First, allow me to state the obvious: $35,000 is a silly amount of money to pay for a front-wheel-drive convertible with two usable seats and few luxury options (no leather, no nav, no automatic climate control). If someone were to ask me to recommend some smart ways to spend $35,000, the Mini Cooper JCW convertible would fall somewhere between "patent leather suit" and "old General Motors Corp stock." And yet, if I wanted some wind in my hair, I'd probably give the Mini some consideration. Why? One word: Fun.
Part of the fun comes from dynamic excellence. The steering is quicker than anything I've experienced outside of a Mitsubishi Evo. The six-speed manual gearbox is slick, precise, and has a satisfyingly mechanical shift action. Provided you're not on the throttle, the hunkered-down JCW also displays BMW-like poise in corners, and is commendably solid and rattle free for a convertible. When you are on the throttle, you can forget about turning anywhere, as you'll have enough trouble simply keeping the steering wheel straight, but the engine's crazy turbo character does have its merits.
Then, there's that whole Mini thing. I keep expecting to tire of the brand and its overweening cheekiness, but that hasn't happened yet. What it does here is relieve some of the self-important seriousness that often plagues performance cars. To the left of the big tachometer (which on occasion reflects the sun directly into your eyes) there's an "Openmeter" that tells you how long you've had the roof down. The side-view mirrors have checkerboard covers. And some middle-aged woman in a last-gen Cooper gleefully waved at me at a stoplight this morning. No one waves at you when you're in a Nissan 370Z convertible.
Ultimately, what would keep me from buying this particular car isn't so much the other sporty convertibles on offer at this price range -- including the 370Z and the Ford Mustang GT -- but rather, a cheaper Mini. If you want the unique open motoring experience that this British/German marque has to offer, the Cooper S convertible is every bit as much fun on a day-to-day basis and starts at a more reasonable $27,850. That'll leave you with several thousand dollars to spend on something else that's clearly not worth the money, but makes you happy all the same.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor