2009 MINI Cooper Convertible Review

A drop-top paradox

2009 MINI Cooper Convertible Review

To me, the MINI Cooper Convertible is an automotive paradox. How can a car be geared towards driving enthusiasts and at the same time be such yuppie, poseurish machine?

FAST FACTS

1. The Cooper Convertible comes with a 118hp, 1.6L, 4-cyl engine.

2. Cooper S and JCW versions are also available with 172hp and 208hp respectively.

3. The front of the soft-top slides open as well

4. The Cooper Convertible is priced from 24,550 ($29,950 CDN).

Imagine my embarrassment when I, a serious automotive journalist, was quickly transformed into a stereotype when, while blasting down the highway with the top down, had a cross-wind blow the collar of my Lacoste polo up around my neck. And yet, while my popped collar may have drawn a few smirks from onlookers, it was I who was smiling behind the wheel of one of the best-handling front-drive machines ever made.

EXCEPTIONAL HANDLING

MINI likes to describe the cornering abilities of its vehicles as go-kart like. I’d take it to the next level saying the last time I took a corner as vigorously as in my Cooper Convertible was in an open-wheel Formula Mitsubishi… or perhaps a Lotus.

MINI’s do have a unique way about them, and I’m not just talking about their design. From the driver’s seat you feel like you’re sitting well above the car’s center of gravity. This makes the feeling all the more sensational, when you twitch the steering and it responds immediately, racing through a corner without the slightest bit of understeer or wheelspin.

Handling on my tester was improved slightly thanks to a set of optional, larger 17-inch wheels and as MINI offers endless customization options you can improve things further with items like stiffer way bars and springs.

If you do plan on ever tracking your car we also suggest the inexpensive ($350) Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) option. Stability control is standard and while it can be shut off entirely, the DTC option gives you more “wiggle” room when it comes to sliding the car around in corners. Additionally, the DTC system comes with Electronic Differential Lock Control (EDLC), which essentially functions like an LSD (slowing the inside wheel in a corner to prevent wheelspin), but does so by adding brake rather than some sort of complex “power-splitting” axle setup. Both the DTC option and EDLC are technologies that aren’t found anywhere else on a front-drive car.

IMPRESSIVELY RIGID CHASSIS

Handling is something that MINI’s have always been known for, but the fact that even the convertible versions take corners so well is downright amazing; another paradox of sorts. How can a chassis loose its top and still be so rigid?

Perhaps on a racetrack you can feel the body flex, but not around town. There isn’t even any discernable cowl shake – something that no doubt stems for the car’s short wheelbase. As a result, when you do hit a larger bump, it tends to be more pronounced, but in many ways that is better than the sort of sea-sick feeling you get in so many other convertibles (even very expensive ones) where you feel stuck between two ends of a car that are constantly flexing in opposite directions.

With the top up or down this MINI looks equally cute, although top-down is best, especially thanks to the nice chrome band that encircles the car, running from the windshield, across the doors and around the back. Plus, some of the interior accents are even painted to match the body color.

The soft-top retracts in a reasonable 15 seconds and while it’s nice that it’s a fully power unit, it is annoying that you have the hold the button the whole time. To avoid the wait, you can drop the top before you even get into the car by using the key fob, or drop it on the run at speeds below 20 mph.

Quite possibly the best feature, however, is that the front half of the canvas roof slides open, and with the windows down it’s almost as good as dropping the top. I particularly enjoyed this on one commute home, which was constantly threatened by rain.

But don’t fool yourself, the sliding canopy isn’t the same, and won’t count towards time on your Openometer. What’s that, you say? Well, it’s a gauge to the left of the tachometer that measures the amount of time you’ve been driving with the top down. I’m proud to say that in a week’s worth of commuting I was able to enjoy over six hours of top down driving!

Visibility in the new new MINI Convertible has been improved thanks in part to a hidden rollover bar that only pops up when a rollover is detected. MINI says this improved rear visibility, but to be honest it’s still tough to see out the back, even for me at 6’1”.

Visibility with the top up (always a problem with cars like this) actually isn’t all that bad and while there are still some blind spots, they have been reduced thanks to larger windows. And that hidden rollover bar does make a difference during top-up driving.

THIS TOY DOUBLES AS A GREAT DAILY DRIVER

This reasonably good visibility brings up yet another MINI paradox. The Cooper convertible is designed both for frivolous open air cruising, as well as purposeful daily driving. It’s small size make it easy to drive and park in urban areas – although with the car’s less than perfect rear visibility you might want to opt for the $500 rear Park Distance control feature.

As for commuting duty, the Cooper Convertible will comply and gets an excellent fuel-economy rating of 28 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. That number is slightly less with the optional six-speed automatic transmission, which gets 25/34 mpg. Unfortunately all MINI’s require premium fuel.

With 118hp and 114 ft-lbs of torque from a 1.6-liter four-cylinder, it does seem like you’re getting ripped off in the horsepower department – especially considering the car’s $25,000 list price.

Still, 118 ponies never felt like so much. In the lower gears at low rpm sometimes the car gets bogged down by a lack of torque, but wind up those revs and it actually can feel much faster than it’s 8.9-second 0-60 mph time.

Our tester was equipped with a manual transmission and while MINI’s automatic is a six-speed unit, we have no doubt the car feels even less powerful with the auto-box. Those wanting paddle shifters with their auto will have to opt for the pricier Cooper S Convertible.

To further enhance the driving experience there is an optional Sports Button, which heightens the responsiveness of the throttle and steering, as well as that of the transmission, (on automatic models), alleviating some of the auto-box’s inherent slowness.

One great standard feature on the car is a hill-start assist system, which keeps the car in place for a moment before you engage the throttle.

If you are commuting though, you’ll have to travel light and keep your car-pooling to a minimum as cargo room is extremely limited and the rear seats are essentially useless.

LIMITED STANDARD EQUIPMENT AND LOST OF EXTRAS

For a pricier compact, the standard equipment list on the Cooper Convertible is limited. It includes power windows and locks with remote entry, air conditioning and a six-speaker AM/FM/CD player with an auxiliary jack and speed sensitive volume. One nice feature is a special button that allows you to open or close all the windows at once.

Otherwise, unless you opt for a few extras, it’s not overly well-appointed. Our tester included the $2,000 Lounge leather; $500 USB/iPod adapter; $1,250 Premium package with automatic climate control, chrome accents and a leather steering wheel with redundant audio controls and cruise control; $500 Cold Weather Package with heated mirrors and seats; and a $1,500 Sport Package with sport seats (as well as fog lights, those 17-inch wheels and the DTC system).

QUIRKY INTERIOR AN ERGONOMIC NIGHTMARE

As for the interior itself, I have to say that even with the leather and options it still just looked quirky, rather than premium. In fact, I have to say it’s downright ugly and from a functionality standpoint it’s a nightmare.

Put aside for a fact that the novelty-sized speedometer has all the visual appeal of roadkill, it’s just not a good location. The climate control buttons are difficult to use as they require you to push up or down on a surface that is almost flush with the center stack. The “toggle” switches are annoying and the big knob located with the audio control buttons actually controls the radio presets – the volume knob is lower down. It’s almost as if when they designed the interior controls of the MINI they started from scratch and ignored every basic principle of automotive ergonomics that has been established over the past several decades.

And sure the car has a cool start-stop button, but you still have to slide the cheap plastic fob into the cheap plastic insert in the dash (where it doesn’t seem to fit very well) and then press the tiny cheap-looking button. An “intelligent” keyless push-button system would be nice as a standard feature, given the MINI’s $24,550 ($29,950 CDN) MSRP.

When it comes to safety, the Cooper Convertible isn’t lacking with front and side airbags, ABS, EBD, Brake Assist and Cornering Brake Control. As mentioned stability control is standard, while traction control and EDLC are optional. A tire pressure monitoring system comes on all models, as do run flat tires.

THE VERDICT

As a drop-top the Cooper Convertible is a solid buy, offering the fun you want with a lot more functionality than you’d expect. The rest comes down to whether you like the design and can live with the interior.

While I can appreciate how some people love the exterior look, especially as it stands out from the crowd of Corollas, the design just doesn’t do it for me. No doubt for MINI buyers the car’s iconic design is a strong reason to purchase and it had better be because that is in many ways what you are paying for – along with the excessively individualistic interior. Oh, and let’s not forget the car’s fabulous handling.

In some ways, $25,000 sounds steep for just 118hp, but all things considered it’s completely justified as the Cooper Convertible delivers more fun than cars with twice the output.

It’s so much fun I can almost overlook the car’s quirkiness… almost.

PLUS

  • Amazing handling
  • Fabulous fuel-economy
  • Unique look with tons of options to further enhance individuality

MINUS

  • Pricey
  • Interior controls an ergonomic nightmare, and hideous to boot
  • Tough to get over the ultra-trendy/girly/poseur look
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