Model year 2017 changes:
- Mini makes 18-inch Mini Yours Masterpiece wheels available
Editors' note, August 21, 2017: This review was written based on an evaluation of the 2016 Mini Cooper S Convertible. See the changes for the 2017 model year above.
I steal glances at the full, green canopy of the forest overhead when I deem it safe to take my eyes off the road. Unadulterated by a roof, pillars or side windows, the 2016 Mini Cooper S Convertible affords a truly panoramic view of the scenery.
But as the next twist in the road comes up, I remind myself that I'm here to test handling. Braking and downshifting, feeling the suspension tilt slightly and the tires bite into the pavement as I turn the wheel, the Cooper S Convertible sounds off with a delightful little exhaust snort when I upshift at high revs to third for the ensuing straight.
Combining sport driving character and a gloriously open top seems like a perfect mix, but not all is rosy in Mini-land.
The Mini's top, folded down behind the rear seats, obstructs my rear view. Racing up to a turn, the brakes feel like they took a nap, and only groggily get to work when I put the pedal down hard. The car itself still exhibits fun handling, but this generation has grown substantially since BMW bought the brand and re-engineered the classic Mini cars in 2002. The new grown-up Cooper S Convertible may offer better interior room than its predecessor, but it lost that earlier ultra-nimble driving character.
This latest Cooper S Convertible represents a new generation for the iconic anglo-car, following the new Mini hardtops launched last year. The traditional Mini look is here in full effect, and most people won't be able to distinguish this generation from the previous. But an additional 5 inches of length makes this one less mini, although additional cabin space may seem like a reasonable trade-off.
The power-operated convertible top will be the real draw for fans of open-air driving, and the Cooper S Convertible holds a distinction for being one of the few four-seater convertibles on the market, especially with a base price under $30,000. Driving with the top up, the cloth overhead looked sturdy and didn't flap or make more noise than I would expect. As a bonus, at mid-position the top rolls back just enough to uncover the front seats, serving as a sunroof.
As a Cooper S, this Mini convertible comes with a 2-liter four cylinder engine using a twin-scroll turbocharger, making 189 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. Drop the 'S' from the Mini Cooper Convertible, and you get the three cylinder turbocharged engine that reasonably impressed me in the Mini Cooper hardtop.
A six speed manual transmission comes standard in the Cooper S Convertible, but my example had the optional six speed automatic, with paddle shifters and a sport setting. Fuel economy rates at 25 miles per gallon city and 34 mpg highway, although in my mixed course of driving I only squeaked above a 25 mpg average.
Rectangle in a circle
Those new to Mini might wonder at the big, circular frame in the center of the dashboard housing a wide, rectangular LCD. In past years that frame held the speedometer, and Mini retains it for love of legacy.
The LCD itself shows navigation, app integration and digital audio, with sources such as Bluetooth streaming, satellite radio and a single USB port for iOS devices or drives. The maps on the navigation screens show excellent detail, including buildings rendered in perspective view. Route guidance works well, especially with the optional head-up display showing turn-by-turn directions.
However, destination entry still relies on the old paradigm of entering city, street and number separately, or choosing a different screen for point-of-interest searches. Now that Ford's Sync 3, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have brought single-box destination entry to in-car navigation, the Mini's interface feels very outdated and clumsy. The Mini infotainment system doesn't support Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, either, although the Mini Connected app enables online destination search in the system if you cable your smartphone to the car.
On a similar note, searching for music on a connected device using Mini's infotainment interface involves a ridiculously tedious and complex interface. A single-box search here would be very nice, especially considering the hand-writing recognition touchpad atop the dial controller for the infotainment system.
The highlight of the Cooper S Convertible's electronics was its optional Harman Kardon audio system, which creates very detailed sound and will be a worthwhile upgrade for music lovers.
Small car comfort
Another highlight comes from the ride quality, with the suspension delivering comfort for city and highway driving, and stability for hard cornering. I occasionally got a jarring jolt with a wheel hitting a pothole, but otherwise the Mini does an estimable job engineering this suspension.
Switching the Cooper S Convertible to Sport mode not only makes the throttle more responsive, it also tightens up the optional dynamic dampers, making the car handle better in the turns while giving the steering more weight. The automatic transmission's own Sport mode isn't quite as dramatic as that affecting the car's other systems, as it didn't downshift aggressively, leaving me low on power for turn exits. Paddle shifting was much more satisfying, as the gear changes are quick and I could push it up to redline.
However, the weak brake performance made me question the car's sporting credentials.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Cooper S Convertible's Green mode, an eco setting, detunes the throttle to prevent fuel-wasting jack-rabbit starts and applies an idle-stop feature, shutting down the engine at traffic stops. While many other cars' eco setting typically scale back throttle response, the Mini takes it a step further and detunes the climate control in Green mode, which should more significantly improve fuel economy in warm environments.
Driving the Cooper S Convertible, I quickly found the camaraderie of the Mini community, despite the commonality of the cars in my area of the world. Its Carribean Aqua Metallic paint job elicited appreciative comments.
And while a fun, easy and engaging car to drive, the rear sightlines are awful. When I had the top down, I had to rely on the side mirrors for a complete rear view. With the top up, poor side views made lane changes a matter of faith. I really wish the Mini offered a blind spot monitor system for the Cooper S Convertible, which would mitigate the side view issues.
Drop the S
If you have more than one friend, and want to drive with the sky overhead and wind rushing around your ears, your options are pretty limited, especially for budgets under $30,000. Essentially, it's the Mini Convertible or the Volkswagen Beetle Convertible. That's not a terrible choice, and the Mini certainly offers a good degree of style.
With its increased size, the Mini doesn't feel that small from the driver seat, a good thing for cabin room although it takes a small toll from the handling. The non-S Mini has gotten so good, that I would definitely consider saving some money by getting the Cooper Convertible over the Cooper S Convertible, as I wasn't all that impressed with this one's sport driving characteristics. Convertibles make better cruisers, anyway.
The poor rear sight lines are a bit disturbing, so a blind spot monitoring system would come in handy. A rear view camera makes parking easier, and less likely to involve bumper scrapes.
It's also high time that Mini revamps its audio and navigation systems, refining the interfaces for ease-of-use. Or, at least, supporting Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
If your budget is very limited and you really want a convertible, check out our editors' selections of used convertibles under $12,000.