Everyone remember Pavlov’s dogs? If your high school psychology classes haven’t completely fled your dome, you’ll probably recall some bits about a Russian guy, bell ringing, the feeding of dogs, and, eventually, some concept of why our mouths all start watering when we smell French fries. (There must have been fries involved somewhere, right?)
We apologize for the brief psychology lesson, but it’s relevant to the real subject of today’s lecture: motoring journalists and roadsters. Specifically, why our ilk devolves into metaphor-spewing, lanyard-wearing, sweaty school kids when talk turns to the driving of roadsters.
We love two-seat convertibles. We see them (hear the bell), drive them (taste the food), and have fun (drool all over ourselves). Kind of like dogs with drivers’ licenses, then.
Given enough exposure, the mere sight of a roadster brings about feelings of euphoria in the car-guy world. Feelings that few of us would chose to suppress, even if it were remotely in our grasp.
The Mazda has been the undisputed king of the roadsters since it burst on to the scene 23 years ago. The Mini’s been one of our favorite hot hatches, but we’ve been plenty curious to see just how the all-new Roadster matched up with the legendary MX-5. To find out, we spent a day shooting, videoing, and most importantly, driving these two awesome roadsters. This’ll be a fun one.
The Miata is classically penned, with a long hood, a snug cabin, and a short deck. The overhangs at both ends are remarkably short. Our Special Edition tester was resplendent in its Crystal White Pearl paint, while the power retractable hardtop was painted in black. A stylish set of black, seventeen-inch wheels added a sense of aggression and purpose to the otherwise friendly looking Mazda.
The Mazda’s interior is business-issue black. Black leather, black plastic, and piano-black trim are the primary colors. Material quality isn’t bad, but let’s be honest, this cabin is starting to feel dated. It’s essentially the same one we’ve see since the third-gen MX-5 launched in 2005. Still, this is a functionally focused environment.
The seats are snug and low to the ground, offering up great support at the expense of some long-distance comfort. The thin-rimmed steering wheel and manual shifter are well placed relative to each other, making it easy to execute shifts quickly and get right back to the business of steering. As with the Mini, visibility is excellent with the top down, and abysmal with the top up.
Below the beltline, the Mini Roadster looks identical to the Mini Cooper hatchback, Clubman, Convertible, and Coupe. Above the beltline, it shares the swept-back windshield of the Coupe, but does away with the polarizing roof/rear window in favor of a far more conventional-looking canvas top. This top stows neatly behind the two seats, giving the Roadster a far cleaner profile than the four-seat Mini Convertible. Our tester is finished in Lightning Blue paint, with a pair of silver stripes, and a black, manually operated soft-top.
Considering Mini’s propensity for wacky cabins, our tester looks rather dull. Black cloth seats and black and silver plastic trim dominate, while a checkered dash is the sole piece of visual flair. The Mini’s cabin was friendlier to the tall folk in the office, with its long-travel seat adjustments and telescopic steering.
The Cooper S Roadster started at $27,350, while our tester was $33,550. The MX-5 Special Edition with the power retractable hardtop started at $31,225, and our tester would cost $32,020.
In terms of equipment, our Roadster had the excellent Mini Connected navigation and infotainment system, the Sport Package (seventeen-inch wheels, xenon headlights, Dynamic Traction Control, and white turn signals), the Technology Package (center armrest, rear park distance control, and a Harman/Kardon stereo), push-button start, and a detachable wind deflector.
Our Special Edition Miata was basically a MX-5 Grand Touring with the Premium Package (xenon headlamps, push-button start, Bluetooth, satellite radio, and an antitheft alarm) and the Suspension Package (sport-tuned suspension, Bilstein shocks, and a limited-slip diff).
Stats wise, these two cars are remarkably well matched. The Mini Cooper S Roadster features a 181-horsepower, 1.6-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder that also churns out 177 pound-feet of torque. That compares favorably to the MX-5’s 2.0-liter four’s 167 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque. Things balance out when we look at weight, and in particular weight-to-power and weight-to-torque ratios.
At 2593 pounds, the MX-5 is 152 pounds lighter than the Mini (2745 pounds). That means the Mazda is hauling around 15.52 pounds for every pony and 18.52 pounds for every torque, compared to the Mini’s ratings of 15.16 pounds per horsepower and 15.5 pounds per pound-foot of torque. We’ll get to what these numbers mean in the coming paragraphs.
The accelerative profile of these two cars couldn’t have been much different. It all comes down to power delivery. The Mini’s redline sat at a moderate 6500 rpm, yet it delivered all 177 pound-feet of torque between 1600 and 5000 rpm. Compared to the Mazda’s 5000-rpm torque peak (and altogether lower torque output), there was a lot more usable power in the Cooper S. When we planted our foot at most any point in the rev range, the Mini gently pressed us back in our seats as the torque did its work. Peak horsepower sat at 5500 rpm, although the Cooper felt slightly winded once we climbed beyond that.
As you may be able to tell, the Mazda required us to work a little harder. Its 5000-rpm torque peak and 7000-rpm horsepower peak combined with the fast-revving engine meant that the usable power on offer was significantly lower than in the Mini. This narrow powerband actually helped in terms of involvement, as it forced us to rely on the momentum of the car more than the actual power of the engine (Tom Martin gives an in-depth explanation of this phenomenon here). If we absolutely needed the engine to pull us out of trouble, 3000 to 5000 rpm was the torquiest part of this size-zero powerband.
Both cars featured six-speed manual transmissions, although that’s where the gearbox similarities ended. The Mini’s six-speed was considerably easier to live with than the MX-5. The clutch was more progressive and forgiving, with a broader catchpoint. The shifter’s action felt slightly rubbery, but it was easier to manipulate overall, requiring less effort to get it into its gate.
The MX-5’s clutch was fast to catch, and lacked the user-friendliness of the Mini. It was easy enough to adjust to, but we probably wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner. As for the shifter, it required some strong-arming to execute a fast shift, as there’s a degree of notchiness in each gate.
Once we got used to the force needed to work the Miata’s shifter, there was a pleasing mechanicalness that’s sadly absent on many newer cars. We slotted the shifter into a gear, and could feel the various bits working well. We’re also geeks for the way the MX-5’s shifter vibrated when in neutral, as it really added to the Miata’s personality.
Sonically, both of these cars had their pluses. We loved the crackles, burbles, and pops that came from the Mini’s exhaust in Sport Mode. It became slightly addicting after a while, with some staffers downshifting simply to hear the backfires from the Cooper’s center-mounted exhaust tips. Unfortunately, this level of character didn’t translate to the rest of the Roadster’s acoustical signature. From outside the car, there was a decent growl coming from the back, but it didn’t carry through very clearly to the driver’s seat.
The Mazda’s sonic qualities could be split into two categories: induction and exhaust. From idle to about 4000 rpm, there was a wonderful induction noise coming from under the hood. It was most noticeable when we first dipped into the throttle, but translated well across the rev range. Above 4000 rpm, there was a classic and ear-pleasing exhaust note from the dual pipes. Blipping the throttle on downshifts didn’t create the same sort of excitement that we saw in the Mini, as it sounded simply okay.
After the initial lap of our test route, we broke out the video equipment. With cars as dynamic and fun as these two, it seemed like a waste not to include some video of them in action. To do that, we recruited Multimedia Editor Chris Amos to take them around our drive route, so you can really get as close as possible to the full driving experience of these two amazing vehicles.
In terms of out-and-out agility, the Mazda was the clear winner. It felt smaller and lighter along the meandering roads of our drive route. Its suspension was noticeably softer than the Mini’s, although this only added to the involvement, as it tended to move around more through the bends. Despite the softer suspension, the lateral damping felt good, and helped instill some confidence when pushing the MX-5 hard.
Its 51/49 weight distribution showed through as well, as it felt better balanced and more willing to rotate than the front-heavy Cooper. While there’s a lot of chassis feedback in the MX-5, it just doesn’t compare to the telepathic Mini. After a stint in the Roadster, we found it more difficult to discern grip levels and road conditions through the seat of the pants.
The soft suspension was also a boon to the MX-5’s ride quality, as it proved far more willing to soak up bumps and depressions than the Mini. It still wasn’t an overly stable highway car, but on pockmarked surface streets, the Miata was the one to have.
While the MX-5 was a better dancer, we can’t discount the Roadster. It was a capable handler in its own right, but it felt significantly bigger and heavier through the bends, no doubt due to actually being bigger and heavier than the featherweight Mazda.
Its suspension was firmer and more unforgiving, causing it to skitter and sidestep over bumps mid-turn. While this sort of hard tuning might work on a silky smooth road, it was hell on crumbling tarmac that is frozen for half a year.
Its rough ride also clued us in to just how much cowl shake there was. It wasn’t terrible, but was certainly more noticeable in the Mini than in the Miata. Roll was more profound in the Roadster as well, but it was more communicative than disruptive, keying in the driver as to the grip levels of its Continental tires. Its front-drive layout didn’t help the turning behavior, as the Roadster was quicker to understeer when we entered a turn too quickly or got on the power too early.
Like the hard-topped Mini Coupe, the Roadster featured a large structural bulkhead behind the seats that links the two sides of the car. This is a large part of why the chassis feedback between the Mini and MX-5 is so heavily tilted in the Cooper’s favor. We were essentially sitting on the primary structural support between the two sides of the car. While the Mazda features a similar bulkhead behind the cabin, the lack of body roll (and therefore weight transfer) meant there was less discernable information passing under our butt.
Unfortunately, the Mini’s formula wasn’t conducive to driving comfort. Its stiff suspension meant even small bumps and expansion joints on the highway bounced us up and down. Impacts were loud and uncomfortable, in part due to the same structural bracing that delivered all that feedback. Hit a pothole, and it was directed right at the driver’s backside.
We could go either way when it comes to steering these two cars. The MX-5’s hydraulic rack felt more natural than the electric system in the Mini. It weighted up very well, and delivered the sort of crisp, natural feel that we expect of a two-seat sports car. On-center feedback was quite good, and the level of communication only built as we turned the wheel.
The Mini’s steering, on the other hand, was very BMW-like in its execution. There was plenty of weight through the wheel on center, but the closer we got to lock, the lighter it tended to feel. On-center feedback was positive, but overall we tended to rely on the chassis to inform us of what was going on.
Braking performance between the Mini and MX-5 was pretty even. Both featured vented-front/solid-rear discs. The Mini boasted 11.6-inch front rotors and 10.2-inch rears compared to the Mazda’s 11.4-inch fronts and 11-inch rear rotors. The big difference in this comparison was the amount of pedal feel. The Mazda’s brake pedal had a longer travel and felt more progressive, giving the driver a greater degree of control. The Mini’s brakes felt grabbier, and required more careful inputs along the way.
In Real Life
One area that the Mini dominated was versatility. In the realm of two-seat roadsters, its trunk was absolutely enormous. At 8.5 cubic feet, it’s only 1.3 cubic feet smaller than our long-term Mini Coupe. There was just a lot of space to work with here, top up or down. The fact that there was a very handy pass-through to the cabin area just furthered how much junk you can fit back there. When we didn’t want to use the trunk, there was a handy parcel shelf right behind the two seats.
If you plan on owning the Mazda, plan on owning a second car to haul anything. The Mazda’s trunk would barely fit a weekend’s worth of luggage. For one. There was space for two humans in the cabins, and not much else. Even the small cubby between the driver’s seat was too small. For reference, it wouldn’t fit a 20-ounce water bottle.
We need to remember that even though these are convertibles, it’s not going to be sunny all the time, and that occasionally the top needs to go up.
Mazda presented the easiest solution with its power retractable hardtop. Hold a button, secure a latch, and drive away. Reverse that to put the top down.
The Mini’s manual top required a twist of a handle to disengage from the windshield, and then we simply pushed it backwards behind the seats. Putting it up was a more awkward procedure. We had to press a button to release it, then lift it over the seats, twist the handle, and secure it to the window frame.
This would normally be fine, as Mazda’s soft-top MX-5 used an identical procedure. Where these two differ, is that the Mazda’s soft-top could easily be worked with one hand, as it was quite light and easy to reach.
The Mini’s soft-top was neither of those things, and required an uncomfortable stretch and two hands. Even giant EIC Miersma had trouble raising the Mini’s roof while in the driver’s seat, so we could only imagine how someone of a smaller stature might struggle. If you are buying the Mini, get the $750 semi-automatic top. It functions identically to the MX-5’s, with a latch and a button.
Before we render final judgment on these two, we need to acknowledge just how good they really are. The Mini Cooper S Roadster is a brilliant addition to the Mini family, blending all the traits that we love about the hard-topped Coupe into a package that gives you several million miles of headroom, and looks darn good along the way. The MX-5, even growing old in its third generation, is still one of the most utterly joyful cars on sale today. Few automotive experiences compare with piloting these two cars down a demanding piece of road. Still, we need to pick a winner. So without further ado…
Second Place: Mini Cooper S Roadster
Let us be up front: if we were in the market for a two-seat roadster as our primary means of transportation, we’d be driving away behind the wheel of the Mini. The extra cabin space, overall versatility, and more usable power make it a far more tolerable vehicle in everyday life.
The problem, in the Mini’s case, is that people don’t buy roadsters to be practical, or comfortable, or easy to live with. They buy them to have fun and be engaged, and escape their ho-hum, daily driven sedans and crossovers. A true roadster’s primary job is to be fun, and unfortunately, the Mini doesn’t succeed at this job as well as the MX-5.
First Place: Mazda MX-5 Miata Special Edition
A master class in how to do a roadster. Sure, we weren’t crazy about the cramped cabin and miniscule trunk, but in the world of two-seat convertibles, these aren’t minuses; they’re pluses. Driving a car like this isn’t about how much stuff you can carry or how comfortable the cabin is. It’s about having fun.
What matters is that there’s a sweet-sounding engine in front of you, a gearbox that demands your attention in the middle, and a pair of tires driving the whole thing from the back. The ultra-chatty steering with its sharp turn-in and the suspension that had just enough movement to be entertaining but was still engaging when pushed were just icing on the MX-5’s victory cake.