Three cheers and pip-pip for the return of the affordable British two-seater convertible, more than 30 years after the archetypal sports car, the MG, ceased production.
Britannia rules the roads once more – all those that twist and turn, in any event, and especially city patio district streets.
Mini's new two-seater is a bit of all right, if not low and sculpted and looking fast standing still as the TRs and Austin-Healeys did in the golden era of the sports car.
The Roadster is the sixth variant of the basic Mini box as the BMW-owned brand continues following the Baskin-Robbins franchise model – selling one yummy product in any number of flavours.
The Roadster starts at $28,900, which is $300 less than the existing Mini Cooper Convertible. And if you question why anyone would opt for a two-seater when the Convertible has four, you've just disqualified yourself from Roadster club membership on the grounds of being too practical by half. The newest Mini is for folks who have not even begun thinking about a family. Or for those requiring escapes from family.
The trunk is comparatively large, too, at 240 litres, adequate for a weekend for two. A briefcase fits behind the seats.
“The two-seater is more intimate and sportier,” is how Vinnie Kung, the Mini product manager for North America, stated the case. It is 20 mm lower, as a result of the windshield having been raked back 14 degrees from the Mini hatchback, and the suspension has been retuned for sharper handling.
We're driving Mini Cooper S Roadsters – $32,900 base, $38,420 fully decorated – in this introductory expedition and unfortunately rain is falling on our sports car parade. All day. The only time the top comes down is during the pre-drive demonstration, shown to be a simple manual operation, best accomplished outside the car.
One imagines top-down touring in summer evenings, the smiles never ending, the exhaust burbling as it does with the Sport button engaged. A long way from today's reality.
Top up, it's as intimate as a bat cave in here and just about as dark. Unlike in the case of Mini's four-seater Convertible there are no rear side windows, and the rear window itself is smallish, so you're shrouded in black canvas. Lane changes require full use of the side mirrors, shoulder checks being next to useless.
Anyway, no lane changes are required on the two-laners that are serving as alternates to Highway 7 leading to lunch. It's simply full-speed ahead.
We're reminded immediately how much fun any Cooper S is. Fantastic agility, right-now steering and a manual gear shift smooth as liquid honey make the Mini Roadster as much fun as the more shapely roadsters of the past.
The bumpy roads do serve up a bumpy ride. The 18-inch wheels and low-profile, run-flat tires deliver kidney punches recalling how the TR3 used to chill your lower back with drafts from its low-cut doors. But say this for the Mini Roadster: no matter the bumps the dash never shows any shiver. Cowl shake, as they used to call it, plagued open-top cars before modern materials and techniques such as the Roadster's torsionally reinforced side-to-side wall back of the seating.
The more power the better. The Cooper S's turbocharged engine generates 181 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. The base car's 121 wouldn't be nearly as appropriate, and it's hard to imagine the experience not being hugely enhanced in the John Cooper Works version with 208 horsepower.
More flavors than Baskin-Robbins? Increasingly.
“You're gonna see lots of stuff from us in 2013-2015,” Eduardo Villaverde, BMW Canada CEO and president, boasted in a presentation after the drive.
Maxi-Mini fans can be expected to keep count as the special editions and new models proliferate. Can a pickup version be off? A one-seater, for Formula One fans? Anything is possible, any number of Mini variants.
The one figure that may end up mattering most to Roadster devotees, though, is that yielded by the Always Open Timer app on the instrument panel.
In minutes and hours, the time that the top is down is recorded for the current trip and for the life of the car. “Only Mini as a brand can get away with that,” Vinnie Kung enthused. “Roadster drivers will become hyper-toppers, comparing their top-down totals with each other the way hyper-milers compete.”
Had we scored better than zero top-down time, had the sun shone even briefly, no doubt we'd be even more smitten. But even in bat-cave mode the Roadster is a winner.
2012 Mini Roadster
Type: Two-door convertible
Base price: $28,900; as tested, $38,420 for Cooper S ($32,900) with options
Engine: 1.6-litre, DOHC, turbocharged, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 181 hp/177 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): For Cooper S hatchback, 7.6 city/5.6 highway; premium recommended
Alternatives: Mazda Miata, Fiat 500 Abarth
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