The 2013 MINI Roadster is basically a ragtop version of the 2-seat Cooper Coupe. And we love it for the same reason we have loved the Mazda MX-5 Miata for all these years: There's something undeniably romantic about a drop-top 2-seater, and the world needs more affordable examples. The 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.
While the Roadster (also called the Cooper Roadster) does not copy the Miata's classic front-engine, rear-wheel-drive arrangement, it is still a riot to drive, with 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.
Sharing showroom space with the Roadster, of course, is the 4-seat MINI Cooper Convertible, which lists similar virtues for $400 less when comparably equipped, along with a snug backseat for short people on short trips. So if relative practicality is a consideration, you have another option. Also, while MINI has the powerful Roadster John Cooper Works aimed at MINI's strong enthusiast following, the rear-wheel-drive Mazda Miata will likely continue to hold sway among the track-day faithful. But the main point is that the 2013 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 alfresco driving can appreciate.
Comfort & Utility
The 2013 MINI Cooper Roadster is a 2-seat soft-top convertible that comes in three trim levels: base, S and John Cooper Works. The equipment roster is almost identical to that of the fixed-roof Cooper Coupe.
Standard features on the base Cooper Roadster ($25,550) 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 6-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input and HD and satellite radio. The Roadster also borrows the Convertible's Openometer gauge that tracks how many hours you've had the roof open.
The Cooper S Roadster (28,550) adds 16-in alloys, a turbocharged engine, a hood scoop, a black mesh grille, fog lamps, dual center-outlet exhaust tips, sport front seats and alloy pedals.
The John Cooper Works Roadster ($35,700) gets a bunch of performance-oriented upgrades, including a more powerful turbocharged engine, 17-in 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 its ability to build to spec at the factory, and the options list is enormous. Highlights for the Cooper and Cooper S Roadsters include 17-in alloys, a sport package with a stiffer suspension, xenon headlamps, a navigation system with a 6.5-in 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 more supportive sport seats (standard on the Cooper S). The available Recaros are brilliant, of course, but they cost about three grand. No matter what chairs you choose, we love the Roadster's driving position, with its raked-back windshield, perfectly placed pedals and a compact, tilting and telescoping steering wheel. Top up, outward vision is challenging, of course. But top down, the sky's the limit.
As with other Cooper models, the audio and climate controls are ergonomically awkward, including the stylish but frustrating chrome toggle switches. There are occasional cheap-feeling bits as well. We do like the enormous center-mounted speedometer, though -- particularly when coupled with MINI Connected programs. (More on that below.)
The Roadster's vinyl roof includes a glass rear window and, for 2013, offers partial power operation and a wind deflector standard. 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 a modest but usable 8.5 cu ft.
Like other MINIs, the Roadster now comes standard with Bluetooth connectivity, though satellite radio is now optional. The optional Harman Kardon stereo might be worth the upgrade if only to compensate for the extra wind noise you get in a convertible. And we really like the MINI Connected suite, which adds a fun-looking infotainment 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 as well.
Performance & Fuel Economy
All Cooper Roadsters feature front-wheel drive and come standard with a 6-speed manual transmission. A 6-speed automatic is optional on all, including the John Cooper Works, which used to be 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 base model an entertaining performer, so long as you stick with the enjoyable manual shifter. The automatic sacrifices responsiveness for convenience, and we're not sure we like that trade-off in this particular car. Fuel economy is 27 miles per gallon 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 (climbing to 192 lb-ft on temporary overboost when you floor it). This is one of our favorite engines around, delivering strong acceleration all the way to redline with virtually no turbo lag. The exuberant noises are just as savory as the power itself, especially top down. Fuel economy is a remarkable 27 mpg/35 mpg with the manual transmission and 26 mpg/34 mpg with the automatic.
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 mpg/33 mpg.
The 2013 MINI Cooper Roadster comes with standard stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and four airbags (front and side).
The Cooper Roadster had not yet been crash tested stateside as of this writing, but other Cooper models have generally fared well in IIHS crash tests, with the Cooper hardtop deemed Good, its highest score, in frontal offset and rear impacts. It gave the hardtop its second-highest rating of Acceptable in side impact.
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 with the Sport button sharpening throttle and steering responses. It's extra fun to experience the usual MINI traits in a top-down 2-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 ($19,500) 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: Mazda's rear-wheel-drive Miata ($23,720) is the quintessential affordable roadster, and it gives the MINI Roadster a run for its fun money across the board while adding classic rear-drive handling.
The 2013 MINI Roadster is a charismatic drop-top 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.