Agile Roadster Adds to Mini Family

Njuguna Kabugi | 12/5/2012, 10:26 a.m.

The arrival of this week's test car - the Mini Cooper Roadster - reminded me of an incident back in my teens that taught me, for the first time in my life, that different individuals need not have the same tastes in automobiles.

On an especially festive New Year's Day back in the 1970s, my father's younger brother, a hotshot banker who'd sworn to be single forever had stopped by my parents' house to not just merry make with a bunch of visiting relatives but also show off his brand new car. The car was the iconic VW Karmann Ghia which Volkswagen produced between 1955 and 1974 and was widely celebrated as one of the world's most beautifully designed automobiles.

"Did you see my new car?" my uncle asked motioning daddy to walk outside to take a look. After a few minutes outside, daddy walked back into the house and declared, "I did not see a car." As the adults rolled in laughter, it dawned on me that my father's auto preferences were really too old school. While I was itching for a ride in the new VW beauty, my father had teamed up with my even older grandfather to heap scorn on the most beautiful sporty two-seater I had ever seen.

"Do you know how much car you can buy with what you wasted on that thing?" said daddy who had a soft spot for what he called work cars - large sedans, station wagons and jeeps.

Daddy is now well in his 80s and has even less use for the tiny Mini Cooper Roadster. If he'd seen the Mini in my driveway he'd have dismissed it as one of those nothing cars as he did my uncle's sporty VW many years ago. And he would have been correct and wrong, all in the same breath. The Cooper Roadster, just like the Karmann Ghia, is admired by enthusiasts, but has little practical everyday utility for most - and that's okay as far as automobiles are concerned. One car need not fit every taste.

Based on the original British made Mini first introduced in 1959, the car returned to the U.S. market in 2002 under BMW's direction. It is tiny, cute and stylish without seeming overbearing. Its high style is embraced by pop stars and celebrities, while an affordable bottom line enables middle-class commoners to easily scrape together the entry-level price of admission. It's a uniquely sporting blend of classic British mini-car heritage and charm combined with precise German engineering and construction underneath.

With a price range of $25,050 to $35,200, in addition to many options, the roadster is available in Cooper, Cooper S, and John Cooper Works versions among a steadily expanding Mini family. The Roadster is not only the sole premium model of its kind in the small car segment; it also ranks as the only open-top two-seater in the brand's history.

I loved driving the Mini Roadster though the interior space is quite cramped. The car handles very well with little body roll but the ride is harsh whether one is driving in the city or the open road. The steering is quick, informative, and accurate; braking is powerful and precise; shift engagements are fluid; and throttle response is instantaneous.

The fuel mileage is excellent - I averaged 35 mpg in mostly city driving. I did find a few nits to pick with the car: the cloth top limits rear visibility and the retro style switches are a mess to control - even the giant speedometer is slightly off line of sight for the driver.

The Mini convertible is easily the most affordable British sports car. For those of us hopelessly mired in the Occupy Movement's 99 percent (or a certain presidential candidate's 47), there's nothing else in this range from the UK. The Aston Martin at $131,650, the V8 Vantage Convertible, and the McLaren MP4-12C at $229,000 are not even worth a mention in these pages.