MF Garage: Is the MINI JCW Roadster the Best Commuter Car Ever?

Bold claim for sure. But the recent warm and sunny weather in Chicago has me thinking the JCW Roadster may just represent the best every day car money can buy. Obviously, a statement like that should be filled with asterisks and qualifiers. But before we get into all that, lets back up and talk about why. First off, I’m specifically referring to urban commuting. Small parking spots and lots of tight streets. What the Roadster offers is a tidy package that provides plenty of thrills while being efficient in both its use of fuel and space. In terms of raw numbers consider this; I’m seeing (with a very heavy right foot) close to 30 mpg (US) in the stop and go commuting duty.

There’s also the simple thrill of driving a small MINI. A quick steering rack and all the visceral thrill you can stand in a day to day car. In short, stepping foot into any MINI every day should put a smile on your face.

Then there’s the comfort. Granted our test car is a full specced leather swathed JCW model. But the same engineering that went into the JCW (more or less) resides in the base model $26,000 Cooper. And the Cooper Roadster is actually a more comfortable daily driver with the non-runflats and the smaller wheels with larger tire sidewalls (not to mention the greater MPG). The heated seats, the nav with traffic info, the bluetooth streaming; it all adds up to create a nice place to spend time and thus a happy commuting experience.

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Finally, there’s the factor of open top motoring. I’ll admit I didn’t expect to fall for the charms of wind in your hair and sun overhead. I was wrong. When it comes to long days at the office, there are few things that turn a day around more than a 45 minute commute top down through Chicago. And especially in something like the Roadster that people tend to love.

Now let’s talk about all those qualifiers. No the Roadster isn’t as involving as a used Porsche Boxster which could be had for the same if not less money. Nor is it as efficient as something like a Tesla Roadster (which we reviewed not once but twice and loved). And of couse there’s a number of options in between those two extremes that could make an argument for excellent daily drivers. However, what the MINI Roadster manages to do above almost all of them is to hit a sweet spot in efficiency, fun and affordability. And that’s without summer having even arrived.

  • Is that (almost) 30 mpg from the on board computer or from actual calculations? I’ve always wondered if MINI resolved the mpg miscalculation from earlier models. I’ve always gotten approximately 15% lower mpg than than the onboard reports with a 2004 JCW. I’ve spoken with numerous other MINI owners from the same era (Cooper / Cooper S / and JCW) who experience the same results.

    I’ve even brought it to the attention of the service dept. and they’ve reloaded the current USA software in an effort to resolve. Never has resolved it though.

    By no means is it a problem though – I still smile, 9 years after purchase, when I walk out to a parking lot and see my Electric Blue MINI standing out from every other car!

    • Veggivet

      Electric Blue, the best color MINI ever made, hands down!

    • It isn’t quite MINIs “miscalculation” although manufacturers do have a tremendous amount of latitude on what shows up on the window sticker. The EPA testing methodology is often not reflective of many people’s driving methods or environmental conditions and this is especially true before 2008. The EPA revised their ratings in 2008 to attempt to make the ratings more realistic. Almost all cars dropped, MINI included to be more realistic. The nice thing is that the EPA lists both the new and old ratings on their website: If I’m grandma-ing it in my 2006 MCS JCW, I can average in the high 30s going under the speed limit. And on average with the EPA’s “New” ratings of 22/29 for a 2006 MCS, I’m within 1 or 2 (at most) mpg. Most people find the new ratings for MINIs to be pretty realistic.

      I know the R53 MINIs were gas hogs and I still bought it over an R56 due to its more sonorous induction noise (my first R53 was an Electric Blue!) However I greatly appreciate that the new 2013+ JCW engine now has valvetronic to give it mileage on par with the standard S but with more power (albeit no more than the pre-2013 JCWs).

  • birddog2

    A better case could be made for the Roadster S re: bang for the buck. My 2012 Roadster S gets within .1-.3 mpg of the computer number 30-31 mpg around town.

    • Agreed. Depends on what your definition of “best” is but yes, the MCS Roadster would be more affordable with similar smiles and performance.

    • I have a 2012 Roadster S and am lucky to hit 21 mpg around town in Los Angeles stop and go traffic. I measure off of full tank fill ups and mileage differential and it is pretty close to the computer. Not that I’m complaining, I love the car and won’t give it up until the next gen Roadster is out.

      • MyBlueJCWRoadster

        You should have that checked. You definitely have something wrong if you can’t get 21 mpg out of a Roadster. I have a JCW Roadster, drive it with a lead foot, quickly accelerating off of lights, etc. and still have never gotten lower than 27 mpg. Usually I get around 29-30 in town and 31- 33 on the highway.

  • Tobi

    This car looks awesome.. But no blind spot option? Very bad/dangerous

  • Speck

    Gabe – I think its great that you’ve discovered open top motoring, I know you didn’t always embrace it. What are your thoughts now on the hardtop vs. convertible?

  • Only thing that would ever stop me from buying this car is that it is not meant for anyone over six feet tall to sit comfortably. I tried, believe me I tried! Coupe is a little better but still too tight.

    • Couldn’t disagree more. I’m 6’2″ and find the Roadster to be plenty comfortable. In fact the Roadster technically has the most headroom of any MINI.

      • Very interesting – I had gone to a MINI test drive at the rose bowl last year, and tried to sit in a coupe, and couldn’t even bend enough to get in 6′ 3″). I thought I had the sat adjusted all the way, but maybe I missed a setting from outside the car. I’ll have to go check it out again.

      • I adjusted to what would be my comfortable driving position and stare straight into the windshield frame and sun visor. I wouldn’t lie to you, and I wouldn’t buy something that would make me hunch to drive.

    • Hoover

      Yeah, I don’t get this comment. I’m 6’7″ and my dealer let me take out a roadster while my car was in for service. Tons of headroom, and same legroom as my hatch. (I have a 36″ inseam). Crappy visibility with the roof up, but I would have the roof down as much as possible. For someone my height, this is the only roadster option available…and I fit just fine.

    • Brian, did you adjust the seat height all the way down? That’d make a huge difference.

      And FWIW, I’m 6’3″ and fit just fine in both the Roadster and the Coupe.

      • Yep Nate, was in a showroom and we tried everything. I just have a tall torso I guess. The coupe I was fine I think because there is that cubby space behind the seats that wasn’t in the roadster?

      • Steve

        At 6’3″ you don’t find yourself looking directly into the top of the windshield? Any trick to your seating position? I am the same height and would love to get one of these but this is my main concern. Thanks

        • A little bit, but it’s not bad. I had to be careful not to pull up to close to stop lights, but that’s an issue in any MINI.

        • Steve

          Thanks for the reply, I am not concerned with having to move a little to see stop lights, mainly about being able to see the road ahead of me clearly. I had a loaner Coupe and did not have any trouble with seeing through the front but when I sat in a Roadster the top of the windshield seemed to be in the way a bit, not sure why the difference if they are raked at the same angle.

        • If anything, I felt like I had better visibility in the Roadster than the Coupe. Especially out the back.

        • Steve

          I appreciate the input, I guess I will just have to try some different seating positions when I finally give it a test drive next week. I am really hoping to have the same results that you have.

        • You might have to go with a slightly more reclined position, but hopefully you can make it work. What you really see on the road will tell you a lot. What you see on the showroom floor isn’t always the full story.

        • Steve

          That’s the positive feedback I was looking for. Thanks again.

  • Some interesting comments, and I wouldn’t always respond to them specifically, but seeing as I’ve had my JCW Roadster now since last July, and cover about 250-300 miles a week, mixed town and motorway, and return overall 35mpg thats with a very heavy foot too.

    Then theres the head room, I’m 6ft tall, and I know what the initial sit in feels like, and to fit comfortably and see out the screen with the roof up, what was needed was to adjust the seating position I’ve used since 2003 of owning a new MINI, a more reclined seat angle as I’ve always had it on lowest height and all is fine.

    Anyway, the main reason I was originally going to post in response was to Gabe’s bold claim, and I have to say I can’t agree more!!! It is the best commuter, fun to own MINI, even more so than the GP that it replaced. As after a really tough day at work today, to do the drive from the office to where I stay during the week with the roof down and sun shining, you can’t help but love it!!!

  • JonPD

    Same could be said broadly for the Coupe as well. Still kinda amused though over the concept of a small MINI I must say. While back picked up a Wrangler for work and found that though its wheel set is 3.5″ wider the max width on the Coupe mirror to mirror is identical to the Jeep, Also both are built on an 8′ wheel base. The Jeeps spare takes up about 8″ which leaves the total length of the Jeep about 6″ longer. Of course there is a massive difference in street performance the two vehicles are so dang close on their external demensions. I would not say the Jeep is a small vehicle but guess I can say its a MINI sized platform lol. Also the Jeep turns a much tighter so its actually more manuverable than the MINI when trying to fit into a tight spot. Like our Coupe a lot but not sure how small I consider the car personally.

  • Adam

    Totally agreed Gabe! I have a r59 s and love it, even in Chicago weather! Its replacement will definitely be a next gen jcw roadster..

  • Hemisedan

    I don’t know if I’d go so far as to admit that the roadster is the Best Commuter Car EVER, but it’s pretty darn close. I’ve had my JCW bodied Roadster now for three weeks. No complaints at all. People talk about blind spots, I don’t really notice that. There is one area where there could be what you call a blind spot, but it’s there in any car. Drivers side, just out of the mirrors range. The passenger side is what most complain about, but use your mirrors. Other than those two spots, which in a big city could definately give a problem, there is nothing but the fun factor. And, if you put the top down, then those blind spots all disappear. The MIni Roadster, a very fun car and it does get noticed.