Just like it’s Munich-based parent, MINI is a manufacturer that’s expanded its range to cover niches that most people would never have even dreamed of. The Mini Roadster is just one of those niches – it’s a convertible version of the MINI Coupe and mustn’t be confused with the MINI Convertible that is a topless version of the MINI Hatch. The Coupe, if you didn’t know, is a two-seater version of the MINI Hatch with a lower roofline, while the Roadster lops off that fixed roof and replaces it with an electrically folding soft top.
This is the hottest Roadster of the bunch, the John Cooper Works edition. The 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine has been tinkered with to produce 211hp, a healthy increase of 27hp over the Cooper S that uses the same engine layout. The Roadster sits lower on stiffer springs and 18-inch wheels fill the arches with barely an inch to spare. Complete with optional stripes the Roadster looks like it means business, even if the use of the MINI name is pushing the boundaries of acceptability under the Trade Descriptions Act.
Slot the round keyfob into the dash to start the engine and you’re treated to a gruff idle and burbly exhaust that hints at the tuning work that’s been done. The engine spins freely and seems to thrive in the upper reaches of the rev counter, complemented by a lovely little gearstick that eagerly snicks from gear to gear. The MINI is a quick little car and with the roof down you can really enjoy the snarl from the exhaust and the pops and bangs on the overrun.
Through corners the Roadster darts from apex to apex with great alacrity, almost as if it’s reading your mind and knows exactly when you’re about to start turning the alcantara-lined steering wheel. There’s no slack in its responses and it feels like you could take it by the scruff of the neck and chuck it about all day.
Sometimes it is said that less is more but in this case less suspension travel does not mean more speed, as I found when I drove the JCW roadster down the same stretch of back roads on which I had earlier driven the Ford Focus ST and BMW M135i. Both of those cars handled the undulating and crumbling tarmac with ease but in the JCW I found myself backing off the throttle. The JCW was bucking and weaving about and felt nervous, edgy and nowhere near as happy as it had felt on the main roads and roundabouts. It’s a great example of how a stiff ride may be great on fresh tarmac but can actually work against a car on bad surfaces. Through fast corners the JCW’s unsettled chassis sapped my confidence.
The MINI could also do with a little less style and a bit more substance. Take the speedometer as an example. The large circular dial sits to the left of the driver in the middle of the dash with a red needle that works its way around the outer edge. At first glance it looks great but the problem is that it’s impossible to read when you’re on the move and the token digital speedo in the middle of the instrument cluster is only a slight improvement.
The choice of roof mechanism is a bit of a mystery too. Like most convertibles these days it is electrically powered but lets itself down by requiring you to lock and unlock it with a twist of a handle mounted above the rear-view mirror. MINI should either make it all-electric or, even better, make it a simple manual roof that could be unlocked and pushed back in a couple of seconds, just like the original Mazda MX5. Less complex, lighter and cheaper but would MINI’s target market be put off if they thought they weren’t getting that all-important electric roof?
There is no doubt that the MINI John Cooper Works Roadster is an exciting little car. Quick and nimble with the added thrill of open-top motoring. However, unless you only ever drive on motorways or the smoothest of very smooth roads the stiff suspension starts to work against it. I suspect the Cooper S version of the Roadster would make a better bet for daily driving – slightly softer, not that much slower and saving you almost £4,000. In this case less is more.
MINI John Cooper Works Roadster Specification
|Engine:||1,598cc 4-cylinder Turbo|
|Torque:||260 Nm (280Nm with overboost)|
|Top Speed:||147 mph|
|CO2 Emissions:||169g/km (Band G)|
*Price taken from MINI website, October 2012