Marler Haley

With Portuguese youth unemployment running at more than 25 per cent and one in 10 graduates leaving the country, you might have thought that the Mini launch presentation in Lisbon would have had its normal orgiastic obsession with the gorgeously minted yoof of Mediterranean café society hanging out in their Minis tactfully toned down.

But Mini marketing has always been club-footed and the success of this retro hatchback is there for all to see. We’ve said it before, but Mini has been a worldwide phenomenon and that keeps a lot of people in jobs at Cowley, the Hams Hall engine plant in the West Midlands and Swindon parts suppliers, so ignore the marketing and enjoy the GNP contribution.

This two-seat Roadster is the sixth and penultimate iteration of the current Mini chassis before the new one appears next year – we still have a sporty version of the 4×4 Countryman to come. The Mini Roadster is also the second drophead in the range, with the equivalent Cooper S four-seat convertible costing £20,395 compared to this two-seater’s £20,900.

It’s a dumpy little thing, largely based on the mechanicals of last year’s Mini Coupé but using the Convertible’s body due to its extra strengthening. Like a lot of these hatchback-based dropheads, there’s a bit too much going on to call it handsome, but it certainly looks better than the Coupé with its odd roof line.

I was struggling with BMW’s definition of “automatic” as in “a semi-automatic hood is standard in the UK” while I tugged the recalcitrant hood out of the well behind the seats, its sticks biting and scratching like a baby crocodile. Automatic? Did I miss something? It was only later that we were shown the motorised hood, which deploys on its own, but still requires manually locking to the windscreen frame.

The petrol engine is the BMW/PSA 1.6-litre four-cylinder with a twin-scroll turbo, in three power outputs; 120bhp/49.6mpg (EU Combined) in £18,015 Cooper form, 181bhp/47.1mpg in this £20,900 Cooper S, or 208bhp/38.7mpg in the £24,850 John Cooper Works (JCW). The Cooper D diesel has BMW’s 141bhp/62.8mpg, 2.0-litre turbo unit and costs £21,630. A six-speed manual transmission is standard with a £1,135 to £1,275 optional six-speed automatic on all but the JCW model.

The Cooper S engine provides lively performance, with astonishing pulling power, and for most overtaking you hardly need to change gear. Sadly, it also booms unpleasantly at 2,000rpm and our car had an annoying buzz coming from behind the dashboard.

As ever with a Mini, the first check point is the ride quality, which can be atrocious with some of the larger diameter wheel and tyre combinations. The test cars were all shod on 16in standard rims and on very mixed Portuguese roads, it felt very assured. The body trembles, but it is well damped and surprisingly stiff.

The ride is firm, but comfortable. There’s a bit of bumping from the slightly long-in-the-tooth chassis, but MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension does a fine job of smoothing out the worst of the undulations. The electronically assisted steering is marginally too light, although a “sport” button reduces some of the effort but adds an unpleasant stickiness to the turn-in. There’s not a lot of feel at the wheel rim, but the system is accurate and the ratio well specified.

You could travel a long way in this car and the comfortable seats, springing and damping would keep fatigue at bay. The roadholding is phenomenal and it relinquishes its adhesion progressively, with a nicely judged electronic stability system. Lift off and the Mini eases back into the corner, but go faster and the Roadster starts to write cheques it can’t altogether cash. That steering becomes darty and the weighting changes according to side loads. It feels like there’s too much going on at once and the controls aren’t sophisticated enough to deal with it. In addition, the pedal heights are odd and while all-round disc brakes are powerful, they lack initial bite, so you have to be deliberate with the middle pedal on the approach to a corner.

To compensate for the aerodynamic lift caused by the fastback-shaped roof, there’s a spoiler which rises at 50mph and sinks at 37mph. You can feel that extra downforce on faster corners, where the car feels more planted and tolerant of tightening the line or easing the throttle.

Inside you get the usual retro, idiosyncratic Mini switchgear, which takes some getting used to. The massive central speedometer contains satnav, idiot lights and a web-connection function to access the internet for web radio, Facebook and Google maps. Unfortunately all this stuff shunts the speedometer to the circumference of the dial and it is quite difficult to see.

It all feels well put together and high quality, but there’s rather a lot of trim shoehorned into this two-seater and the central armrest gets in the way of you reaching for the gear lever. The sports seats are comfortable, however, and hold you snug in corners.

It’s difficult to define precisely the market that the Mini Roadster is aimed at. It’s not really a sports car and with competitors such as the Toyota GT86 and Mazda MX-5, hard-core enthusiasts are likely to look elsewhere. But it does have a sporting heart and it is easy to see the appeal to wealthy young-at-hearts who don’t require the extra space of the four-seat cabriolet.

In the end it’s about fun, rather than serious driving, but in the present circumstances perhaps the world needs a bit more fun.

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