First Drive

2016 Mini Cooper Convertible First Drive

Sometimes, buying on a budget isn't so bad.

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  • Engine
    Turbo 1.5L I3
  • Power
    134 HP / 162 LB-FT
  • Transmission
    6-Speed Automatic
  • 0-60 Time
    8.2 Seconds
  • Top Speed
    128 MPH
  • Drivetrain
    Front-Wheel Drive
  • Curb Weight
    2,905 LBS
  • Seating
  • Cargo
    7.6 CU-FT (max)
  • MPG
    27 City / 37 Hwy
  • Base Price
  • As Tested Price
Conventional gearhead wisdom says to go for the biggest, most powerful engine. For the first two generations of Mini Convertible, this was a no-brainer. You bought the Cooper S. But as Senior Editor Alex Kierstein argued in our first drive of the Cooper S soft top, the less-powerful Cooper Convertible has an ace up its sleeve: a highly entertaining, three-cylinder, turbocharged engine. After some time behind the wheel, this two-time Mini Cooper S (hardtop) owner is ready to say the Cooper Convertible is the droptop Mini you should buy, full stop.

The Cooper's 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder makes just 134 ponies and 162 pound-feet of torque. That's a 55-horsepower deficit and an extra 1.5 seconds, compared to the Cooper S. But who's clocking a Mini Convertible with a stopwatch? The 8.2 seconds it takes to get to 60 mph is perfectly adequate , and the triple's power delivery is addictive.

Peak torque comes in at 1,250 rpm, making for effortless acceleration around town. The engine is positively diesel-like in the way it generates twist below 4,000 rpm, and the way it runs out of steam well before its 6,500-rpm redline. But this isn't annoying. There's more than enough torque to make the Cooper's acceleration sprightly around town.

Think about it this way: The Cooper S' 2.0-liter turbo has enough power to rescue you from bad driving. But because of the turbo lag and the wheezy top end, the base Cooper forces you to manage your momentum. In that way, it's not unlike the Mazda MX-5, Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ, and other so-called "momentum cars," that require drivers to maintain speed for a good corner exit. That, friends, is fun.

But some of the car's shortcomings are less fun. We praised the triple's "offbeat, enticing growl" in our first drive, but this is still a three-cylinder engine and it vibrates like one. There's a diesel-like clatter from the direct-injection system on cold starts. And when rolling off the line at part throttle, the triple sends a weird vibration right to our hips. It disappears quickly as the speed increases, but the sensation is consistent enough to be annoying.

Aside from the interesting powerplant, the best driving goodies aren't reserved only for the Cooper S. Tick the right boxes, and the regular Cooper can fit the adaptive dampers we raved about on the Cooper S first drive – Dynamic Damper Control is a $500 standalone option or included in the $1,750 Sport Package. And just like on the S, these adaptive dampers turn even the regular Cooper into a brilliantly balanced vehicle. I've driven almost every flavor of Mini sold in the US since the brand's BMW-backed relaunch, and these adaptive shocks are the best compromise between handling and comfort I've experienced.

In Sport Mode, the Cooper Convertible is the closest approximation of a first-gen Mini I've driven since, um, my first-gen Mini. It doesn't beat the hell out of you, but it's still sharp and fun. You could drive with the dampers in Sport Mode on a full-time basis, but you don't need to. Because changing modes adjusts the dampers almost instantly, you can switch between the softer and harder modes based on the conditions. Freeway commute? Mid Mode quiets and isolates expansion joints. A favorite on-ramp? Switch to Sport Mode to maximize cornering ability. Hitting a pockmarked surface street? The softer dampers do their best to iron out potholes. The balance is remarkable.

The Cooper and Cooper S still share major mechanical systems, too. The new electric power-assisted steering has a 14:1 ratio on both cars, down from 14.1:1 on last year's car. And no matter the engine, two-pedal Mini's share quick-shifting six-speed automatic transmissions – the only difference with the slushboxes are their final drive ratios and the Cooper S' optional $250 paddle shifters. The roof is the same too – it's quick, all electric, and raises or drops below 18 miles per hour.

Design is subjective, but the Cooper makes a better aesthetic argument. Its front and rear fascias are less busy than its big brother. The Cooper's upper grille is a three-bar design that harkens back to past Minis, the lower grille is a single element instead of the ducted mess found on the Cooper S, and the single-sided exhaust is more discrete. Overall, the Cooper wears a cleaner, more cohesive skin.

We like the Cooper more, and it's a better deal, too. The base Mini Convertible starts at $26,800, or $3,650 less than the S model. That's a big savings that makes Mini's expansive options catalog more palatable (the option sheets are virtually identical regardless of model, by the way). Spend the $1,750 for the Sport Package and its must-have features – Dynamic Damper Control, LED headlights, sport seats, and 16-inch wheels. The 17-inch Propeller Spoke wheels, shown here, are worth the extra $500, too. That brings the total price to $29,050, or $1,400 less than the Cooper S' base price. But keep in mind what we said about Mini's options sheet, because it's easy to get carried away – our Caribbean Aqua tester rings up at $37,150.

It's bizarre for me to recommend a Cooper over a Cooper S, but I am.We already liked the base Mini's budget-conscious formula for attacking twisty roads, and after more time behind the wheel the "momentum car" aspect of the Cooper proves more fun than barreling through turns in the Cooper S. Mini rolled the Cooper's low output, loads of low-end torque, and excellent chassis and suspension setup into an affordable, open-roof package that bests its big brother for the first time, well, ever. The Cooper is more rewarding and more affordable, so ignore conventional wisdom. You won't be disappointed.

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