Although boasting good fuel economy, the Mini Cooper is meant to be a fun car. But there are different types of driving fun: some of us enjoy taking corners at speed, listening to the tires squeal as they fight for grip, while others appreciate a sunny day cruise, seeing and being seen in a stylish ride. Models in the Mini line accommodate both, but the 2009 Mini Cooper Convertible primarily satisfies the latter.
Our Mini Cooper Convertible lacked the S denoting a turbocharger forcing air through the little 1.6-liter engine. Further crippling it on the performance side was the six-speed-automatic transmission included on our test car. But the most important lesson this car taught us about Mini Coopers was to always opt for the Convenience package, as its lack leaves out phone and MP3 player support.
On the road
You can get a USB port for an iPod and Bluetooth for a phone as an a la carte option, or with the Convenience package, but our 2009 Mini Cooper Convertible came with none, our only solace being the auxiliary input that Mini includes standard. The best cabin gadget in our test car was the convertible top, and we derived some small amusement from the Openometer, an analog gauge--a timer, really--that shows how long the top has been down.
Mini's whimsy is evident from this gauge, the sole purpose of which is to show how long the top has been down.
Given the Mini Cooper Convertible's looks, and our past experiences with the Cooper S, we looked forward to an exciting drive. But the put-it-in-drive-to-go automatic served as the first clue toward the lack of thrills. Out on the streets, it quickly became clear that it would take more than half throttle to move the Mini. To get anywhere at all, we got used to pushing the pedal all the way to the floor, and even then the car took some time to start turning the wheels.
Fortunately, Minis inherit a dual personality from owner BMW. A little button labeled Sport sits in front of the shifter, which instantly remaps the throttle to provide performance which comes a little closer to excitement. That anemic automatic, as well, has a sport setting, which hangs on to lower gears a little bit longer, letting the engine speed climb. Or there's manual gear selection, using either the shifter or the chunky paddles on the wheel, where you can keep it in second until the engine starts to smoke.
Given these tools, why not keep the Mini in maximum sport mode at all times? We wanted to let it prove it could also meet its EPA numbers, a nice 25 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. So we settled on a routine of hitting the sport button when we needed acceleration, such as a freeway on-ramp, then turning it off for steady cruising. Putting that button on the steering wheel would have been more convenient, but Mini probably didn't intend the Cooper to be driven in this fashion.
Having unlocked what performance the Cooper Convertible had, we took it through our favorite winding road course, and found the handling to be as good as any Mini we've driven. Its tightly tuned steering means quick turn-in, with the stiff body following the front wheel pull neatly. Even lacking the sport suspension option, the Mini is tight enough to minimize body roll.
The automatic transmission, mated to the Mini's small displacement engine, seriously hampers performance.
Driving on these roads would have been more fun if the transmission shifted quicker, although its sport mode did have it readily selecting lower gears as we hit the brakes before the turns. But the standard six-speed-manual transmission is what you really want for winding roads. Mating a low displacement engine to an automatic transmission is like taking the alcohol out of cheap beer: it may be weak, but you could have had some fun with it.
The convertible top really indicates what this Mini is about. It powers up and down easily, requiring little effort of the driver. And once down you can enjoy the wind in your hair when at last the Mini Cooper Convertible gets up to speed.