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Worlds Apart

By Shaun Cleary, 17 Sep 2010 Reviews

Worlds Apart

MX-5 thought it had the sporty rag-top market all to itself, but not if Mini’s new Cooper S Cabrio has its way

There’s a reason why rugby league fanatics love the annual New South Wales versus Queensland State of Origin clash.

It’s not really about footy, but more about the teams being so evenly matched that it’s impossible to pick anything other than a close game. V8 Supercars follows the same successful formula, with the two protagonists almost identical on every detail. That’s why the contest is so enthralling.

Some conflicts, however, aren’t quite so clear-cut. Take the Mazda MX-5 and Mini Cooper S Cabrio, for example. In concept, this pair couldn’t be more different – a purist, rear-drive, naturally-aspirated two-seat roadster and a high-fashion, front-drive, turbocharged hatchback with its roof lopped off. But whether they like it or not, their fabric tops, their sporting flavour, and their similar price points position them pretty much eyeball-to-eyeball.Whether buyers also see it that way is ultimately irrelevant because both the MX-5 and Mk2 Cooper S Cabrio are more-than-capable entertainers. In many ways, they’re closer than you’d think.

For $43,850, the entry-level Mazda MX-5 comes jam-packed with driver appeal – as MX-5s have always done – but not a whole lot more. On the outside, our base model lacks the Roadster Coupe Sport’s chrome accents on the aggressive front air intake and fog lamp surrounds. Thankfully, it also misses out on that car’s unattractive 17-inch BBS forged alloys in favour of Mazda’s simpler, sexier wheels of the same size.

The driving environment inside is basic, yet effective, with nothing extraneous to weigh the MX-5 down. The seats are wrapped in cloth, but leather is available, together with a 200-watt Bose stereo, in a Touring model for another $1870. Modern essentials like air-con, power windows, cruise control and an in-dash, six-disc stereo are included, but other items usually on offer for this money like reach-adjustable steering, climate control, Bluetooth phone connectivity and even intermittent wiper adjustment are rudely absent. And that applies to the top-spec $51,455 Roadster Coupe Sports, not just the base stripper.

Compare this to our $51,600 Mini Cooper S Chilli Cabrio, which squeezes a lot into its $7750 premium over the MX-5, and so it should. Firstly, the Mini has never looked better than in this car’s Cabrio-only Interchange Yellow, contrasted with the Chilli’s 17-inch Black Star Bullet alloys. We’d love to see this combo in a hardtop. Unlike the MX-5, the Mini’s soft-top folds automatically, and in only 15 seconds thanks to an electro-hydraulic system that can be operated at speeds up to 30km/h, though a hard-lid MX-5 Roadster Coupe with part-electric opening (the windscreen latch is still manual) can strip itself bare in 12 seconds. Throw in bi-xenon headlights with washers, rear parking sensors, climate control, telescopic steering and a tantalising array of options and colour choices (10 paint and three roof) and all of a sudden, the Cooper S Chilli Cabrio doesn’t seem so rich after all. We might just have a battle on our hands.

The Mini wins Round One with a convincing victory at Oran Park. We recorded 7.24sec to 100km/h, almost two-tenths faster than Mini’s claim, with front-wheel traction the only thing preventing the Cooper S from going even quicker. A good launch is the sole tricky part in extracting a good time from it, as rowing swiftly and accurately through the lovely six-speed ’box is easy as pie. A 15.10sec 400m sprint is solid, but it only tells half the story when compared to the MX-5’s gutsy 15.22sec run. It’s the Mini’s 400m terminal speed – 154.3km/h against the MX-5’s 147.87 – that proves just how fast she is once she’s rolling.

The rear-drive Mazda squirrels away from rest quicker than the boosted front-drive Mini, and maintains a slight advantage up until about 90 clicks. But from there until its slightly higher 222km/h top speed, the Mini stretches its legs and strides ahead. Still, the MX-5’s 7.37sec to 100km/h is nothing to be ashamed of. While it’s more forgiving to launch than the Mini, the Mazda’s second-to-third gearchange is slightly harder to execute quickly without getting dangerously close to picking up first.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen and in every other instance, the Mazda’s short-throw six-speed is a pleasure to use, thanks to the improved synchros on all forward gears that have acccompanied its 2009 facelift.

That’s handy because you need to keep rowing through the MX-5’s gearbox to stay in touch with the Mini. The 80-120km/h rolling acceleration times expose the Mazda’s relative lack of torque – it clocks 5.1sec in third gear, but struggles to 10.0sec in sixth, while in the same ratios, the Mini accelerates in 4.3 and 7.4 seconds. The Mini’s 1.6-litre twin-scroll-turbo four only makes 10kW more than the MX-5’s naturally aspirated 2.0-litre – 128kW at 5500rpm versus 118kW at 7000rpm – but the Mini’s torque obliterates its rival, with 240Nm between 1600 and 5000rpm, and an additional 20Nm waiting in the wings as overboost. The Mazda’s rev-happy MZR 2.0-litre can only muster 188Nm at 5000rpm in comparison.

On country roads, that equates to easy overtaking in fourth or fifth in the Mini, with a pleasant crackle from the exhaust when you back off. The Mazda’s torque deficit below 4000rpm makes third gear a necessity for safe rounding-up at the national speed limit and requires a planted foot all the way to the 7600rpm cut-out, but the big revs have another benefit besides stronger acceleration. The new MX-5’s Induction Sound Enhancer (ISE) improves the engine’s acoustics dramatically over previous models. An angry snarl accompanies full-throttle exploits above 4000rpm, and the higher the revs, the greater the induction snort. But if ever a car needed some sporting noise to match its addictive driving experience, it’s an intimate two-seat purist roadster like the MX-5.

Starting with the snug front seats, the Mazda feels like it wraps tightly around you, even with the lightweight roof (manually) lowered. It’s all related to the MX-5’s Jinba Ittai design philosophy, which means ‘one with the car’. The driver sits low in the cabin and is quite reclined, true to a traditional roadster driving position. However, the fact that the MX-5’s chunky little steering wheel still lacks reach adjustment is both surprising and disappointing, as is the absence of adequate seat adjustment. The notches in both the sliding seat-base and levered backrest simply aren’t close enough. A driver’s car that won’t allow you to position the steering-wheel and controls exactly where you want them? Doesn’t sound like Jinba Ittai to us.

The MX-5’s attractive dash is clean and fuss-free, surrounded by a windscreen that is quite low and only just rises above the driver’s head. But despite this, vision all-round is excellent. The gearstick is positioned quite close, and your feet plunge deep under the dash, dancing on well-spaced plastic pedals (only the Roadster Coupe Sports gets metal ones). It should feel claustrophobic, but it doesn’t. Instead, it’s more like a cocoon perfectly shaped and proportioned for the driver’s task.

In comparison, the Mini instantly feels more expansive, and expensive. You feel like you’re sitting much higher and straighter than in the MX-5, which is deceiving because the Mini’s driving position is actually quite low for a small hatch, and is perfect for spirited punting. The upright windscreen rises miles ahead of you, and combined with the deep dashboard, gives a real impression of space for front occupants, despite being a physically narrower car than the Mazda. Open the Mini’s electric roof and there’s an even greater feeling of head space – either with the front part slid back Citroen 2CV-style, or the whole thing folded and stuffed together above the boot.

However, while the roof’s automatic operation might be convenient, the execution is less so as it obscures rear vision. Even when folded back tightly, the roof still sits quite high and renders the centre rear-vision mirror next to useless. Like the first-generation, the Mk2 cabrio also maintains two desperately cramped rear seats, but it’s no longer burdened by the hideous roll-hoops that undermined the look of the old car. Of course, there’s still a roll-hoop for safety’s sake, but it’s a pop-up system that takes just 0.15sec.

The Mini’s interior finishes and switches generally exude a higher quality than the MX-5’s, though the difference is mainly down to bespoke toggles and textures, as opposed to the parts-bin approach of the Mazda’s minor switchgear and door plastics. The splashes of Interchange Yellow inside our test Mini’s cabin (a $225 option) greatly enhanced its flavour, as did the subtle yellow stitching on its supportive and highly adjustable front chairs, but it’s all guaranteed to look awful when the missus is wearing purple.

Disappointingly, the Mazda’s invisible options list offers no opportunity for owners to personalise their car, but it’s this difference in philosophy that starkly reminds you of each car’s different approach. The MX-5 is legendary for its back-road pace, and to hell with the colour of its seats, while the Mini is a textbook example of fashion and individualisation that also happens to still be great fun to drive.

Even though the Mini feels much bigger than the MX-5, it’s easy to forget that it only weighs 1230kg (100kg more than the hardtop), and when combined with its wheels-pushed-out-to-the-corners stance, it can generate enough grip to carry miles of corner speed. The steering is responsive, linear and has a meaty feel, providing your push the (out of sight) ‘Sport’ button forward of the gearstick on start-up that also sharpens throttle response. And despite the cabrio’s additional weight, the Mini’s turn-in remains super-keen and its attitude wonderfully adjustable, if slightly more composed that a hardtop Cooper S’s. In tight corners, DSC off, the Mini’s electronic LSD ($350) eliminates almost all wheelspin, but it doesn’t stop the drive wheels tugging at the steering wheel. At least it ensures the Cabrio can make the best of the engine’s superb torque.

On our hot lap around Wakefield Park, that allowed the Mini to power out of the final hairpin and carry a lot more speed down the main straight than the MX-5. At Wakefield, the Mazda simply didn’t have the torque to keep the Mini honest, but keep the MZR 2.0-litre in its sweet spot between 5000-7500rpm and the MX-5 displays plenty of point-to-point speed.

As corners tighten, the MX-5 shrinks around you, and its light, quick steering comes alive, too. Feeling a little soft at straight ahead, the Mazda’s steering is slightly disconcerting at first as you continually feed in more lock than is needed. But beyond initial turn-in, the MX-5’s steering transmits much more of what the front wheels are doing. As you sweep into a bend, the MX-5 leans onto its outside rear and carves along your chosen line with perfect balance. It more than matches the driver’s enthusiasm for curves, while rising and falling easily on choppy roads. You will lose yourself in this sublime chassis.

The MX-5’s ride compliance translates into open-road cruising and around-town commuting, too. The body is rock-solid, with barely any windscreen flex while driving. The same can’t quite be said for the Mini, which does wobble a little – especially with the roof down – but it’s a noticeable improvement over the previous turd-burger. The Mini’s around-town ride jiggles more than the MX-5’s, and that’s exacerbated when you’re driving on back roads at speed. The Mini seems a little soft in the suspension’s compression, and quite firm on rebound, which can make it feel unsettled, much like the Hardtop. This also contributes to the strong reaction in the Mini’s steering if you nail a bump mid-corner.

In practical terms, neither of these cars offers much boot space, although the Mini does have two rear seats as an extra luggage-stowing option. With the roof folded, the MX-5 swallows 150 litres, while the Mini awkwardly accommodates just 125. The Mini’s bottom-hinged boot makes stowing large objects (helmets, for instance) tricky work, too, whereas the Mazda’s traditional boot is surprisingly effective if your luggage is soft.

So, fashion or function? As always, it depends on your priorities, but for two cars that come from such opposite ends of the soft-top spectrum, the Mini Cooper S Cabrio and Mazda MX-5 are surprisingly close. For starters, they’re both good fun to drive. Spend time in the Mini, roof down or up, and you really warm to its chunky stance, its cheeky turn-in and its tirelessly exuberant engine. Yes, it’s wobblier, slightly lazier and seemingly far less focused than a hardtop Cooper S, but the difference isn’t that great. And yes, the stiff ride can be jarring at times, but somehow the Mini’s lovable personality overcomes its deficiencies. Like we said, spend some time in the Cooper S cabrio and you can’t help warming to its charms.

Like the Mini, the MX-5 prides itself on its uniqueness and its engineering excellence. But stripped bare, the Mini is still just a hatchback with its roof cut off, whereas the MX-5 is a purpose-built roadster, with everything that goes along with that. The sweetness and purity of the Mazda’s handling, balance, ride, gearchange and roof architecture cement its status as a modern icon, and it remains the benchmark which others have been afraid to follow. But then the new Mini is that, too. So far, no other manufacturer has been able to successfully imitate either car.

Ultimately, however, it’s the MX-5’s pure focus on driver enjoyment that sways us its direction. It’s both brilliant to drive and great value. The Mini makes a very convincing argument for itself as a unique all-rounder, but if only you could take all its spicy bits and build them into a modern, rear-drive British roadster. Then the MX-5 would have some competition.