MotoringFile Review: 2012 MINI Cooper S Roadster

Kindchenschema. It’s a German word, but the idea is universal. Humans are intrinsically attracted to small things with large features — like a puppy or a baby. These things disarm us and give us a warm, happy feeling. According to the MINI Design team, it’s this idea that’s behind the design of the MINI, and perhaps never better exemplified than with the MINI Roadster.

However, it’s not just the puppy dog looks that attract me to the Roadster. To me it’s summed up neatly by one word: simplicity. From the moment I walked up to the Roadster, that was my first reaction. The look is easy to wrap your head around. Step into the familiar cabin, flip down the top and just toss it over your head. There is no pretense. There is no step two. This is a car that strips away the unessential and gives you the most pure experience possible.

(Full gallery + Video after the break)

MINI figured the best place in the world to experience the Roadster in late January was the coast of Portugal. They were right. Glass smooth roads, light traffic and every kind of corner you could imagine. So with the Atlantic disappearing behind me I headed up and into the hills of the Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais. The glassy roads allowed me to quickly feel the more buttoned-down quality of the Roadster over the Coupe — which can be a handful at the limit. Where the Coupe would give you lift-off drifts at will, MINI smartly dialed in more neutral handling at the Roadster’s limit. That said, there is one key attribute the Roadster shares with the Coupe. The massive rear bracing found in the Coupe is also built in to this car — giving the Roadster remarkable rigidity for an open-top car.

The Roadster’s stiffness is such a revelation that it makes the standard, four seat MINI Convertible seem all too wobbly. You will not have rear view mirror shudder or an over abundance of cowl shake in the Roadster. Put simply, for anyone who loves the idea of an open-top car but doesn’t care for the steering wheel shaking in their hands, this car could be the answer.

The top is a simple, single layer fabric piece that doesn’t hide any of the mechanicals from the car’s occupants. That means the structural parts of the top are in full display if you ever want to turn your head and see them. In return, you get less weight and simple operation.

Because of the single layer it’s also a little noisier at highway speeds than the R57 MINI Convertible’s. But there are touches that make up for it – like the polished real metal roll bars in place of the plastic version on the R57. Also of note is the head-room – the most in any R5X MINI. This is thanks to the single layer design and simplistic nature of the top construction.

A side effect of this is less weight. With a lighter top and two fewer seats the R59 Roadster is 66 lbs lighter than the R57 Convertible (2,745 lbs and 2,811 lbs respectively). In fact the R59 Roadster is only 9 lbs heavier than the Coupe on which it’s based.

The manual version of the top will be standard in most markets (including the US) with a semi-automatic top offered as an option. While I liked the idea of an entirely manual top and mechanism, the semi-automatic option is the one I’d opt for. The reason is convenience. The ability to open and close it from a button while at traffic lights would likely prove invaluable. While the top is comparatively light, it remains quite heavy and not easily accomplished without getting out of the car. While it’s technically possible to open and close from the driver’s seat, you’ll need long arms, a healthy dose of dexterity and a lot of practice. The semi-auto’s electric motor saves the trouble by raising and lowering it for you. All you have to do is finish off the job by either latching or unlatching. Considering the top’s electric motor only adds 11 lbs, it’s an easy choice if you can swing the extra $750 (in the US).

The Roadster can be also be ordered with an optional windscreen that slides between the two roll-bars. It’s a slick design that folds down for access to the top and doesn’t detract from the look of the car. However, it’s not quite as effective at reducing buffeting as the four seat convertible’s much larger version.

The key and obvious difference between the new Roadster and the MINI Convertible is the lack of rear seats. The rear seat delete has not only allowed MINI designers to create a better looking car, it’s allowed for a much larger boot at 8.5 cu ft. Unlike many other convertibles, the roof doesn’t intrude on luggage space when folded down. Also, as in the Coupe, the Roadster boasts a 14” x 8” opening that allows passthrough from the passenger compartment to the boot.

Elsewhere inside it’s typical MINI. Color and trim are all the same as found in the other R5X models, and the instruments are identical – including the Openmeter that’s found in the R57 Convertible. The big news is the addition of the Recaro seats for the US market that have been introduced with the Roadster. I can officially report they feel fantastic. At 6’ 2” I’ve often found the standard MINI seats lacking in thigh support. The Recaro option eliminates that concern and adds additional lower cushion and side bolstering as well. These optional seats are a must have if you’re looking to drive your MINI aggressively. The seats only come in black, finished in leather and Dinamica — a material similar to Alcantara but with a shorter nap – and are available on all MINIs with the exception of the Clubman R57 Convertible and Countryman.

As with the Coupe, the Roadster offers the factory center stripes either with the sport package or as a standalone option. Our car came finished with black stripes over the White Silver. The Roadster, like the Coupe’, features a larger rear spoiler that deploys at speed above 50 mph. When the car’s speed drops back below 37 mph, a four-part control mechanism brings the spoiler back inline with the trunk. The spoiler, which can also be operated manually using a button in the control panel on the front windscreen frame, provides up to 88 lb of extra downforce when traveling at maximum speed.

Additionally, our tester was equipped with MINI Connected with Navigation and off-white leather seating and trim. The 16” wheels and standard suspension proved a surprisingly perfect companion to the winding Portuguese roads. The combination allowed the car a slightly more relaxed attitude, but without limiting grip or speed — exactly what the moment called for.

Interestingly, a few folks at MINI told me that they chose the 16” wheels and standard suspension for the press launch cars as they give the Roadster the best all around drivability. While that may be true, I would have opted for optional Sports suspension or even the excellent dealer installed JCW suspension if it were my car.

When we drove the Coupe, its roofline compromised rear visibility to some degree. With the top up, visibility in the Roadster is good as long as you’re looking to the front and directly left or right. Seeing anything behind can be an enormous challenge given the very large fabric b-pillar and rather small glass rear window in the top. Unlike the R52 Convertible, rear parking sensors once again are questionably not standard.

I’ve never been a convertible person. The lack of rigidity has always bothered me. But corner after corner I grew to realize that MINI may have finally found the formula for creating an open top car without those typical sacrifices. Corner after corner my connection to the car grew. It’s almost hard to see why you would even want a MINI Coupé when the Roadster is this good. Sure it doesn’t quite have the lively, on-the-limit handling of the Coupé, but it’s not far off. Then there’s the looks. Unlike the Coupe, which requires some work to visually understand, the Roadster is immediately attractive. Even the most jaded will find it hard to not like this car in person.

Also unlike the Coupe, the Roadster gives you the wind in your hair. That cannot be under-valued as a motoring experience. In the race for refinement we are cocooning ourselves inside metal, leather and soft-touch plastics in any closed-top car. Because of it we’re slowly loosing some of the very qualities that make driving so much fun. The Roadster strips some of that away. Sure, the single layer top has more road noise than the standard MINI convertible. And yes, there’s a touch more buffeting with the top down. But this is a British roadster. As long as it drives like a MINI and the top doesn’t leak, what else do you really need?

Turn after turn heading into the hills the car seemed to shrink around me. With wind in my hair and the engine and exhaust notes enveloping me, the roads became more narrow and choppy. The forest seemed to be growing around me as I climbed higher. Then finally dirt. I pressed on and turned off the Navigation. Lets do this old-school, I thought. It was that sense of exploration that is so often eradicated by modern technology. The Roadster brought it back to me.

All too soon it was over and I was on a plane heading west and back home to the cocooning of more highly refined cars. Great cars no less. But after driving the Roadster I realize that something is missing in them: simplicity.

Full Gallery

  • Rakey

    Brilliant write up, all that is missing is the order me now button at the end.

  • les

    Simplicity. A MINIs greatest trait.

  • Werkkzeug

    *Kindchenschema 😉

  • Anonymous

    Hey gabe what are the rear seats when you spec the recaros in a R56?

    • Normal pattern but with the same leather and Dinamica.

      • Anonymous

        Nice can we get some pics of those? and of the regular seats? how adjustable are they

        • Search for recaros. We’ve done several stories on them. They weren’t on our tester but instead a stationary car.

        • Anonymous

          I’ve looked at those articles, but I haven’t seen any photos of the recaros in the flesh, all the images are renderings.  Did you take any?

        • No – the room was dark. But they looks and feel great IMO. I doubt you’d be disappointed. 

  • jeff

    nice writeup.  was there any reason given why the recaro’s aren’t available on the clubman?

    • Actually do a search on MF for recaro. I may be wrong but we have an article that has all the correct info.

      • jeff

        yeah, your report back in november says they’ll be on everything but the countryman and ‘vert.  still strange that they will limit it even within the R5x line.

        • Sorry about that. Yes the R57 has a unique rear bench and doesn’t have the volume to justify the unique recaro version (even if it is just fabric).

        • Smyers528

          Do you think there is any chance that Mini will sell these to retrofit to previous R5X models, just the front 2 seats?

  • Mark Smith

    Rear Parking Sensors are not standard on the R57 either Gabe. Just FYI 🙂

    • Liz Higham

      “Unlike the R52 Convertible, rear parking sensors once again are questionably not standard.”  R52 convertible was 1st generation convertible 2005 – 2008 and did have PDC standard.

  • Karl


    I’ve had 5 new MIINIs since 2001 – the latest is a 2009 factory JCW. In your opinion, if you were to order a JCW Roadster, would you wait for the updated engine or order one now? I want one of these, but I’m always being an early adopter and regretting missing out on some features. My 09 JCW only has 16K miles, so I can wait to order. Just wondering what you would do, given the choice. Thanks – Karl

    • Karl

      Gave=Gabe darn auto correct

  • Kec201814

    Curious as to why MINI chose to go with the standard 16″ wheels on the demo I have ordered the “Sport” package w/17″ . Also wondering why you felt it handled so much differently thean the Coupe

  • JonPD

    Great article Gabe!

    Lead off with the worse angle on the car to me. The spoiler on the R59 does nothing good to the look of the car to my eye. The Coupe looks much better with its up and I think the Roadster is gorgeous with it down and much less so with it up.

    • hfred

      A telephoto lens, at a greater distance, would flatten the perspective and reduce the fat-boot look.

    • R Burns

      I agree !

  • Will the Roadster eventually have a removable hardtop (similar to the one used by that underpowered Mazda roadster)? That might be the ticket for those of us who live in winterland.

    • Anonymous

      Doubt it considering they make the Coupe… The Mazda doesn’t  have a coupe so it makes sense.. 

    • goat

      Oh, you mean the RWD roadster with 50/50 front/rear weight distribution, a mechanical LSD, exceedingly crisp 6speed manual transmission, aluminum hood and trunk, 170hp, very stiff platform (shared with RX8), and yet manages to weigh nearly 200lb less than the Roadster with fabric roof and nearly 100lb less with power folding fibreglass roof?  😉

      Kidding aside, a removable hardtop (RHT) would be great to see from MINI for this car. I had one on my NB miata and it turned the car into a proper coupe for the few months of the year when weather was not conducive to driving with roof down.

  • Greg

    Hey Gabe,

    Were the new Recaro seats power adjustable or not? I have heard numerous reports each way, some say they are powered some say not. Thanks for the great review!

    • The ones I sat in were not.

      • Rfftysxsux

        So how did they keep the roadster so light compared to the convertible coupe yet the Coupe’ is heavier than the coupe. That was a serious FAIL after promising a much lighter car if the months preceeding it’s unveiling.

        Sorry. I like the thought but the execution missed it’s mark. They’re still sawed off R56s who’s shortcomings are well documented for many of us so I’ll leave that alone. 

        C’mon Mini. Pay attention to what we want. You deep sixed the Rocketman which everybody loved. As long as you keep creating cars for the masses vs the enthusiest (cough R53 cough) I’m out.

        Of course, if you’re selling tons of cars who cares what I think. But the thing I liked in 2005 when I bought my first JCW coupe was the fact that these weren’t PT Cruisers. Now? You’ll keep making models until there’s one in every garage.


  • b-

    Great Write Up!  I didn’t think that I could want this car more than I did before reading this and now I want it MORE THAN EVER!!!!

  • Ace!

  • jcwarcitekt

    Already have a black JCW roadster on order.  Expensive at $46,000, but it might just be worth the wait and the drive!

  • Jim Carman

    Maybe I’m missing it, but where’s the openometer in the press car? I’d prefer they offer a delete option for that, or incorporate it into another gauge. Neither my wife nor I use/care about it in her R57.

    • As mentioned in the comments – this is a German spec car. The openometer only comes on US spec cars.

      • Jim Carman

        Can’t find a thing in here – except your reply to me – that mentioned this was a German-spec roadster. Regardless, the openometer should be a free option, rather than standard. 

  • Bob Hayhurst

    “…this is a Brtish roadster…”, it’s a great line and I love the sentiment it implies. I’m thinking about a new hatch but I think I’ve got second thoughts after reading this piece.

    Roadster, hatch. S roadster, S hatch. JCW hatch, JCW roadster. Lots of options here…

  • jwillio

    “The top is a simple, single layer fabric piece that doesn’t hide any of the mechanicals from the car’s occupants. That means the structural parts of the top are in full display if you ever want to turn your head and see them. In return, you get less weight and simple operation.”

    Thanks for the review and it looks like from the pictures that you had fun.  We’ve seen plenty of pics of the coupe and roadster up until now, but I have yet to see any pics of the interior of the cloth top.  Given the news of the single fabric layer with exposed mechanicals, were you able to take any pictures of the underside of the top when up?  As I’m assuming the weather was sunny, any response from engineers or other reviewers regarding sound/heat insulation in rain/snow of the single layer roof?  Thanks Gabe.

    • No pictures – sorry about that. But within your field of vision you only see the cross member and nothing too serious. That’s all behind the head. 

      I was told the top should be adequate for cold weather but didn’t get into details. Hopefully we can give you a review under such conditions. Stay tuned.

  • Dr Obnxs

    Automobile just came out with thier first drive review as well. Very similar, but less posative. Take a read here:

  • Bri-Guy

    Does anyone know where the switch for the semi-automatic top will be? The ‘obvious’ location is now a switch for the power rear-wing. 

  • fishbert

    Kindchenschema. It’s a German word, but the idea is universal. Humans are intrinsically attracted to small things with large features — like a puppy or a baby. These things disarm us and give us a warm, happy feeling.

    … all of a sudden, the F56’s massive tail lights make sense.

  • Jacobi Seymour

    The wind in the hair is undoubtedly out of the world, but it was at the cost of the annoying wind buffeting and noise. Finally I had to ask my car tech to mount a wind deflector. Thankfully after the Windblox windblocker was in place the top down drives became unbelievably tranquil and turbulence-free.

    • Jane Williams

      Yeah, I too have affixed a Windblox windblocker on my ride and it is doing the job well of keeping my cabin tranquil and cozy even at highway speeds. Now there’s no wind slapping my noggin. What a relief.