Through four successive generations of the MINI Convertible (including the non-BMW model), the company has ramped up the quality and practicality while retaining the brand's fun factor. The latest is, naturally, the best yet, with more space, much-improved interior ambience and a driving experience that really isn't all that far removed from its tin-topped brethren. Here we review the Cooper S variant in manual and automatic guises ahead of the new Convertible's launch in Ireland this spring.
In the Metal:
There's no point dwelling on the looks of the core MINI, as we're quite familiar with it now. Some love it; some less so. It is, unquestionably, a MINI and will never be mistaken for anything else. Roof up, the Convertible looks quite neat though obviously it's more glamorous with the fabric top folded down. It's a little disappointing that it doesn't fold flat, as it severely restricts rearward visibility, but I guess to do that would mean to fill the already compact boot up with folded fabric... For what it's worth, there's 25 per cent more luggage volume than in the previous MINI Convertible, ranging from 160 litres with the roof down to 210 litres with it up. That's only a litre smaller than the three-door hatch.
The front seat space is identical to that of the hatchback MINI's, but the rear is, unsurprisingly, more compromised, even though the seats are new. This generation of the MINI is larger than the previous one, so there are useful dimension gains inside in comparison to the previous Convertible, but few will want to spend much time in the back seats. As ever, there's a seemingly endless range or options to choose from, including some tasteful (and not so tasteful) interior trim finishes, plus gorgeous leather upholstery that's worth investing in.
Let's be honest: driving dynamics are probably not of the highest priority for most buyers of cars like the MINI Convertible. And yet, MINI perseveres with the 'go kart handling' tag and is adamant that all its products must toe the line. Can the new Convertible really be as good to drive as the regular MINI hatchback? At the international launch of the cabriolet in the States we had the opportunity to drive the Cooper S variant, with both manual and automatic transmissions, over a wide variety of roads from the crumbling tarmac of inner city Los Angeles, to the fast-moving, but undulating and pock-marked, freeways to seriously challenging and sinuous mountain roads overlooking the area. Bear in mind that all test cars were equipped with the optional adaptive damping system, which offers two settings depending on whether you choose Sport or Mid modes from the large circular selector surrounding the gearstick.
In town, where we experienced the worst of the potholes, the MINI's chassis shimmied occasionally, but soaked up most blemishes in the surface well. Once the speed was increased, the suspension felt better again, engaging the driver with its sharp responses and direct steering. Even in Comfort mode it attacks twisty roads with real attitude, goading the driver to push harder and harder through the bends. In the dry, mechanical grip is very high indeed, though with a little effort it's possible to elicit a little tyre squeal from the front axle, or summon up a smidgen of tyre spin from the unloaded inside wheel. It's all very unflustered if you leave the stability and traction control system in its default mode though. Switch into Sport mode and it's instantly more fun. There's less assistance for the steering, which really suits quicker driving, the damping firms up and the throttle is sharper. On top of all that there's a burble and myriad pops and bangs introduced to the exhaust system on the overrun. Indeed, with the roof down, you get to hear a lot more of the 2.0-litre engine's workings, including its turbocharger whoosh - and it's a cracking sounding unit. Though MINI will offer a 231hp John Cooper Works version of the Convertible, this Cooper S never makes you think that you'd like a little more power. Along with 192hp there's 300Nm of torque on tap on overboost and this engine actually does its best work in the mid-range. It also sounds best in that area, losing a little at the top end in mechanical harshness. And because of the wide torque plateau it's difficult to catch it out, even if you've misjudged the gear you need to pull out of tighter corner.
That's unlikely to happen though, as the six-speed manual transmission is super-fast and highly responsive. It's a joy to change gears just for the hell of it and it has a rev-matching feature too. We do wish it was less easy to select reverse instead of first though - no doubt familiarity with the car means that soon becomes irrelevant. All versions of the Convertible can be specified with a six-speed automatic transmission instead, and it's good - smooth and quick, plus it allows the driver to take control when they feel the need, but we certainly think that the manual suits the personality of the MINI better.
In terms of blusteriness in the cabin, it's not the most hairdo friendly cabriolet on the market, even with all four windows up, so buyers that aren't worried about carrying rear passengers would do well to invest in a wind breaker. With the roof up there's commendably subdued wind roar over the canvas material, adding further to the premium feel.
What you get for your Money:
Prices start at €27,270 on-the-road for the new MINI Convertible, in petrol-fuelled Cooper guise, which is about €5,000 more than the hatchback. The Cooper D Convertible is €29,260, the Cooper S tested here starts at €33,690 and the forthcoming range-topper, the John Cooper Works Convertible, will be €41,850. Upgrading to automatic transmissions costs in the region of €2,000 in all models (it varies due to VRT changes as the emissions ratings are altered). Emissions are as low as 100g/km and no higher than 152g/km.
Audi A3 Cabriolet: more spacious and comfortable, though starts at a higher price.
DS 3 Cabrio: the only true rival for the MINI, but DS doesn't currently have an open-topped rival for the Cooper S variant.
Fiat 500C: smaller and nowhere near as powerful, but has style and cuteness on its side.
Those that don't 'get' convertibles still won't like the new MINI model, and we don't see an improvement in the Irish economy leading to a sudden interest in open-topped cars, but fans will love the mix of quality, design and real driving fun that comes with the MINI Convertible. Sure, it's a little less practical than the three-door hatchback, and not at all cheap to buy, but those are about the only compromises that needs to be made. The Cooper S version plays the open-topped hot hatch role particularly well.