x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Mini Roadster Cooper S is sporty but still an impractical plaything

Road Test While the philosophy behind the Mini Cooper line remains fun-centric, its price doesn't make drivers jump for joy.

The Roadster is more visceral and invigorating than the Coupé. Courtesy of Mini
The Roadster is more visceral and invigorating than the Coupé. Courtesy of Mini

It may only be 11° Celsius, but we have the roof down on the new Mini Roadster Cooper S. Having flown 8,000km from Dubai to Lisbon, Portugal, to try the recently introduced Mini Coupé's new topless sister, how could I not? Besides, the sun is out despite the chill. Up in the glorious hills of the Sintra National Park in Portugal, tracing a path along the stunning coastline looking onto the Atlantic Ocean, it's just too beautiful outside to be cocooned inside a little shell.

Not that I have much time to take in the scenery because I'm pelting along, while keeping in mind the blind corners, occasional drop-offs, bumpy and pitted roads and the odd stray dog with a death wish.

Thing is though, this Mini is begging for it. It's a Cooper S with a manual gearbox and, right now, it's living up to its makers' claims that the Coupé and Roadster are the sportiest of the current-generation Minis.

But first, let's quash the reservations over BMW stretching the Mini brand beyond its remit. Not content with the huge success of the hatchback alone, I've been pitched a Convertible, a Clubman (a sort of estate with barn doors at the back) and then, last year, a four-wheel-drive compact SUV. Actually the Countryman, which has limited off-road ability, has unsurprisingly bolstered and boosted Mini sales in the Middle East, though Mini nonetheless remains a niche brand. Oh, and there's at least one more derivative on the way in the current-generation model range.

But even if this accusation of exploiting the Mini brand is true (and it probably is), get over it. It's been done before, with the original Mini - there was a van, a pickup, a woody estate and a notchback saloon.

With Mini, the core essence of the brand is no longer its diminutive stature, nor even the simplicity that was key to Sir Alec Issigonis' original design. No, now it's all about fun. Well OK, I mean it needs to be a driver's delight and retain a cheeky, loveable aura to its visual persona. All the current Minis conform to this, and the Roadster is no exception.

Both the Coupé and Roadster are actually based on the Convertible Mini, and share the same basic length and width. The doors are longer and there's a bigger boot and, yes, that goes for the Roadster, too, primarily because the rear seats have been removed.

The rear bulkhead, to which the seat belts are bolted on, and the real rollover hoops are actually structural and part of the bespoke stiffening that has had to be employed to stop this little funster from twisting and flexing. It works - the rigidity is unquestionable - and there's hardly any vibration from the more steeply raked windscreen surround.

At this point it's worth mentioning that, for taller drivers, the top edge of the windscreen is in your line-of-sight, and the rear view is limited. Pop the roof down, which involves getting out and unclamping the latch and swinging it back into its cavity just behind the roll-hoops, and it's far less claustrophobic.

The Roadster scores over the Coupé in being a more visceral and invigorating experience, especially because you can revel in the exhaust's more parpy note once the sports button is pressed. The massive central speedometer remains useless but is now a signature design feature, but all the info you need is in front of you.

More than 180hp pushing just 1,185kg will give you a hardly tardy 0-to-100kph acceleration time of 7.0 seconds and a top speed of 227kph. Performance is punchy, particularly if you hold onto the lower gears, and here comes the Mini cliché: the handling remains go-kart like. Yes, I know, that's overused, but with the Mini, it remains true. In fact, the car is astonishingly grippy and stays neutral in the corners, only breaking out into understeer if you power hard out of a bend. Crucially though, it remains as exciting, satisfying and entertaining as you'd want your Mini to be.

But should you buy one? Although the rear seats aren't the most spacious in a Mini hatchback, they are there, and while the luggage space is tiny, fold the seats and you have even more space than either the Coupé or Roadster. The handling might be slightly sharper in the two-seaters, but only marginally. Plus, if you want open-top motoring, you can go for the Convertible. Having said that, the styling does work very well, even more so on the Roadster than on the Coupé, so if you really don't need the rear pews the pricing is only likely to be a couple of thousand dirhams more.

But when it comes to pricing, it's the biggest issue the Mini faces. Middle East Roadster prices have not been revealed, but going by existing Mini prices, it's fair to guesstimate nearly Dh170,000 for the Roadster Cooper S, and that's a lot of money for an impractical plaything.

Base price Dh170,000 (estimated)

Engine 1.6L four cylinder

Gearbox Six-speed manual

Power 184hp @ 5,500rpm

Torque 240Nm @ 1,600-5,000rpm

Fuel economy, combined 6.0L/100km