MINI's search for exploitable market niches shows no sign of letting up. Say hello to the Roadster. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
At last MINI has built us a proper sportscar. The rakish Roadster is based on the Coupe model, offering two seats and a whole lot of fresh air fun. It targets Mazda's MX-5 with a more sophisticated, up to date and efficient package. Will it appeal beyond traditional MINI customers though? To succeed, it will need to.
Whatever you think about MINI, you can't deny that it's bought a spark to the small car market. Something much needed in a segment now a shadow of its former self, that of affordable Roadsters. Once, this sector hosted all manner of makers - Alfa Romeo, Toyota, Renault, Fiat - all trying to emulate the purist appeal of the two cars that best encapsulate the Roadster concept in the minds of modernday motorists tempted towards it. Mazda's MX-5 for those needing everyday transport. Lotus' Elise for those with something more practical in the garage. Today, unless you're prepared to consider something as outlandish as a Caterham 7, only these two cars remain, extremes in what is a pretty extreme kind of market. But what if you could have a bit of both, along with an added dash of MINI magic? Something like this, the MINI Roadster. Here then, is the sixth different MINI bodystyle, following Hatch, Convertible, Clubman estate, Countryman five-door and Coupe. And it's the Coupe that's made this variant possible, donating all the underpinnings that make this Roadster quite a different proposition from the standard MINI Convertible. As focused as a Lotus, yet a car that you could use every day if you needed to. A bit of fun in a world that sorely needs it. And a car we're going to put to the test.
A Roadster should be a more involving thing than a simple convertible. You don't, after all, make something into a sportscar just by chopping the top off it. And a MINI Convertible isn't, by any stretch, a sportscar, even in its most powerful forms. This is. And all the reasons why are reasons why MINI Convertible customers won't like it. The sharper, dartier steering, the much firmer ride, the acute angle of the windscreen and the way its header rail is positioned close to your head. Heck, even the lack of rear seats. All of this is exactly as it should be, both to position this Roadster MINI as a model in its own right and to pitch it as a credible alternative to an MX-5 or an Elise. All derivatives have 'Cooper' badges in homage to John Cooper, legendary F1 designer, which means that petrol power is provided by the usual BMW-developed, British-built 1.6 in normally aspirated 122bhp form and turbocharged 184 and 211bhp trim. The fastest version has 'John Cooper Works' badging, but even the much more affordable Cooper S version manages 7.0s and 141mph, while the entry-level Cooper model that will mop up most sales delivers 9.2s and 124mph. As every performance person knows though, torque - pulling power - has far more to do with real world speed than 0-60 stats and for this, the Roadster king of the range is the 2.0-litre 143bhp SD diesel version which has 305Nm of it, enough to steam to sixty in 8.1s on the way to 132mph.
Design and Build
This certainly won't be the sleekest-looking car of its kind you've ever seen, but the 13-degrees of increased rake in the windscreen does lend it a racier look, especially when the roof's down, with a waistline that rises gently along the body length towards the strikingly stepped rear end that makes reverse parking so awkward. Not as awkward, it must be said, as it is on a MINI Convertible, for in this case the roof folds in lower, flush with the rear deck and snug below its own integrated tonneau cover, rather than concertinaing back and sitting stacked on the rear end like a pram's hood as it does on the Convertible. Despite all this, over the shoulder rearward visibility still isn't the best - but then roadsters were never meant to be perfectly practical, as you'll discover upon seating yourself inside where you'll find that the racier angle of the windscreen leaves the header rail positioned rather closer to your head than you might ideally like. The thickness of this rail might also be an issue for taller drivers, but it's necessary in order to secure the latching mechanism for the single-skin canvas roof. At the onset of inclement weather, you simply press the button that will raise the fabric top in just five seconds. That's ten seconds quicker than the MIN Convertible can manage, but in this case, you do have to manually complete the process at the end by clicking the latch into place. Hood up, you've a roofline that's 20mm lower than that of the ordinary soft-topped MINI but getting in and out is still relatively easy.
Market and Model
Expect to pay somewhere in the £18,000 to £25,000 bracket for your MINI Roadster. To put that into perspective, you're talking there about a premium somewhere between £1,000 and £1,300 over the MINI Coupe model upon which this car is based. Whichever MINI Roadster model you choose, you should find most of the basic equipment items you'd expect. Things like alloy wheels, air conditioning and MP3-compatible CD stereo with a DAB radio and an AUX-in connection, power heated mirrors and rear parking sensors that'll come in very useful given the limited rearward visibility this bodyshape provides when trying to slot into a tight space. Safety kit includes the usual electronic assistance for stability traction and braking, plus stainless steel rollover bars and twin front and head thorax airbags. But of course, your dealer will hope this to be just the starting point for a far-reaching foray into the options list. To be fair, you're probably going to struggle to sell this car on unless you equip it with at least a few extra-cost must-haves. Here, I'd single out the eight-year fixed-priced servicing package, heated seats and the Chili Pack. Chili spec includes the sports seats, the wind deflector and the extended storage this car shouldn't be without as well as most of the special stuff you'll want like smarter alloy wheels, Bi-Xenon headlights, front foglamps, a trip computer, a multifunction steering wheel and Bluetooth compatibility for your mobile 'phone.
Cost of Ownership
MINI's MINIMALISM efficiency package ensures that this Roadster will remain as affordable as any car of this kind should be to run. Thanks to things like Brake Energy Regeneration, electric power steering that draws nothing from the engine in the straight-ahead position, a needs-based operation of ancillary components and, most importantly, an Auto Start/Stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights, the running cost figures are able to better those of a rival Mazda MX-5 by over 20%. If you want specifics, then you'll find this Roadster in 122PS Cooper guise able to deliver 49.6mpg on the combined cycle and 133g/km of CO2. Figures hardly affected by re-tuning this engine to 184PS in the Cooper S variant, a car which delivers 47.1mpg and 139g/km. For a tempting balance of power with parsimony, the 143PS Cooper SD will take some beating, able to serve up your Roadster thrills while returning 62.8mpg on the combined cycle and 118g/km of CO2. A gear shift indicator on the dash should help owners get somewhere near these kinds of returns on a day-to-day basis. A word of warning though: specifying the 6-speed automatic gearbox will hit these figures by around 15%.
When it comes to affordable open-topped sportscars that drive well and are usable every day, the market isn't exactly swollen with talent. There's the evergreen Mazda MX-5, but beyond that, you'll need to step up to much pricier cars like the Audi TT Roadster. Slotting in between these two is an open goal that this MINI surely can't miss. A little more extreme than an MX-5. A little easier to own - and much more affordable - than a Lotus Elise, this MINI Roadster has been extremely carefully targeted, with a very different appeal to any of the brand's previous soft-top models. Buying one will be an unashamed indulgence, as the purchase of any sportscar should be, the beginning of a driving experience that promises fun without too many hard core compromises. It's the MINI method of sportscar ownership. And you can see why many in this market are going to like it.