Heading north on Michigan’s famous M22, I realized something about our little JCW Roadster. In all my years of driving all sorts of cars, I can’t remember bonding with a car more than I’ve bonded with this one in just a year. Sure, I’ve driven better cars that I’ve probably enjoyed more (my BMW 1M comes to mind), but never has one car slotted so comfortably and happily into my daily life. Heading into northern Michigan on one of the best chains of roads in the country seemed like a good way to bond further.
As a vehicle, the MINI Roadster is built perfectly for one or two people. The car has a decently sized boot with a pass-through, and driving capabilities fit for any weather. Dry, wet, hot or cold; the Roadster can handle it with comfort and style. Mostly the past ten thousand miles have proven the Roadster as a brilliant everyday car. Yet it’s on these sorts of driver’s roads, on this kind of perfect summer day, that the Roadster is truly in its element.
The day started very early and with a clear set of goals: Drive north from Holland, Michigan looking for great roads, fresh fruit and great food. The plan was to motor out and back and accomplish it all in a single day, ending back at Salt of the Earth for dinner. No bother that it’s one of the best farm-to-table restaurants in the country.
Starting out on US 31, it was clear I’d need to get off the beaten path to help with two of my goals. For the first few hours of the morning I snaked along the lake finding quaint towns, rolling hills of cherry trees and vineyards — all with plenty of gorgeous Lake Michigan vistas.
For the local residents, the Roadster never failed to fascinate. Everywhere I stopped I got questions about the car. People in these parts have seen MINIs, of course. This isn’t the moon. But they’ve never seen one one like this. Sleek and black as black can be, it looks equal parts sinister and fun. “Is that a MINI?” was the common question. Followed by “Wow I’ve never seen anything like it.” Just imagine if MINI actually had big nationwide marketing budget.
Back behind the wheel, my first great find was M110 heading north from Ludington — a road that disproves the notion that the Midwest is completely flat. With views of Lake Michigan reminiscent of the Northern California stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway, M110 is a gem with little traffic, and plenty of curvy hills.
After a quick break, I headed east and into the trees where the M110 got even more interesting. A flat surface, combined with sweeping, on-camber turns through a thick forest made for one of the best drives I’ve ever had. No question, this is exactly where the MINI JCW Roadster excels. This car was born for roads like this. For days like this. For drives like this. The low windshield and upright nature of the MINI’s seating position makes it a particularly open convertible, unlike most modern, steeply-raked soft tops. Yet it’s the superb handling combined with the Roadsters low weight, and that raspy JCW power plant that combine to make the driving experience incredibly satisfying.
How does it compare with other MINIs? Being a JCW, it’s immediately quick, but the four-piston front brakes make for a higher level of driving confidence and that ultimately means more speed carried through the corners. Furthermore, the weight distribution on this car is lower and further back than any other MINI, endowing the Roadster with an even more eager turn-in than most MINIs. Something I hadn’t expected initially in an open-top car, and it’s something I definitely appreciated on a road like the M22.
The M22 is also known for its bounty of fruit, wine, fish and increasingly, for fantastic small breweries. Since it was a driving excursion, let’s focus on the food. The rule of thumb for fruit is the smaller the fruit stand, and the more remote the location, the fresher and better the produce. Most of these premier stands are even unmanned and operated with a jar and a lot of trust. For me, the surprise find was a fantastic smokehouse in the Frankfort, Michigan. By the time I was done stocking up the Roadster’s boot, the two-seater was starting to look more Clubvan than convertible.
After 12 hours of seat time I only had two real complaint in terms of comfort. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. The runflats make the ride rougher than it ought to be. The fix is easy though. If this was my car, I would have ditched these awful tires in the dealership parking lot. That was issue one. The second issue is a bit trickier. One of my chief complaints over the years of all MINIs has been the seats. Specifically, the lack of adjustable thigh bolstering found in BMW sport seats. (This will likely be remedied in the F56 option list). While that’s an annoyance, it’s the flat bottom seat cushion that probably causes the most discomfort. Granted, I wasn’t sore — even after such a long day — but I’ve spent time in lots of new cars. MINI definitely has room for improvement here.
Fuel economy was solid but not exceptional. I’ll blame my right foot for that, hoever. With plenty of mixed driving, mileage was around 27 MPG at the end of the day. Yet here’s the thing. If you look at the joy that this car gives you and compare it to other sports cars in the marketplace, I can’t imagine many getting over 20 MPG while having this much fun.
What a day. What a car. The MINI JCW Roadster has excelled at so much over this past year, but perhaps none more than this day and this trip. The Roadster’s time in our garage is waning, and when it does go, we will miss it greatly. But for now, we’ve got more miles to drive and more roads to explore.
The Day’s Route:
As much as Google maps allows it, I’ve outline the route mentioned above here.