I went to the media introduction of the first-generation MINI Cooper convertible back in May 2004, and I had three lasting impressions: 1) it’s a cute car, probably too cute for some, but perfect for any part of the world near a shoreline; 2) it drives very well, with excellent roadholding, steering, and a decent powertrain; 3) the exposed hinges on the rear hatch were unacceptably tacky looking.
Five years later, we have the next-generation Mini Cooper convertible, and it appears that the biggest advance is that the exposed hinges are, thank God, gone. They were really out of place on a modern car, even if Mini designers five years ago insisted that they harkened back to the original Mini. Whatever, I thought.
Anyway, if you like the Mini formula in hardtop form, and I do, you’ll like the convertible, also. As convertibles go, it’s quite versatile. Push one button at the windshield header, and the fabric roof rolls back about 15 inches, creating what is, in effect, a sunroof. Keep pushing on the button, and the roof rails detach themselves from the windshield header, the fabric keeps rolling backward, and the whole mechanism lifts itself into the sky and then plunks down onto the back of the vehicle. There is some whirring and humming and dinging of chimes, and a little digital graphic of the car with top down appears on the central display behind the steering wheel. Hold down the button long enough, and all four windows also retract. You then look in the rearview and think, hmmm, I did something wrong here, because the folded roof is blocking my view to the rear; surely it will fold down farther, right? So you play with the rocker switch a bit more and end up raising the roof rather than lowering it even farther. You get out, walk to the back of the car, and realize, nope, this is as far as the roof retracts. So, that’s a fundamental design flaw that will be a deal breaker for some.
If you decide you can live with that, though, your reward for having the roof piled on top of the trunk is that the trunk is spacious and is still accessible through the bottom-hinged hatch. Plus the rear seats fold down. This enables you to, say, take a boogie board to the beach with the top down and the board sticking through the trunk and across the folded rear seat. Everything’s a compromise when it comes to convertibles: you get something here, you give something there.
In general, though, the Mini Cooper convertible gives a lot to its owner, I’d say, especially in Cooper S trim like our test car, which with its 172-hp, turbocharged four is significantly more spritely than the old Cooper S convertible, which had a supercharged four. I did note that the six-speed manual transmission is prone to ending up in reverse gear when you’re aiming for first, though, just like the one in our Four Seasons Mini Cooper S hardtop was.
Joe DeMatio, Executive Editor
There are cars like the Ford Mustang V-6 convertible, whose success is a matter of style over substance, and then there’s the Mini Cooper, which shows that style can be a substance. As such, the first thing that hits you when you approach the convertible is the sheer amount of thought and effort that went into making this a unique automobile. Little details, such as the center-mounted speedometer and fuel gauge, inject a bit of pizzazz into everyday driving. I even got a kick out of rolling the windows up and down with the toggle-like switches found under the rear-view mirror.
It’s also a blast to drive. There’s some torque steer during full acceleration, but aside from that, the Cooper S is perfectly balanced. Its turbo four is powerful enough to have fun, but it never gets away from you, so you can pretty much chuck the ragtop into a corner and let its chassis sort out everything. The ride is tolerable, though the car bottoms out quite jarringly over some of Michigan’s scarier potholes.
And there are definitely quirks. As Joe mentioned, there’s almost no rearward visibility with the top down. I also had issues seeing out the thick-pillared windshield; at times I was trying to look over it rather than through it.
My main issue though, is the price. Call it the prude American in me, but I just can’t fathom spending $32,700 for a small car with less than 200 horsepower, a cloth interior, and useless back seats. For about the same money, you could get a Mustang GT convertible in all its V-8, rear-wheel-drive glory. Just a thought.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
Hey, you guys! Did you notice the ceaseless rattling in the bodyside when the top was lowered? Otherwise, the Mini convertible is as cute as can be. Several people out in the country asked me what it was. How can there be anyone in America who doesn’t know about Mini?? Wow. The Cooper S is spectacular fun, and I didn’t even mind the color, similar to chartreuse, although I favor cherry red. The top goes up and down fairly quickly, and the little blinking light on the dash lets you know it’s all squared away. In all, it’s a pretty funky ride.
Jean Jennings, President & Editor-in-Chief
It’s funny that David Zenlea looks at the price of this car and instantly thinks the Ford Mustang convertible is a better deal. I look at the size of the car first and can’t help but wish our Four Seasons Honda Fit were even half as much fun to drive as this Mini. So many Americans look at small cars and cheap gas and think there’s no reason to drive anything that isn’t powered by a V-8, but there is still a market for small cars that drive well even when fuel is cheap.
I was among those cursing the new EPA mandate for improved fuel economy last week because the announcement coincided with a night in the Honda Fit. In light of the new fuel economy standards, the Fit felt like a penalty box. Today, cruising to work in the Mini, with the top down, seeing approximately 34 mpg on the in-dash display, those standards seem much more palatable to me. Sure, the turbo four isn’t hugely powerful, but the Mini certainly isn’t slow and it’s very obvious Mini has a skilled chassis development team. This is certainly a car for enthusiasts.
I know the Fit and Mini aren’t direct competitors, but many people go for a vehicle based on size alone and it’s nice to know small cars can be desirable and involving, too.
Phil Floraday, Senior Online Editor
There’s nothing like walking out to the parking structure on a warm, early-summer day with the keys to a Mini Cooper S convertible in your hands. The Mini – in both hardtop and convertible forms–never fails to make me smile. Part of it is the cute-as-a-button styling. Sure, the gigantic speedometer is over the top, but every switch and button is unquestionably Mini. You’ll never mistake either the exterior or the interior for any other car on the road, and that’s saying something in a day and age where so many vehicles seem to bear a resemblance to one another. But the biggest part of the Mini’s charm comes when you’re actually moving. Sure, its road manners aren’t perfect – a little torque steer here, a little suspension sharpness there – but it’s an extremely involving car to drive, especially with the top down. Yes, I had a lovely afternoon and evening with the Mini.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
I can’t say for sure that I’d necessarily choose a droptop Mini over a Ford Mustang convertible, but I can confidently say that the Mini convertible is the most inexpensive, fun-to-drive, four-seat ragtop on the market today (not that the Mini’s back seats are exactly huge …). Like its coupe sibling, the Mini convertible handles like it’s on proverbial rails and looks distinctive at the same time.
I especially like this car’s cool-looking sculpted wheels. The paint scheme and stripes are even kinda cool, although this yellow is a bit rich for my tastes.
Like Joe D, I really like the half-sunroof feature that the Mini offers but find the visibility-impinging stacked ragtop to be a serious flaw. The top retracts with impressive haste, though.
I was slightly disappointed by the clearly apparent cowl shake (à la Toyota Camry Solara) when this Mini is driven over bumps, given that this is such a small car with a small wheelbase. There’s a moderate amount of wind noise with the roof up, too, but the top-down Mini experience is worth these qualms.
I’m definitely not a fan of the current Mini’s peculiar ergonomics (I felt this way about our Four Seasons MINI Cooper Coupe, too). To wit, the climate controls are unclear and difficult to adjust, the one-touch windows sometimes take two taps to lower, and it can be tricky to set the windshield wipers on any setting besides off, superslow, or full throttle. I know owners get used to things like this, but that doesn’t make them OK. But by no means do I think these issues are dealbreakers. Not many cars offer this much four-seat fun for the money.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
2009 MINI Cooper S Convertible
Base Price (with destination) : $27,450
Price as tested: $32,700
Interchange Yellow Cloth Leather – $1000
Cold Weather Package – $500
– Power Folding Mirrors, Heated Mirrors and Washer Jets, Heated Front Seats
Premium Package – $1250
– Multi-function Steering Wheel, Anti-theft Alarm System, Chrome Line Interior and Exterior, Automatic Air Conditioning
Sport Package – $1500
– 17″ Alloy Wheels, Black Bullet, Dynamic Traction Control, Xenon Headlights
Park Distance Control (Rear) – $500
Bluetooth and USB/iPod Adapter – $500
26 / 34 / 29 mpg (city/hwy/combined)
Size: 1.6L Turbocharged 4-Cylinder 16V
Horsepower: 172 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 1,600 – 5,000 rpm
Weight: 2855 lb
16 x 6.5-in Alloy Wheels
195/55R-16 All Season Tires