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 underway, it was smooth, precise running. The car moved easily through traffic on Interstates 95 and 66. 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 is 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.