It came at the right time. Spring was gaining more confidence. An uncertain winter was fading. Days were more fair than not.
I was in the mood for a convertible, or a roadster, the latter being distinguished by its more pronounced sportiness, which, in this case, meant seats for two only.
It was the 2012 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works (JCW) Roadster, a mouthful for a subcompact car barely stretching 12 feet in length. Its design intent was readily apparent — to run fast and handle sharply, preferably with its throwback single-layer cloth top thrown to the back and properly folded.
There was nothing automatic about the convertible procedure, which simultaneously can be seen as irritating and charming. Lowering the Cooper JCW Roadster’s roof involved reaching up, twisting a headliner latch to release the convertible top and then pushing the top back into its resting place — all difficult to do from a sitting position. Reversing the procedure required getting out of the car, pushing a chrome button to release the lowered roof, lifting the roof, pulling it forward to the A-pillars framing the front window and then reattaching the roof via the headliner latch.
I am of two minds about this. One tells me that this is a lot of work for a little motorized romance. It evokes memories of more efficient Cooper JCW Roadster rivals, such as the optionally equipped Mazda Miata MX-5, which has a hardtop roof that can be lowered and lifted at the push of a button. The other mind says that this is how a true roadster is supposed to be — cute, charming and wonderfully impractical.
I was of the second mind in driving the Cooper JCW Roadster with its top down. I couldn’t help it. The little car is so cute, so friendly. It puts you in a good mood, makes you feel that all is right with the world. It engenders smiles and many favorable comments from onlookers, men and women, young and old. It is psychic tonic for anyone otherwise having a bad day.
Alas, it has its drawbacks. One of them is that it is front-wheel-drive — with a small, but aggressively turbocharged 1.6-liter in-line four-cylinder engine (208 horsepower, 192 foot-pounds of torque). That engine sits over the drive wheels. Maybe it was the way I was handling the Cooper JCW Roadster’s standard six-speed manual transmission. But those front wheels screeched nearly every time I started from a stop. The experience, all too frequent, left me longing for a roadster with rear-wheel drive.
But once the Cooper JCW Roadster was under way, it was smooth, precise running. The car moved easily through traffic on interstates. It had sufficient ground clearance, 5.3 inches, to move over occasional road debris without drama. Yet it was planted, exceptionally stable in turns. It snuggled into curves.
There is little reason to buy the Cooper JCW other than the joy of driving. With its paltry cargo capacity of 8.5 cubic feet, you can carry no more than several bags of groceries or a few pieces of soft-pack luggage. The absence of a liner underneath its convertible top means that it is noisy at highway speeds. On the few occasions when I drove it with the top up in hard rains, the drops pounding that roof made it sound as if it were a tympanic drum played in an orchestra on drugs. And for all of its JCW cosmetic and mechanical enhancements, I cannot say that the Cooper JCW Roadster drives that much better than the substantially less expensive base Cooper convertible or midstream Cooper S convertible.
But that latter expression of pique does not change the fact that all three versions of the Cooper convertible are smile-laden expressions of the joy of driving. They are “me” cars that pretend to be nothing else, and that’s okay.
There is simply nothing like climbing behind the wheel of a pretty convertible or roadster, dropping the top and hitting the road to nowhere in particular on a gloriously beautiful day. It is almost like prayer. The car is your pew. The road beneath a pristine sky is your chapel.
Bottom line: The 2012 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works Roadster is a funmobile that can also serve as a long-distance runner or daily commuter. But you keep in mind that the fun comes before the practicality, so you are limited to one passenger and not much cargo.
Ride, acceleration and handling: It gets top marks in all three — an absolute joy to drive.
Head-turning quotient: It turned heads and brought smiles everywhere I drove it. If there is such a thing as a “happy car,” this is it.
Body style/layout: The John Cooper Works Roadster, named after famed British racer and company co-founder John Newton Cooper, is a subcompact, front-engine, front-wheel-drive roadster with a standard, manually operable cloth convertible top. A power-assisted top with wind deflector is optional. This column recommends that you buy those options — $750 for the automated top and $250 for the wind deflector. There are three versions of the Mini Cooper convertible — base, S and John Cooper Works Roadster — and the choice is largely a matter of cosmetic preference.
Engine/transmission: The John Cooper Works Roadster comes with a standard turbocharged 1.6-liter, 16-valve, gasoline-direct-injection in-line four-cylinder engine. The engine is mated to a standard six-speed manual transmission.
Capacities: Seats for two. Cargo capacity is 8.5 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 13.2 gallons of gasoline. Premium grade is required.
Real-world mileage: I averaged 31 miles per gallon driving mostly on highways.
Safety: Standard equipment includes four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated front, solid rear), four-wheel anti-lock brake protection, emergency braking assistance, emergency brake-force distribution, and electronic stability and traction control.
Price: The base price on the 2012 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works Roadster is $34,500. Dealer’s invoice price on that model is $31,050. Price as tested is $40,200, including $5,000 in options (Recaro Sport seats, white silver metallic exterior paint, and other premium items including premium sound system and rear parking proximity warning system) and a $700 destination system. Dealer’s price as tested is $36,125.
Shopper’s note: The Mini’s small-car quality is unparalleled. But the car’s value is negatively affected by the pricing strategy of its maker, BMW. Compare with Fiat 500, Mazda MX-5 Miata and Volkswagen Beetle convertibles.