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The Mini Roadster is punchy, practical and fun, but no match for a proper sporting roadster

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The Roadster’s closest relative is the Coupé, a car with which it shares practically everything. Both models owe a debt to the original Mini Convertible, which demonstrated demand for non-hatchback Minis in 2004.

Despite the styling confectionery on top, the new models are a legacy of much the same underpinnings. BMW might suggest that the Roadster’s lineage is older still, pointing to the topless Moke and even the two-seat Mini Marcos as influences, but such claims are tenuous at best.

One-dimensional to drive, but a desirable class entrant all the same

The affordable roadster would, in a perfect world, be at the cornerstone of the automotive experience. Cheap to buy, cheap to run, nice to look at and – with the added drama of open air – great to drive. Unfortunately, the world is not perfect. For practical, sensible reasons, the buying public largely shuns small, purpose-built roadsters in favour of a sludge-grey montage of cheaper, more accommodating beheaded hatchbacks and casually cropped superminis. It’s disheartening proof that the market at large values other things. 

Into that context, the Mini Roadster, a spin-off model literally flattened by the expectant weight of BMW’s ambitious growth projections for the Mini brand, looks like it might be a breath of fresh air. There’s little original about the car but, as the manufacturer has proven with the Mini Coupé, it’s capable of transplanting thrills from its market-proven blueprint into new segments.

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It has been more than a decade since the ‘new’ Mini kick-started a revolution in ‘premium’ small car design. Can it ignite a similar spark now in two-seat roadster segment?

DESIGN & STYLING

Mini Roadster rear spoiler

Move along, move along, there’s nothing to see here… At least, from an engineering standpoint and apart from the roof, there is not a great deal beneath the unusual surface of the Mini Roadster that you will not have experienced elsewhere within the Mini range.

Like the Mini Coupé, which made its debut last year, the Roadster is ostensibly based on the four-seat Mini Convertible. However, unlike the Coupé – which possesses the stiffest bodyshell in the Mini range by dint of having the same extra rear stiffening as the Roadster but also a solid roof to hold everything together – the Mini Roadster lies somewhere between the two in terms of torsional rigidity. 

At the rear, there’s a strengthening bulkhead to retain some body rigidity

Along with the Coupé, the Roadster’s footprint mimics that of the Convertible. At 3734mm long and just 1683mm wide, it’s a dinky car, but it also has a relatively long wheelbase (given the car’s overall length) of 2467mm. It is 20mm lower than the Convertible, though, because it has a more steeply raked windscreen.

Other than that, the make-up of the Roadster is the same as you’ll find elsewhere in the Mini range. That means there are MacPherson struts at the front, a multi-link set-up for the rear suspension and the same range of four-cylinder petrol and diesel motors sited transversely at the front and powering the front wheels. Our test car is the Cooper S model, whose 1598cc turbo petrol engine produces 182bhp and 177lb ft of torque.

INTERIOR

Mini Roadster dashboard

Perhaps a little unfairly, one of the defining characteristics of our Mini Roadster experience was noise. Not the steady clamour of the engine or the rushing slipstream of the passing air, but the crashing tumult of rain and hail on the fabric roof.

Presumably, it was cost and packaging limitations that restricted the hood to a single skin (most are now double or even triple insulated) and had our test been carried out in warmer weather, we might not have noticed. But in poor conditions the Roadster’s lid is as sonically conductive as a cloth drum.

The pop-up rear spoiler can be adjusted via a switch in the cabin

That may well be an issue for some, given the UK’s wet winters, but it’s hard to bear a grudge once the sun comes out. The hood is power assisted and reveals the heavens in just five seconds once a stiff manual locking mechanism has been negotiated. There’s no cover and, given its simplicity, not much requirement for roof storage space, so the Mini retains an admirably proportioned boot.

Even with the roof up, however, the Mini’s cabin doesn’t feel at all cramped. Although a lower seat squab would be better for tall drivers, there’s plenty of headroom under the exposed metalwork and maximum legroom extends to 1100mm.

The Roadster is spacious, then, but it is still undeniably a Mini inside. BMW has barely altered the internal architecture, so if you liked the original Mini’s slightly caricatured cabin in 2001, you’ll probably like this one.

For our money, it still strains a little too hard for its brand of retro chic (an opinion that feels all the more relevant when it’s exposed to sunlight and passing pedestrians are allowed to judge), but it’s all put together with the usual high quality of materials and attention to detail.

As standard, the Roadster is a little spartan, but add the optional Chili Pack and Media Pack and it positively bristles with desirable equipment.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mini Roadster rear quarter

There's a familiar feel to the engine line-up in the Mini Roadster range, shared as they are with the Coupe.

The Cooper kicks off the range. Its 122bhp and 118lb ft is enough to haul the Roadster from zero to 62mph in 9.2sec. That means its no rocketship, but given the likelihood of it being bought by those happy enough to cruise rather than thrash, it seems like a fair amount of poke.

Our acceleration times were wide of Mini's claims

The 182bhp turbocharged 1.6-litre engine you’ll find in the current Cooper S is a greatly underrated powerplant. Developed jointly by BMW and Peugeot-Citroën, the motor is flexible and forceful and seems to deliver more in the way of vim and vigour to Mini’s Cooper S-branded cars than to almost any Peugeot or Citroën.

The Cooper S Roadster, in particular, should sprint to 62mph in 7.0sec (more on that in a minute) and top out at 141mph – figures that eclipse those of even the segment-defining Mazda MX-5.

On the road, the fountainhead of the engine’s appeal is the 177lb ft of torque that appears at 1600rpm and, thanks to the heady whoosh of the twin-scroll turbocharger, remains nailed firmly at that peak until 5000rpm. An overboost function can even temporarily push this to 192lb ft for a few seconds at full throttle. This makes the Mini not only quick but also very tractable from low revs.

Leave the nifty six-speed manual ’box in its fifth ratio at 20mph and it will still drag you to 40mph in 7.7sec – some 5.2sec quicker than the smaller, lighter Fiat 500 Abarth can manage.

The performance stakes are raised further with the JCW, which sees power increased to 211bhp and 192lb ft - with 206lb ft available through the overboost function. It shaves 1.2sec off the Cooper S' 0-62mph time and adds 6mph on the top end.

Off the mark, the Roadster is slightly less impressive. The car displays a certain shortage of traction at the front axle that can make wheelspin a problem, echoing a tendency of the John Cooper Works Coupé that we performance tested last year.

Our test car also suffered from an inexplicably sticky clutch pedal. Combined, those problems explain why our timed runs to 60mph in the Cooper S ended up 1.1sec adrift of the manufacturer’s claim to 62mph. The sticky clutch also had an effect on the car’s lap times. 

In day-to-day use, however, the engine is never less than obligingly zesty and potent, and it gives the Mini Roadster generous real-world pace.

From our experiences with the 2.0-litre diesel in other Cooper SD variants, it is unlikely to be the best match for the Roadster’s quite boisterous character. Its torque-laden engine encourages a relaxed driving style with few gearchanges, slightly at odds with the sporting bent of the Roadster, Moreover, the BMW-sourced powerplant is not the most refined, a characteristic that will only be exacerbated by the lack of a proper roof.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mini Roadster cornering

The Mini Roadster holds few surprises for those familiar with the ‘new’ Mini brand’s dynamic precedent – something that can be considered both good news and bad, depending on your particular perspective.

Cowley’s infamous ‘kart-like’ handling character is 100 percent alive and well here, despite the structural compromise associated with lopping off a good portion of the body-in-white.

Almost entirely free of the handling compromises usually imposed on superminis subjected to a roofless conversion

The usual fast-paced steering rack, razor-sharp off-centre steering response and almost total lack of body roll characterise this car’s driving experience as vividly as a slapstick comedy routine. It changes direction with gleeful zeal, seems to generate abundant lateral grip and generally gives the impression that, on the right road at least, its capacity to amuse would be huge.

That impression is a conceit, of course – as our track handling tests ultimately proved – but, from a convertible, the existence of this impression in the first place seems a significant achievement.

However, while the car’s hyperactive, ever-eager-to-please temperament will put a smile on your face to begin with, it can seem a bit one-dimensional after extended use. Once you get over the sheer incisiveness of the Mini’s steering, for example, it can actually become a barrier to your enjoyment, encouraging you to overwork the front wheels and disrupting front-end grip on slippery surfaces. The car’s chassis tune is taut enough to send shudders and quakes through the body over even medium-sized bumps, and both bump steer and torque steer can make their presence felt over less than smooth A-roads and B-roads tackled with a bit of commitment.

There’s no question: this isn’t a refined enough car for an average driver to use every day, and nor is it the last word in dynamic subtlety or finesse. As a word, it wouldn’t even appear in the last sentence on that particular subject. But it’s definitely a more thrilling machine than the standard Mini Convertible, and in its own slightly contrived way – enjoyed perhaps once rather than five or six times a week, on a well chosen route – it certainly entertains better than most compact drop-tops.

Moreover, if you find the fuel economy benefits outweigh its slightly clattery nature, the Cooper SD delivers a similar driving experience. With the hatch version only 10kg heavier than the petrol S, there was little discernible difference between the driving characteristics of the two. We would expect the same from the Roadster.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mini Roadster

As with all Minis, the entry point to the Roadster doesn’t come cheap, with a pre-options price of more than £19,000 that is perilously easy to add to with very little effort at all. In fact, some might suggest that a modern Mini without options is no Mini at all; certainly, it’ll be more difficult to resell one without a few desirable add-ons.

Still, for all the performance, this is a small car with a relatively efficient engine, so you should expect to better the fuel economy we averaged, which included a day’s hard use at our test track. Of course, if you desire greater efficiency from your Roadster, the lower-powered models will deliver. The Cooper delivers a claimed fuel consumption figure of nearly 50mpg (49.6) whilst the Cooper SD should deliver 62.8mpg. However, in our long-term experience of an SD hatch, a real world figure in the high 40s is probably more likely.

You’ll do well to get out of the showroom without spending thousands on options. Chili Pack, heated seats and eight-year fixed-price servicing are all must-haves

Residuals should be fine, too. This will be one of the slower-selling new Minis, so values should hold firm due to its scarcity on the used market in the months and years to come. The Roadster is predicted to retain a 14 percent advantage on showroom price over a Mazda MX-5 after three years.

Unlike with more humdrum Minis, we suppose it’s easier to justify the Roadster’s premium tag when you consider its natural rivals, like the MX-5, are equally or more highly priced specialist drop-tops

VERDICT

3.5 star Mini Roadster

From the purist’s point of view, it’s a little too easy to dismiss the Mini Roadster.

Why? Because, in our eyes at least, the similar-priced and dynamically peachy Mazda MX-5 simply towers above it in the desirability stakes.

The Audi TT gets our nod ahead of the Roadster

However, in a number of important ways it is more than a match for the Mazda. The Mini is the newer car and looks rather novel. It is also better finished, well equipped, much better appointed and far quicker in the real world. 

But it feels contrived next to the handling perfection of the Mazda. The car’s darting agility seems artificial and overbearing at times – a piece of engineering sleight of hand rather than one component part of a balanced dynamic repertoire.

The Mini Roadster is fun to drive in its own way and a thoroughly impressive product in broad terms, but it’s mainly because of a dearth of really sporting, affordable, mass-market two-seaters that it places second in our class top five.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Mini Roadster 2012-2015 First drives