2013 MINI Cooper S Roadster review

Is the MINI Cooper S Roadster a great car? No. Is it an absolutely superb roadster? Yes.
Is the MINI Cooper S Roadster a great car? No. Is it an absolutely superb roadster? Yes.
Is the MINI Cooper S Roadster a great car? No. Is it an absolutely superb roadster? Yes.

Highs

  • Superb sound system
  • Composed handling
  • Crisp and quick-shifting automatic

Lows

  • Partially manual soft-top
  • Cheap feeling interior
  • Excessive torque steer

DT Editors' Rating

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The MINI Cooper S Roadster is the newest edition to the MINI family. Yes, look again. It’s new. It’s not the MINI Cooper Convertible, no. This one is different. For one, it only has two seats, which is a first for the MINI open-top breed. Secondly … well, that’s actually about it.

… the shoulder-wrenching S Roadster packs a 1.6-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder… the most powerful in its engine size.

The Roadster is based upon the MINI Cooper Coupe. You know, the chop-top MINI. Yes, that one. This is essentially the drop-top version of that visual oddity.

Although MINI hasn’t really built a ‘new’ car since its inception in 2002, it now has six models. There is an all-new MINI Cooper coming in 2014 but for the purposes of this review, we’ll ignore that. MINI’s base design, despite its best intentions, is old. It’s old and it’s not quite as good as it was 11 years ago.

When MINI first hit the scene, it’s was – not surprisingly – fresh. It was quaint, jaunty, sporty and popular. The moneymen at BMW, the company that owns MINI, allowed supply and demand to get to their heads, though. They pulled nice things out of the MINI in order to make more money. This stripping off of bits made the MINI feel cheaper as the years went on. In spite of this, MINI sold more than double the number of cars in 2012 as it did a decade before. So, clearly, the moneygrubbers can claim victory.

Minimal luxury, maximum volume

This brings us back around the MINI Cooper S Roadster, which runs around $32,000 with some of the good bits added back in, including a top-notch stereo and now, a navigation system. Aside from those niceties, you don’t get much in the way of creature comforts. The seats are cloth. The dash is hard and hollow. And the automatic roof, well, isn’t. What I mean is, the “automatic” roof requires the driver to physically reach up, unlatch and shove the roof back to manually begin the automatic folding process. Anyone with a bum shoulder will find this process unbearable. Shoving and fighting the soft top on a vintage roadster is cute. Doing it in a car made in 2013 is stupid.

… no matter how good or expensive a car, once you put the top down and the wind is in your hair, they’re all pretty much the same.

Under the hood, the shoulder-wrenching S Roadster packs a 1.6-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder, which, MINI boasts, is the most powerful in its engine size. I challenge you to think of another 1.6-liter currently on the market.

The 1.6 turbo produces 181 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. Allowing the turbo to overboost, though, will create 192 torques. This will propel the front-drive Cooper S Roadster to 60 in 6.7 seconds and onto a top speed of 141mph. Though it’s quite peppy, the turbo 1.6 is rated at 35mpg highway, 26mpg city, and 29mpg combined.

Customers can either go for the standard six-speed manual or upgrade to the six-speed automatic with paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. My tester had the automatic, which I drove most of the time in ‘Sport’.

Sport mode, like so many others, ramped up linear throttle response and allowed the transmission to hold gears longer. Distinctively, though, it did another thing, too. It made the exhaust all crackly. This was very exciting at first, hearing my Cooper S Roadster pop and snap. The more I listened, though, the more I realized it happened at really un-sporty times and sounded more like backfiring. Honestly, I thought it might be broken – it was that bad.

The 2014 Jaguar F-Type burbles and spits when in sport mode, too, but it does it when you want. The S Roadster does it nearly maliciously – like when you’re coming to a stop sign or when you’re trying to answer a call on Bluetooth. A caller might assume you’ve just done a drive-by when in reality your MINI Roadster is just showing off.

Following in BMWs footsteps, MINI has fitted the new Roadster with electronic power steering. Many automotive journalists complain about the numbness of non-hydraulic steering. While I see what they’re on about, there are plenty of other things to worry about. First, the most powerful engine in its class puts out too much power for the front-wheel drive system to handle. What’s the point of 194 pound-feet of torque if the traction control is going to kill it before torque steer kills you? I don’t know.

As for tech, the MINI Cooper S Roadster didn’t have much. My tester had the new navigation system, which MINI has fitted in the middle of the big speedometer in the center of the dash. It looks cool and works fine but the graphics and operation are a bit outdated.

The best tech bit about the MINI Cooper S Roadster, I have to admit, was the stereo system. All too often car stereos are hugely lacking in volume and sound quality. Harman/Kardon will sound good but doesn’t do very well at higher decibels. Bose will get really, really loud but that’s about it. Bose remains rather flat in automotive applications. The Roadsters sound system was full, vibrant, and bass-y. It would have been considered great in a hardtop. For a soft-top, though, it was outstanding.

Open-top equalizer

Ignoring the cheap interior, the vindictive exhaust, and the torque-steer problems, the MINI Cooper S Roadster was an absolute gem to drive.

So is the MINI Cooper S Roadster a perfect car? No. Is it an absolutely superb roadster? Yes. Losing its roof has perfected a wildly imperfect car.

The 1.6-liter sounds much bigger and beefier than it really is. In this way, then, the exhaust has succeeded. The suspension, like that of all MINI models, was spot-on. It was firm but not so much as to throw out a disc in your lower spine on uneven roads. It was confident and composed. And for an automatic, the transmission was crisp and expertly tuned. Unlike so many other automatic roadsters, drivers won’t pay the price for the ease of use afforded by an auto.

Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear once pointed out that no matter how good or expensive a car, once you put the top down and the wind is in your hair, they’re all pretty much the same. Why pay $200,000 for a drop-top Aston when you can have nearly the same visceral experience for $26,000 in a Mazda MX-5? It’s a rather good point and one that virtually nullifies all my other complaints with the S Roadster.

Convertibles are impractical. They’re more expensive than the hardtop versions. They don’t handle as well and they’re not as safe. But they fulfill that part deep inside all of us to stand out, to be daring, and to show off a bit. No one needs a convertible but by god are they fun.

2013 MINI Cooper S Roadster interior seats

So I could spend all day telling you about torque steer and a difficult this and a poorly designed that. When it comes down to it, though, the MINI Cooper S Roadster is just a roadster. It’s just an excuse to get a bit wild on the way to work or out on the weekends while keeping within the confines of the societal norms. If you want an open-top performance coupe and you’re genuinely concerned with driving dynamics, get a Lotus Elise.

So is the MINI Cooper S Roadster a perfect car? No. Is it an absolutely superb roadster? Yes. Losing its roof has perfected a wildly imperfect car.

Funny, isn’t it?

Highs

  • Superb sound system
  • Composed handling
  • Crisp and quick-shifting automatic

Lows

  • Partially manual soft-top
  • Cheap feeling interior
  • Excessive torque steer