First Drive: 2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster
...is Not What it Appears to Be
The first thing I do when I encounter a new car like the 2012 MINI Cooper S Roadster on a press junket is to quickly walk around it. It's a circling instinct I can't explain, but the rapid laps create a kind of whirlwind notion of the car's essence before any one detail can distract from its essence.
So you can imagine how my eyes twirled as I walked out of the Hotel Penha Longa into the brisk morning air of Lisbon, Portugal, and straight into 20 identical examples of the new 2012 Mini Roadster. All of them were identical Cooper S Roadsters with 6-speed manual gearboxes, but there's no time for specifications now.
Time to start circling. And begin my stream-of-consciousness mutterings: "Very small car...looks like a Bulldog... huff, huff, huff...way better looking than the Coupe it's based on...huff, huff...those twin roll hoops behind the seats make it look like an Audi TT squished in a vise." I stopped.
I have an inkling now. But after being handled the keys and climbing in I'd see if my hunch was right. With a barrapp from the exhaust and a rise of the clutch foot, we're off.
The shifter moves oily from gate to gate. The engine's note sweetly glissandos from bass to tremble at redline. The wind is tugging the bill of my baseball cap but not enough to lift it off. Rrrumm, rrumm, a couple of downshifts into a hairpin now, as rolling green hills blur by on my left and a vista sweeps down to the crashing surf on my right. The steering wheel flirtatiously trembles in my fingers.
No, this isn't a two seat, passenger-abbreviated Mini Convertible at all. No, no. It's a sports car. An affordable British sports car. An, oh-my-goodness, affordable British sports car. The sort of thing that had gone the way of the Dodo when the moth-eaten curtain fell on the MGB and Triumph TR6 about two hundred years ago.
Of course there are still a handful of British sports cars available. Aston Martin makes a very nice $131,650, V8 Vantage Convertible, and the McLaren MP4-12C is perfectly astounding. Particularly in that it costs $229,000. The Cooper S I'm driving costs $28,050 including the destination charge -- which is a hell of a lot more like it. Maybe I'm hopelessly buried in the 99 percent, but I don't have a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or even an enemy who could afford an Aston Martin or McLaren. The Cooper S is bookended by the even cheaper base, 121-hp Cooper at $24,050, and on the other, by the wicked 208-hp JCW version at $35,200. And while I know we're supposed to embrace the cyborg British sports car that's the Mazda MX-5 Miata in these situations, there's something right-feeling about knowing that the blokes who spannered your British sports car together actually are blokes, actually in England, who, when the day's done, actually down a pint of Guinness instead of half a liter of Sapporo.
The Cooper S I drove offers 181 hp from its twin-scroll turbocharged, 1598-cc, 4-valve per cylinder Valvetronic aspiration. Plenty enough to scoot the Roadster at a rate that would twirl the tweed caps of those MG and Triumph drivers. And, while I've become a cold-hearted proponent of dual-clutch paddle shifting, this quaint old manual stick thing protruding from the floor is well worth stirring. Structurally, the Roadster's windshield frame -- which, like the Coupe's is rakishly inclined 13 degrees beyond the Convertible's starchy uprightness -- has been reinforced, and there's also the expected stiffening behind the seats.
On the road, the Roadster exhibits a slight amount of chassis flutter, so it's stiff indeed. Consequently, when you angle the steering wheel into a corner -- while there's a bit of body roll -- the car pivots with lovely precision, and there's so little torque steer exiting it would be better to call torque 'presence.' It doesn't interfere at all. We'll have to wait until we can get the car on our figure-eight course to explore its absolute limits, but I'd reckon it'll understeer pretty strongly when you saturate its tire's grip. A better car for spirited driving than wild-eyed flogging, in other words. We'd estimate its 0-60 mph run to be 6.9 seconds for the manual transmission, and 7.1 for auto. Beyond 50 mph, a tiny rear wing rises for aerodynamic stability. At 50 mph. OK, that's silly.
Now, I know you're probably yowling that it isn't a real British sports car because it has front-wheel drive and the whole enterprise is lorded (baroned?) over by Germans. Points taken.
But as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, you know it when you see it. And here, I feel this car's sports car identity, too.
Why am I so certain? The last key ingredient: the top, which, up or down absorbs no additional space from the usefully sized (8.5 cu ft), four-hinge trunk (which includes a pass-through port for longer items).
With the lid up, outward vision isn't great, but headroom is. A twist of a latch releases the header and the top smoothly collapses. Gee, just felt a sprinkle? I was able to reach back with my left hand, press the top release button, and pull the assembly right back into latching position. I'll admit it wasn't easy, but I could do it, helped by the wind blocker's folding screen-mesh giving my hand access. Yes, the optional, $750 powered top can erect the lid in about 8 seconds (and while traveling at up to 30 mph, even), but where's the adventure in that? A good sports car must allow you to do this while seated, and the MINI Cooper S Roadster did.
A tip of the tweed cap, 'ol boy.
|2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster|
|Engine||1.6L/181-hp/177-lb-ft DOHC turbocharged 4-cyl|
|Curb weight||2620 lb (mfr)|
|Length x width x height||147.0 x 66.3 x 54.7 in|
|0-60 mph||6.9 sec. (MT est.)|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ||27/35 mpg|
|Energy cons., city/hwy||125/105 kwHs/100 mi. (est.)|
|CO2 emissions||0.67 lb/mile (est)|
|On sale||February 2012|