The first time I ever saw a MINI in person was in the late '60s, after I graduated from high school. I visited an import showroom to look at MGs and Triumphs, one of which I had hoped to be my first new car. The MINI was red, with the Union Jack flag painted on the top of it. It looked “veddy, veddy British Invasion,” what with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc. being at the height of their powers, and all things British being very cool.
|1. The Cooper S Convertible comes with a turbocharged 1.6L, 4-cyl engine with 172hp, and 177 ft-lbs of torque.
2. Standard Cooper and high-performance JCW versions are also available with 118hp and 208hp respectively.
3. The front of the soft-top slides open as well.
4. The Cooper S Convertible is priced from $27,450 ($36,350 CAD).
Despite the fact that the Triumphs and MGs were small, this little coupe, with its tiny tires, looked like a bumper car you’d see at the amusement park. When the salesman opened the door, I fully expected to see 10 clowns bouncing out of it. My Dad asked the guy where you inserted the key to wind it up. I’m sure the salesman got a lot of that.
As we left the showroom (without any of the British models I was drooling over), and got into my father’s huge, slab sided Buick Electra 225, he joked that we could have slipped any one of those “little pieces of crap” into the trunk and carried it home. Now you get the idea why none of those sports cars wound up in my driveway.
But this past August, MINI celebrated its 50th birthday, a testament to the little car’s appeal worldwide, if never in the U.S., as a basic, fuel efficient mode of transportation. And while the Classic MINI car faded away in Europe in 1999, since BMW resurrected the brand in 2001, they have sold over 1.5 million copies, with the United States being their largest market. I had a chance to spend a week, and a few hundred miles with the MINI Cooper S Convertible, and I have to report, it was a jolly good time.
The S model comes equipped with a turbocharged 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder motor, which puts out a respectable 172hp, and 177 ft-lbs of torque at a mere 1600 rpm. That contrasts with the standard non-turbo motor, which puts out a more modest 118 horsepower, and by comparison, feels a bit anemic.
Fuel economy is 26 mpg in the city and 34 highway. I don’t doubt those estimates for normal driving, but it’s hard to drive this car normally. It begs to be driven hard.
The Mini Cooper S, weighing in at a mere 2,855 lbs., accelerates smartly from a standing start, and the 6-speed Getrag manual transmission lets you take advantage of the all the available grunt the engine has to offer. The clutch pedal is light, and the gearbox is precise, and while I probably wouldn’t choose a manual for my everyday car, I wouldn’t be disappointed if I had this one to deal with. This MINI will reach 60 mph in just over 7 seconds, but it feels even quicker, due to the small size of the car, and how low it sits to the ground. You’ll feel a fair amount of torque steer pulling away form a stop, and powering out of turns, but wrestling with the steering wheel a little bit is part of the charm of the car.
There is a lot of go-kart feel to the driving experience because of a combination of the short 97.1-inch wheelbase, coupled with the MacPherson struts in front, and the multi-link rear suspension with lightweight aluminum rear trailing arms. And don’t forget the Sport Suspension package that fits more aggressive springs and dampers. The result, however, is that ride quality is quite firm, and can be jarring over sharp bumps and expansion joints. The reinforced convertible chassis is actually 10% stiffer than the coupe, which is the reverse of what you normally get with a convertible. You don’t need to wear a kidney belt, but the Cooper S model isn’t a boulevard cruiser, either.
The result of all this stiffness and sportiness is that this MINI is a blast to drive in the twisty bits. Outside of that go-kart mentioned above, I can’t recall another car (with a suspension) that corners as flat as this one, except maybe a Lotus Elise.
The steering is quick and responsive and you can just dart into a corner, even if a bit too hot, and rail your way around it, without ever feeling out of control. And if you should push it past the limit, the car’s Dynamic Stability Control, Traction Control, a Limited Slip Differential, will combine to save your bacon.
In addition, there is a Sport button on the console that, when activated, will provide more rapid acceleration, and tighter steering, and on the automatic transmission equipped cars, will adjust the shift points. I must admit that I couldn’t discern any difference with the button activated or not.
The interior is a comfortable place for the two front passengers to spend time. Head room is generous and the heated leather seats are wide, yet bolstered, and you don’t get that cramped feeling that you do with some of BMW’s sport seats. If you want to include back seat passengers, they better be young children, because even with the front seats positioned for short people, there is very little leg room left for those in back.
The layout of the controls and gauges is – (oh how can I put this nicely) unique. The speedometer is located in a round, wall-clock sized dial, right smack in the middle of the dashboard, above the center stack, just as it was in the classic MINIs of old. It also houses the radio controls, warning lights, fuel gauge and odometer. Beneath the speedometer are the easy to use heating controls, and then a bank of toggle switches for the windows, door locks, heated seats and fog lights. A similar band of switches is located above the rear view mirror, and those operate the various interior lights, and the power switch for the roof.
A large tachometer sits in front of the driver and there is a small LED screen inside it that shows various bits of information such as a digital speedometer, clock, thermometer, and the trip info that includes average and current miles per gallon, distance to empty, dual trip meters, etc.
Just to the left of that round dial is another smaller one called the Openometer, which tracks your top down, engine-on time for up to 7 hours. (A cumulative count is kept in the trip computer). I’d love to meet the guy who came up with that idea and shake his hand. Not that it’s a great idea – I think its stupid – but that guy must be able to sell ice cubes to Eskimos if he was able to get a bunch of stoic Germans to approve putting that thing in their car. German’s are not exactly famous for their whimsy, you know!
The leather wrapped steering wheel has the cruise controls on the right side, and redundant radio/telephone controls on the left. All are easy to use. Storage space is limited, as there is no armrest console between the front seats, so you’re left with a glove box, and small door pockets to keep small items handy.
The convertible roof is a soft top that features a retractable sunroof that opens about halfway back for those times when the full top down experience isn’t desired. It’s nice, but because it retracts right from the windshield header, there is no pop-up wind deflector, so it’s a bit noisy and creates a lot of buffeting in the cabin. When the convertible top is fully lowered for open air driving, there is a good deal of back draft, and the car didn’t come with the detachable wind deflector, but I’m never critical of the windblast in a convertible because… it’s a convertible and that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
As for top-up driving, unfortunately, there’s a good deal more noise than I care for, and it’s more than most other rag tops I’ve driven lately.
The trunk is small, very small, but it is aided by being able to lower the rear seats. Unfortunately, the fold down tailgate opening is so tiny, it’s just hard to get anything into the trunk at all. It’s much easier to fold the rear seats down and load things into the back with the top down.
The Cooper S Convertible starts at $27,450 ($36,350 CAD) versus the Standard convertible's $24,550 ($29,950 CAD) starting price. If you’re not on a tight budget, I'd spend the extra three grand for the increased performance, and lay off the other options. My test car added the Metallic Paint for $500, the Leather Package, Cold Weather Package, Premium Package, Sport Package, and Park Distance Control to bring up the bottom line to $33,700. If you compare the prices to a Miata Touring, it’s about $2,500 more, although it is about $2,000 less than a Volkswagen Eos. So you’ll have to decide if you’d prefer a more cushioned ride in the Volkswagen or Miata, or if you want to be able to pretend you’re a Formula 1 racer when the roads get challenging.
The MINI Cooper S Convertible has its flaws, mostly in the ride quality department, but it is a really fun car to drive aggressively on demanding roads. If you're lucky enough to live in places where you can spend a fair amount of time driving on interesting roads, then that might tip the scales in favor of the MINI. I found myself using this car like I do my motorcycles. That is, I had nowhere to go in particular, but I just took it out to find some nice roads to play on, just for the sake of having fun. I don’t usually do that with most cars. Maybe MINI should have scrapped the Openometer idea in favor of a Funometer, but then they’d have to make it count more than just seven hours.