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.
In the cabin
As mentioned above, this 2009 Mini Cooper Convertible lacked the iPod, Bluetooth, and navigation options, all of which we would like to see. These features will be similar to those found in BMWs, and use the radio display in the Cooper Convertible. Mini is fairly clever about using the compact space of the radio display, but it is still limited to two lines of text. The navigation screen would sit in the middle of the big speedometer.
The radio display is a little small for browsing music on an MP3 CD.
Lacking the optional cabin tech, the Cooper Convertible is pretty boring as a tech car. All it really has going for it is the stereo, with music playing from a single-disc player, auxiliary input, or terrestrial radio. The disc player can at least read MP3 CDs, although browsing folders is hampered somewhat by the small radio display.
You can also get a premium audio system with 10 speakers for the Cooper Convertible, but ours was stuck with the standard six speaker system. The audio quality is pretty average, helped by distinct highs, but lacking definition in the mid range.
Under the hood
The lack of thrills while driving the 2009 Mini Cooper Convertible can be partly attributed to the 1.6-liter four cylinder engine, with its 120 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque. BMW squeezes what it can out of the engine using its variable valve timing technology. By comparison, the S version's turbocharger kicks it up to 175 horsepower. The Sport button, which remaps the throttle programming, is not something you find on cars in this segment.
Having used Mini's six-speed-manual transmission previously, we know that it would help the fun factor considerably, but the optional six-speed-automatic transmission tends to keep the engine speed low, sapping the power. In normal drive mode, the transmission takes its time downshifting, leading to slow starts.
But that limiting power train doesn't hurt the handling, which is as sprightly as ever. Our car came with the optional traction control, designed to assist in hard cornering as well as slippery conditions.
We hovered around 30 mpg while testing the Mini on freeways and in the city.
For fuel economy, the EPA gives the 2009 Mini Cooper Convertible 25 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. During our testing we stayed right around 30 mpg. The California Air Resources Board hasn't provided an emissions rating for the Cooper Convertible as of this review, but the previous year's model only earned a LEV II rating, the minimum required.
The 2009 Mini Cooper Convertible goes for a base price of $25,900. Our test model included the Cold Weather package, bringing in heated seats, for $500, and the Premium package, adding niceties such as a the multifunction steering wheel and automatic climate control, for $1,250. The automatic transmission cost another $1,250, and a special leather package, Leather Lounge Hot Chocolate, added $2,000. Sundry other options, plus the $650 destination charge, brought the total up to $32,050, a high price for a car with virtually no cabin tech.
Although our car didn't come with much cabin tech, Mini makes those features available, so we give it an above average rating in that area. We obviously weren't impressed with the performance, but its good fuel economy and fun handling save it. Plus the fact that you can get it with the six speed manual. But where it really stands out is design. There's no mistaking a Mini Cooper, as it represents an excellent new take on an old design.