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Mini Roadster Cooper S driven

Driven April 2012

Mini Roadster Cooper S driven
This is a good day. The sun's shining, the air pleasingly temperate. A keen little roadster is no more or less of a car than I want or need. Only two seats, but that's enough today. It's no supercar, but it is, to use that awful phrase, as fast as conditions allow. (And then some.) The roads are winding and inviting but narrow and a bit bumpy, so I'm happy this isn't a low or wide machine. The countryside is lovely, and the smells are of early spring. On the surface then, living the dream. But it's not a dream that features in many people's consciousness.

If something is scarce, is that because it's exclusive or because it's a failure? Take a small hatch-derived two-seat roadster. The Renault Wind has just parped its last - they've withdrawn it from the UK for lack of interest. The days of the Ford StreetKa and Fiat Barchetta are well behind us. Anyone remember the Honda CRX del Sol? As a rule, these little cars don't succeed.

But, generally, the BMW-Mini group has the knack of going where others can't, and people lap it up. There have been exceptions - can't remember my last sighting of a 5-Series GT, and the Mini Clubman isn't exactly thick on the ground - but if you were to bet on any company successfully venturing into a segment where others fail, you'd bet on this team.

So what's a Mini Roadster? While some Minis are obliquely named (like the Paceman), this one is clear. It's a Mini with two seats and a simple ragtop. Except for more prominent plastic lower spoilers and sills, the front half of the bodywork is exactly as per the regular hatch or the four-seat Convertible, for that matter. The rear end and the steeply raked windscreen are shared with the new two-seat Coupe. So you read that right: the Mini hatch has spawned two different convertibles, a four-seater and this two-seater. And the one isn't a replacement for the other. They'll continue in parallel.

This makes a heck of a lot of Minis. Hatch, Convertible, Clubman, Coupe, Roadster. (Never mind the taller ones - the Countryman and, later this year, its spin-off, the crossover-coupe Paceman.) It takes a trained eye to spot the difference between all these Minis. And, by the same token, I'm not going to come up with any surprises as to how this one behaves. It's largely a matter of nuance.

Without a back seat, there's a place for extra bracing metal across the car behind the seats, stiffening the shell. It also retains the bolstered sills of the Convertible. But you can still see the reflection in the rear-view mirror blurring over bumpy roads. The body, then, is rigid enough, rather than rigid.

A pop-up spoiler on top of the bootlid is there to keep things straight at speed. Well, if it isn't that that's doing it, something is, because it doesn't wander. Roof down, the in-cockpit aero is another success. At motorway speed, you can still hear the stereo, and your head doesn't get jellied by turbulence. The heater and the cheek-fryingly effective seat-heaters can do their work. The laid-back windscreen might be good for aero and style, but it brings the screen pillars close to your head and turns them into significant obstructions to your vision. Still, the view backward is better than in a Convertible because the roof tucks away flat. Big style bonus there: after all, the Convertible looks a bit of a pram. The Roadster's roof itself is a simple single-layer canvas job, with its frame bars visible inside. So what? It's very well sealed. And it operates electrically as standard.

I'm in a Cooper S on 16-inch wheels. That's enough. The extra power of the JCW - or the unforgiving nature of wider and lower-profile tyres on, say, 18s - wouldn't suit. Not with these lumpy roads, anyway. There's already torque steer when you nail it. As with the Coupe, a slightly stiffened suspension is supposed to mean ‘sporty handling', but, in the Roadster's case, it can't make up for the body twist, which costs precision.

Even so, you can enjoy corners - it understeers a bit, but is sensitive to the accelerator and tucks in energetically when you lift. You feel what it's up to through the seat not your hands, as - like all R56-generation Minis - the wheel is quick and accurate but numb. The torque steer, the occasional clonk from the suspension, the unsettled ride and the numb steering are all reminders that the Mini is getting on a bit and the all-new hatchback is due in just a year.

Despite these dynamic setbacks, you can have fun with it. Get the new 184bhp engine on boost, wind some revs into it, and you're propelled by a wave of exertion. It's easy to get the best out of a Mini, because it tells you what it's doing.

But what it is not is a sports roadster. And here we come to the big elephant in the corner of the room, waiting to squat on and crush every little front-drive convertible. It's the Mazda MX-5. Because this is a Mini, you don't sit low and snug. You aren't over the back wheels, and there isn't a long bonnet ahead of you. It doesn't have the steering purity of a rear-driver, or the slickness of gearchange. The Mazda is simply more special. The Mini feels like the last Mini you drove.

But that's the deal. It wraps you in the mental comfort blanket that Mini means. And, yes, there are Minis everywhere, but - look at me! - this one's a two-seater... it's a statement of individuality for conformists. Baby steps to freedom.

Paul Horrell

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