2016 Mini Cooper S Convertible First Drive
A whimsical yet sporty package for coastal types everywhere.
EngineTurbo 2.0L I4
Power189 hp/207 lb-ft
Transmission6-Speed Manual/6-Speed Auto
0-60 Time6.7 (AT)/6.8 (Man.)
Top Speed143 mph
Curb Weight3,025 lbs (AT)/2,985 lbs (Man.)
Seating2 + 2
Since there isn't much mechanically or stylistically to differentiate the new Convertible from its Hardtop fraternal twin, we can cover the basics quickly. The exterior sheetmetal is, for better or worse, not much different. That means the large proboscis – a nod to pedestrian impact standards and a variety of other engineering and safety concerns – and longer rear overhang carry over. The jutting underbite and slightly walleyed headlight stance exaggerate how bulbous the front end has become with each subsequent generation. Taken in isolation, the Mini Convertible is still undeniably cute, but the English bulldog vibe is slowly being pushed out of the corporate design language as each new Mini is gently inflated. At some point, we'll hit the bursting point.
The Mini Convertible is still undeniably cute, but the English bulldog vibe is slowly being pushed out of the corporate design language.
Even in the space-compromised Mini Convertible, total cargo area increases by 25 percent to a useful 7.6 cubic feet maximum. The Easy-Load function, which props up the back edge of the soft top on a pair of spindly plastic struts, is a bit fussy but helps get awkward items in and out of the surprisingly deep cargo area. Smaller or soft luggage should go in without issue. Larger items might be better suited for the back seat. If you're buying a four-seat convertible, you should be prepared for these compromises ahead of time.
Speaking of time, the top's operation is reasonably quick. It takes 18 seconds to raise or lower the top, at up to 18 mph. It was fast enough for a stoplight change to test out the situation with the lid on. If you've ever been in a last-generation Mini 'Vert, it's about the same – big blind spots mar the view, but it's remarkably quiet. Oddly, the rear view mirror works better with the top up; folded down, the roof and large rear headrests crowd the scene.
The new gimmick for the Convertible is a Union Jack pattern woven right in the fabric, mimicking one of the roof graphics available in the Hardtop models (part of the Mini Yours semi-customization program). When the top is open, the collapsible wind-blocker spans the airspace over the rear seats like some sort of plasticky, Germanic suspension bridge. It works incredibly well, although its presence is mutually exclusive to any rear-seat passengers willing to cram back there.
Our tester was a Cooper S, featuring a BMW B48 inline-four (replacing the old BMW-Peugeot "Prince" engine family), making 189 hp at 5,000 rpm and 207 ft-lbs of torque at 1,250 rpm – barely off idle. Like the rest of the family, including the B38 hp inline-three in the regular Cooper models, it has all of BMW's technological goodies bolted on. DoubleVANOS, Valvetronic, TwinPower turbocharging, direct injection ... this is a thoroughly modern powerplant.
And that means it has the same thoroughly modern tradeoffs as BMW's other high-tech, undersquare turbocharged motors. The torque peak is very low, but the hardware involved in the Valvetronic variable valve lift system results in a low power peak and a low redline. It feels like it should rev out further. A muted exhaust note and tiny tachometer mean you'll come awfully close to redline before realizing it's time to shift. In a drive that stretched a couple of hours through the canyons north of Malibu, I never fully got used to it. Give it a few weeks (or a John Cooper Works exhaust) and it'll become second nature.
On the other hand, the Cooper S pulls whenever you'd like without much fuss. Some reviewers are just being polite when they say they don't feel any lag, but the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine really doesn't tip its hand. It's torquey and smooth. A distant turbine whistle is there if you listen for it, but the low-end grunt is always there to pull you out of a tight corner. It takes 6.8 seconds to reach 60 mph in the manual, and a tenth less in the automatic.
A distant turbine whistle is there if you listen for it, but the low-end grunt is always there to pull you out of a tight corner.
Our tester had the optional adaptive dampers, and they're very, very good. My drive partner, a professional touring car driver, agreed that those dampers did a phenomenal job pressing the contact patches into the pavement, despite a series of decreasing-radius off-camber corners that threw bumps at us right in the middle of the turn. The tradeoff is some body motion. Think perceptible weight transfer rather than some motion-sickness-inducing lateral chop.
The platform is impressively rigid and stable, thanks in part to a stiffening plate under the engine and reinforced side sills. The takeaway is that good things happen when the car is designed from the outset (and by BMW, no slouches in the chassis rigidity department) as a convertible. If there's a criticism, it's that the increased mass and size of this Mini is palpable with every well-controlled motion. Face the facts: it's bigger, it's heavier, it's noticeable, and ultimately it's still pretty fun to drive.
The work for the driver at the helm is largely pleasant. The steering, electrically-assisted like most modern cars, is a bit numb but accurate enough, with a sporty weight and reasonable assist ratio. I had no trouble placing the car on a windy road. Likewise, the manual transmission is satisfying to use, both at the pedals and at the lever. Perhaps I'm an ergonomic anomaly, but I found the lever to be much further aft of where my hand wanted to go. It did not fall readily to hand, to negate a tired cliché. I managed to overcome and then forget about this annoyance as I got into a rhythm in the hills, shucking the thing from one hairpin to another ... and then out of the canyons, where I shucked it from traffic light to traffic light. In either scenario, it's a willing partner, if not the go-kart of yore.
The Cooper S Convertible starts at $30,450, which is $250 more than last year's model. The options add up quickly; Our fully-loaded testers were almost $10k more than the base price, with room to go further north from there. Be frugal with the options and you'll get most of the Cooper S Convertible's charms, but spend the $500 for the standalone adaptive suspension.
That being said, the inline-three in the regular Cooper is perky and has an offbeat, enticing growl. We've sampled the engine in the Hardtop; it's also available in the Convertible (and knocks $3,650 off the Cooper S price), and those amazing Dynamic Dampers are also a $500 option. The I3 represents a 55 hp downgrade, but with a manual is good for a 8.3 second run to 60 mph – a second and a half off the Cooper S's 0-60 time, but who's clocking a Mini Convertible with a stopwatch? It might be a smarter choice for budget-conscious sun-worshipers still interested in hitting twisty roads with the top down.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's a John Cooper Works Convertible, offering 228 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. I didn't get to sample the JCW, sadly, but at $36,450 it's a full $6,000 more than the Cooper S. For a 0.4 second faster time to 60 mph, that seems like a stretch, although there's more to the JCW than just acceleration. Needless to say, the JCW Convertible will be for true believers only.
On reflection, I think Mini accomplished its mission yet again: another pleasantly quirky convertible that doesn't require too much of a trade-off to own or enjoy. It didn't seem appreciably slower, or less fun to drive, than the last Cooper S Hardtop we drove. In exchange for a little extra cash, you get ready access to fresh air and sunlight but a little less visibility and cargo space. More importantly, thinking about this from a Los Angeles frame of mind, it hits the right balance between compactness, attractiveness, premium feel, and this eager fun-to-drive character. For the right person, that's a hell of a deal.
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