MINI Roadster: First drive review
2011 was a bumper year for MINI, with sales totalling a record 50,138. So, with the British-built BMW baby brand showing a 2.01% market share year to date, it is time for the fastest growing premium brand to launch its sixth model - the Roadster.
On sale from now, the second of MINI's two-seaters is aimed at sportscar fans who might be considering either a Mazda MX-5 or an Audi TT Roadster.
Can it keep up with these established rivals? We headed to Cheltenham to find out.
On the outside, the Roadster is basically a convertible version of the MINI Coupe. Built on a 5mm longer, modified and more rigid convertible chassis, it has stayed remarkably true to the concept first shown at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show.
The most striking change over a standard MINI Convertible has to be the revised roofline. 20mm lower, the windscreen and A-pillars are more steeply raked by 13-degrees.
The second modern MINI to adopt the extrovert 'three-box' body structure (splitting the car into distinct segments – the engine compartment, cabin and boot), it is also fitted with stainless steel roll hoops and an active rear spoiler like the Coupe.
The hood itself is a single-skin semi-automatic one, which folds flat into a compartment behind the seats. It can be raised or lowered in just eight seconds at speeds up to 20mph. This was very useful, considering the typical April showery weather on the test route.
Move inside and despite the lack of rear seats and the lower roof line, the dashboard and trim will be familar to all current Clubman, convertible and hatch owners.
Don't worry, if you're a tall MINI fan like me, there's still enough headroom even with the roof up.
Losing the rear seats gives the Roadster a surprisingly big and practical boot. The 240 litre space also features a useful lockable through-load function. Which on top of securing items in the boot, it means the load area can also be extended.
Available in Cooper, Cooper S, Cooper SD and John Cooper Works versions, prices start at £18,020.
We had the chance to drive Cooper S and Cooper SD versions of the Roadster.
First up was the 184bhp Cooper S, which is powered by the turbocharged 1.6-litre, four-cylinder petrol. A serious performer especially in Sport mode, the lack of a roof means you hear more of the crackles and pops from the exhaust.
Top speed for the Cooper S Roadster is 141mph, with the dash to 60mph covered in 7 seconds. Despite the performance, the S is still capable of 47.1mpg on the combined cycle and has Co2 emissions of 139g/km.
The 143bhp Cooper SD is powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine. Besides being the biggest engine to be fitted in a MINI, it also has the most torque at 305Nm, beating even the range-topping John Cooper Works model.
This engine doesn't feel as striking as the Roadster's looks. Best described as pokey, we found ourselves using the slick six-speed manual and accelerator more than perhaps we did in the petrol version of the S.
It gets quite vocal too when revved, but the resulting performance figures are pretty impressive. The dash to 60mph is covered in 8.1 seconds, with a top speed of 132mph and all with Co2 emissions of just 118g/km.
MINI are making great claims for the Roadster's bespoke chassis set-up and the stiffer bodyshell, but initially we struggled to notice any differences over the jiggly Roadster. However, after driving both of these Cooper S Roadster versions back to back, the differences became more obvious.
The bespoke spring and damper settings, plus the thicker anti-rollbars on both models, we don't think works well with the Roadster's lack of roof. Yes, it equals a sharper handling and turning MINI, but with the stiffness comes some body shimmy and scuttle shake which is unsettling on bumpy roads.
The other major issue we have with the MINI Roadster is with the rear and three-quarter visibility, especially with the hood up. The roof's rear window is small and when the rear spoiler extends past 50mph the rear view is almost totally obscured.
More worrying though is the poor rear three-quarter vision. As we said, the rear screen is small and almost totally obsured when the spoiler opens. Add those chromed rollover hoops and your rear vision is severely limited.
So as an owner of the first two-seater MINI, the mad John Cooper Works GP, would we buy the new Roadster MINI? We could be tempted, as we believe the two-seater MINI concept works better in Roadster form and looks great. Our only worry would be the driving experience could be too compromised for the UK's rough tarmac when compared to the MX-5 and TT Roadster.