There comes a time in most people’s life when they sit back and take stock of all that has happened, and all they want to happen before they shuffle off. Synonymous with this syndrome among men supposedly is the desire to take off in a sports car, with one’s rapidly dwindling stocks of locks blowing in the wind.
So who am I to buck tradition? When Brisbane MINI Garage kindly offered me a JCW Roadster for a test drive, I jumped at it.
My plan was to live the campaign – ‘Another day, another adventure.’ Get out of town, do some sight-seeing. I had a hankering for pork belly, so Bangalow in northeast New South Wales was on the agenda with Byron Bay as our destination, before turning north back to Brisbane. All in one day.
Next morning we threaded our way through the light traffic and hit the freeway south of Brisbane. In the city the slick gear change is really appreciated. It’s quick and decisive; feels solid and is well-matched to the light responsive clutch. On the open expanse of the freeway it sat comfortably in 6th, still offering plenty for overtaking at a tap of the accelerator.
With the weather playing along nicely the canvas roof had been quickly and easily dispatched behind the two (read it, ONLY two) seats. Unlike the Cabrio, this lid is operated manually, unless you pay for the optional extra semi-automatic version.
Personally I wouldn’t bother. To open the roof it’s a simple turn of the handle and then push back and over, with a firm shove to lock it flat into place. (I’m told you can perform this manoeuvre alone from the driver’s seat with practice, and I suspect a strong shoulder. You can do it while moving too.)
A noticeable feature when the roof is up is the frame bars are visible. No biggy; it kind of reinforced the strong, no-nonsense nature of this car. When closed the roof sealed well.
Cruising with the roof down was a delight. MINI certainly got the in-cabin aerodynamics spot-on; you can hear the stereo loud and clear. In the cool of the morning the heater was effective enough to quieten m’lady, and there were no complaints of buffeting emanating from the passenger seat either.
Speeds in excess of 80kph also give the machine a chance to demonstrate its unique selling proposition – the spoiler that deploys and retracts automatically.
Designed to counter the lift caused by the raked windscreen it rises silently from its niche in the boot, and slips quietly away when speeds have dropped below 60kph for a while. No doubt it also goes some way to explaining the uncanny grip the car has on the road through fast corners.
Taking the Nerang exit the road quickly changed from well-sealed blacktop to bumpy, twisty country roads. We tacked on to the back of a couple of motorcycles and gave chase through the Gold Coast hinterland, the two-wheelers unable to shake the high-performance Roadster.
Bear in mind this is the top of the line model. The JCW packs a turbo’d 1.6-litre four cylinder engine that threatens to hurl you down the nearest worm-hole at warp speed when you plant the foot down hard.
According to the literature it pumps out 211 bhp and gets to 100kph in a tad over 6 seconds. Braking for corners has always been a superfluous manoeuvre for a MINI – toss in acceleration like that, add gokart-like grip and you’ll have more than enough excitement to wind back the clock on your mid-life crisis.
Despite all this the roadster never feels like things are getting out of hand, in large part due to the great feedback from all the components. The brakes are firm and progressive with plenty of feel. The suspension improved the harder it was pushed through corners, and bumps seldom unsettled the car from the line you had picked with the precise steering; it really is point and go.
After a brief stop at the Natural Bridge café, and having checked out the nice little National Park that abuts it, we continued along the range, across the border and down ever more narrow and tighter roads.
This part of the world is just made for taking Minis through, proof of which we discovered in the little pottery at Chillingham. Hanging on the wall there was a photo taken over 30 years ago when the Mini Moke club had visited, traversing roads that were much worse back then than we had encountered to date.
I have read that Mini worked hard to make the Roadster feel stiffer and sportier than the four-seat Cabrio. It has achieved this by using area vacated by the rear seat to house cross-braces. And a 45kg weight advantage also plays its part, the car feeling nimble through the tightest of curves.
It’s on roads like those found in this region that the engine really shines, punching out usable power from 2500rpm, the needle rapidly spinning through the numbers from there. Top down you are rewarded with a rich burble on overrun, a happy reminder that this is a sports car, and you should be forgiven for being a little irresponsible given your ’condition’.
After lunch and a stroll down main street we headed east for the coast. Again the road was its own reward, with every type of corner offered joined by short sprints up and down hills.
The run into Byron brought out the one negative – there’s nowhere to put the surfboard. Which is not to say there isn’t room for pretty much anything else.
Packing for more than an overnight stay is no longer an exercise in frugality because with the removal of the two rear seats the Roadster has gained a real boot. While the Cabrio struggles to put away more than a briefcase and a cabin bag, the new model boasts a 240 litre space that easily holds two full size pieces of luggage and more.
It may not seem much compared to the cavernous maws of a family sedan, but it is a full 90 litres more than an MX-5, one of its direct competitors.
The traffic in and around Byron tested the patience of the driver, but for the car it was business as usual, the clutch and gears again proving their robustness as we crawled up to the lighthouse before seeking the relative calm of the highway for the journey home.
The setting sun and open road gave time for reflection.
If nothing else the Roadster is adaptable. As a city car it is well-behaved, with enough punch to get out of trouble and brakes capable of stopping you getting into it. Easy to park, and surprisingly good on fuel. Its sophisticated and sporty lines don’t go unnoticed round town either.
If safety is high on your list of priorities MINI has factored in the possibility that things can go pear shaped for the best of us – anti-skid braking with electronic brake force distribution and dynamic stability control. There are driver and passenger front and side head airbags in the event of a crash. And if the vehicle flips the polished stainless steel roll bars come into play.
As a sports tourer this MINI has few equals, especially in its price bracket. With the extra boot space it is a genuine traveler and has a real advantage over others in its class. Its motor makes driving a charm, not a chore.
But the real surprise was its ability to perform as a time machine – I swear I felt younger every time I got behind the wheel. Take one for a spin yourself and be reminded that life should be measured not by hours and days, but moments that live with you forever. The MINI Roadster will provide you with plenty of those.