Mini Cooper S Roadster: Spritely motoring from Munich

It proclaims “sporty” with tongue firmly in cheek, it’s as extroverted as a Hanna-Barbera cartoon and its leather-and-analogue cockpit looks inspired by a Jules Verne novel. But the Mini Roadster is no child’s toy.

Plucked from the middle of the Roadster lineup, the Cooper S variant parked outside BMW Welt – home of Mini’s parent company and the starting point for an roadtrip bridging Munich with Tuscany, with the Austrian Alps betwixt – was equipped with a six-speed manual transmission and a turbocharged 1.6-litre, 184-horsepower engine. It was just one of the myriad engine-transmission combos that can be devised at European Mini showrooms; powertrain choices are more constrained in North America.

Munich roads were jumbles of construction, with uneven asphalt, sudden lane closures and detours, all of which the darting Roadster brushed off, if not cushily. The Cooper S’s optional sport suspension package, though creating excellent road feel, keeps a driver’s spinal column viscerally aware of changes in road texture. But when the asphalt affords it, the manual transmission’s third gear is a perfect ratio for dipping into the car’s nice, wide power band.

European Mini models are equipped with stop-start technology, whereby the engine shuts down when the transmission is in Neutral with clutch disengaged, or when the vehicle is at a stop. It’s an increasingly ubiquitous fuel-efficiency play, though it can be disconcerting for unacquainted stick-shifters who may fear they have stalled out.

No one comes to Germany to drive through construction zones, and the Autobahn beckoned outside Munich’s city limits. Even at 225kph (140mph, just 1mph shy of the car’s official top speed), the Roadster refused to shimmy or shake, and braked confidently when the occasional Opel sedan veered into the left lane.

Betraying its toy-like appearance, the centre-mounted multimedia system is  deeply functional, even intuitive  after the requisite few minutes of orientation. A joystick with a select button and a rotating bezel at the top make for easy adjustment of various features, including the map view. Wired features like Mini Connected talk with the car’s computer to load maps into the nav, connect to web radio and facilitate various amusements, such as one that awarded points for particularly efficient acceleration.

Quibbles? A gear-selection display on the tachometer, mounted just above the steering wheel, exists to maximise the driver’s fuel- efficient tendencies, but makes no accommodation for upcoming hills, quasi-legal Russian semis and sharp curves best handled with a downshift. (When questioned, a Mini representative noted that future editions of the car’s GPS system will be aware of elevation and directional changes, and alter gear suggestions accordingly.)

The cockpit is roomy even for larger drivers – though they’ll want to spring for the Sport Seat upgrade, which offers a longer stretch of leather under the thigh. The 8.5cu-ft of cargo space is class-competitive, but buyers would be advised to pack light.

From Munich to central Italy, through hairpin turns in the Austrian Alps, narrow lanes around Lake Garda and disconcertingly quick traffic on Autostrada A1 heading into Florence, the Roadster proved itself an able, spirited machine. But it was on the backroads of Tuscany that the Roadster came alive, leaping over hills, diving into corners and – top down – drinking in the Tuscan sunshine.

Vital stats: 2013 Mini Cooper S Roadster (US-spec)

  • Base price: $29,345, inclusive of $795 destination charge
  • As tested: $36,875
  • EPA fuel economy: 25mpg city, 35mpg highway
  • Powertrain: 1.6-litre 184hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine; Getrag six-speed manual transmission
  • Standard equiment: engine stop-start, semi-automatic soft top, leather-trimmed sport steering wheel, 16in rib-spoke aluminium wheels, Dynamic Stability Control, four airbags with side-thorax protection
  • Major options: sport suspension, leather trim, HD radio, Mini Connected with Navigation, automatic climate control