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.