A Roadster with a diesel engine? Jonathan Crouch reports on MINI's Roadster Cooper SD.
Ten Second Review
Yet another twist on the MINI theme, the Rakish Roadster is based on the Coupe model and offers two seats and a whole lot of fun. Yes, MINI already makes a convertible model but this one is a bit cheekier and slots into a market that should be receptive to just such a thing - at least in petrol form. But with a diesel engine? Will that be a step too far for buyers in this sector?
Convertible buyers must be customers of very subtle taste. How else to explain the existence of MINI's latest offering, the Roadster. With a MINI Convertible already on sale, is there really a demand for a soft top of slightly different dimensions? It does without the vestigial rear seats of the Convertible, instead delivering a more overtly sporting look and feel. It's claimed to compete with cars like the Mazda MX-5, but lacks that model's rear-wheel drive purity. Nevertheless, it's based on the MINI Coupe which was quite a hoot to drive, so it should deliver something for the keen driver. Even in the 143bhp SD diesel form we're looking at here.
You don't expect to turn the key of something like his and hear a diesel engine beneath the bonnet. The unit in question is the same 143bhp 2.0-litre turbo powerplant used elsewhere in the MINI line-up and once you get underway, many of your doubts are banished. Sixty takes 8.1s on the way to 132mph but of greater import is the 305NM of torque that makes this such a potent overtaking tool. MINI claims the Roadster generates a "go-kart feeling" on the road, and highlights the vehicle's stiffened bodyshell and canvas roof which helps to further lower the centre of gravity. There's also the offer of sports suspension but having tried this on the Coupe, I'd probably counsel against it on typically scabby British B-roads, especially with a slightly less stiff open-top chassis. Owners also get a rear spoiler that pops up above 50mph, speed sensitive power steering and a Sport button which gives the steering more heft and also means a sharper throttle response. This car is more of a likeable travelling companion than you might expect over longer distances. Top-up, refinement's quite acceptable, unless it's pouring and the rain's pattering down on the thin single-skin roof. Still, you'd tend to forgive a real sportscar things like that. And in this Roadster, we have at last, a real sportscar. That's also a real MINI.
Design and Build
If you didn't care for the rather divisive styling of the MINI Coupe, you might find the Roadster a little more to your liking. The 13 degrees of increased rake in the windscreen lends the car a sleeker look, especially when the roof's down. Even with the fabric roof in place, it's not a bad looker, although if you've been weaned on roadsters with long bonnets and feline silhouettes, you'll still probably find this rather sit up and beg. Where the MINI Roadster does score, somewhat unexpectedly, is in terms of practicality. Granted, there are no rear seats, but the boot is fairly generous 240 litres and when coupled with the low boot sill it results in a car where you can travel with more than just a credit card and wash kit. Build quality is as you'd expect from MINI, with chunky toggle switches and endless scope for personalisation. Choose the right colour, trim and wheels and it can look very special. Get it wrong and there's the ability to make the Roadster look rather clumsy. The chrome rollover hoops are a very nice touch, as is the ski hatch which allows you to poke longer items through from the boot to the cabin. When the hood's folded it sits under its own neat tonneau behind the rollover hoops. The mesh wind protector that slots between the rollover hoops looks rather flimsy and unlike some roadsters where the hood mechanism is fully automated, in the MINI, you'll still need to operate a fairly hefty latch at the windscreen header rail.
Market and Model
The launch of a new MINI variant usually follows a set pattern. Said car arrives, industry commentators sniff about how it'll never sell and then they fly out of dealerships as if a recession had never happened to its rosy-cheeked customers. The Roadster looks set to be no different, with healthy advance interest already registered. It's heartening that MINI has decided to fit the most powerful engines at its disposal to the car as well. Drop tops should be all about fun and you'd need ice in your veins not to enjoy a Roadster, even in SD diesel guise. You'll need a budget of just under £22,000 for this car, a figure that represents a premium of around £500 over the standard petrol Cooper S model with its 184bhp. Sounds fair enough. The options list is, however, even more tempting and it's doubtful that too many MINI Roadster SD models will roll out of showrooms costing less than £23,500. That's something you'll need to make a hard hearted calculation over when it comes to calculating the resale value and, therefore, cost of ownership. Standard equipment includes electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors, rear parking sensors, air-conditioning, an MP3-compatible CD player, digital radio and AUX-in connections for your MP3 player. Safety kit comprises front and head/thorax airbags, those polished stainless steel roll-over bars and the usual complement of stability control and brake assist systems.
Cost of Ownership
Being part of the BMW group means that quite brain-scrambling efficiency is part and parcel of MINI's attraction. Whereas BMW packages this up as EfficientDynamics, MINI calls it MINIMALISM. The Cooper Roadster uses variable valve timing and a whole host of other engineering tricks to achieve a combined fuel economy figure that tops 50mpg. The Cooper SD does better still, with 60mpg attainable if you're careful with the throttle pedal. Sub 120g/km emissions will also attract business buyers who want a good looking car without a big tax bill. Insurance is fairly reasonable, although it will pay to shop around for a decent quote as some insurers have taken to loading MINI Cooper quotes rather unreasonably. Servicing is an area where the MINI excels as the ground-breaking MINI tlc service pack for 5 years or 50,000 miles is still available.
The MINI Roadster might just be a more likeable car than its Coupe sibling and it's surprisingly likeable in SD diesel guise. Whereas the Coupe version of this model rather struggles to justify its existence, the Roadster is an unashamed feel-good experience where the very last few per cent of its dynamic envelope are, to most target customers, broadly an irrelevance. So it doesn't matter too much that it might not have the most aggressive limited slip differential or the stickiest tyres. They'll care more about the fact that it looks good, it's fun to drive and it's just an extremely covetable ownership proposition. Throw back the hood on a sunny day and you'll wonder what can come close. In short, not a whole lot. When it comes to modestly priced open cars that drive well, the market isn't exactly swollen with talent. There's the evergreen Mazda MX-5 and then you'll need to step up to cars like the Audi TT Roadster. And neither is offered with diesel power. If you're shopping in this sector then, this is one car you'll need to try.