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Expert Reviews 1 of 4
By Joe Wiesenfelder
December 10, 2004
Mini released the convertible version of its phenomenal Cooper in September 2004, in normally aspirated form. The supercharged Cooper S ragtop took a while longer, and I tested it just days before Chicago, cars.com's hometown, entered what we call the annual Hundred Days of Gray. It's not the best timing in the world, but it means anyone who cares to act this winter might find supply better than it will be come springtime.
For those of us who have found the Cooper hardtop to be more than just a pretty face, the convertible version doesn't disappoint at least in terms of the driving experience. It's not flawless overall, however, so join me in this examination to decide if the Cooper Convertible is worth what is likely to be a considerable wait and a premium asking price. Exterior & Styling The convertible doesn't look as good with its top up as the coupe does par for the course for convertibles based on hardtop models. That said, Mini stayed true to the hardtop's overall shape and offers a choice of black, blue or dark green for the cloth top. The blue worked very well with my test vehicle's Cool Blue Metallic paint, separated by a subtle chrome trim piece that encircles the whole car.
With the obvious exception of the roof, the convertible looks like the hardtop Cooper. For 2005, that includes some styling changes: The front bumper has fewer accent lines and features chrome. The headlights have a new reflector design, and the grille now has three slats above the bumper on both trim levels (the Cooper formerly had four). As before, the Cooper's grille is chrome where the S trim level's is body-colored with a chrome surround. The S has a rear spoiler that's optional on the base Cooper, and only the S has a hood scoop, which directs cool air to the supercharger's intercooler. The base- and S-level convertibles have 15- and 16-inch wheels, respectively. A variety of styles are available as no-cost options, and both trim levels can upsize their wheels 1 inch as an option. Additional appearance options include more chrome, hood stripes and the like. Ride & Handling The hardtop Mini Cooper's handling is widely described as like a go-kart. Though go-karts are typically rear-wheel drive, I have to agree that the Cooper is a kick in the pants to drive. (And if you don't think a front-wheel-drive car can be sporty, give this one a try.) That's why I approached the convertible version with trepidation. Hardtops serve an unseen purpose: They stiffen the vehicle's structure. Historically, convertible versions of hardtops have had a lot of flex and twist in their structures. This results in shudder when rolling over bumpy road surfaces, and degrades handling. Convertibles of ole typically started rattling and squeaking and would practically shake themselves apart prematurely.
Automakers have improved this situation much in the past decade or so, but it's normal for a convertible to have at least a bit more flex than a hardtop. Here's where the Cooper Convertible exhibits a baffling contradiction. It feels plenty rigid, and the handling is 100 percent Mini. Despite the extra weight from structural reinforcements and the top mechanism, the convertible has the same basic dynamics as the hardtop. It has the expected but completely controllable understeer, sharp turn-in due in part to the short wheelbase, and heavy but precise and communicative steering. Because of the car's darty nature, peppy engine and small size, I find it difficult not to drive it like an ass. It's so adept at hugging the curb and squeezing past slowpokes, changing direction in an instant and stopping on a dime, how can you not use it to leave all motoring unpleasantries behind you? (Of course, just because I have doesn't mean you should. Remember, I am a professional . . . writer.)
With the exception of a little shudder when turning on rough pavement, the convertible is admirably solid, even when compared to the vaultlike hardtop. This doesn't explain an anomaly I experienced: It rattles. And squeaks. A lot. The hardtop is known for the odd mystery rattle, but my test vehicle was in a whole different, noisy league. Now, there's always the possibility that this car was an early-production sample and doesn't reflect the products now on dealer lots, so I encourage you to email me your impressions from the link at the end of this page if you've bought or test-driven the Cooper Convertible. Going & Stopping Because the convertibles are roughly 200 pounds heavier than the hardtop Coopers, they aren't quite as quick, but before I knew exactly how much heavier it was, my Cooper S didn't strike me as underpowered at all. Its supercharger ensures plentiful torque at low engine speeds.
115 @ 6,000 rpm
168 @ 6,000 rpm
111 @ 4,500 rpm
162 @ 4,000 rpm
premium unleaded (91 octane)
premium unleaded (91 octane)
As reflected above, Mini recommends premium gasoline. As with most modern cars that call for premium, regular-grade gas will work, but the output won't be as high as the specs.
Like their hardtop counterparts, the base- and S-level convertibles come with five- and six-speed-manual transmissions, respectively. My test vehicle's gearbox was well matched to the engine, and the shifter had a pretty good feel to it. The lever is a bit long for sport aficionados, but anything shorter would be hard to reach. For an extra $1,300, one can option an automatic in the form of a continuously variable transmission. I've not tested it but hope to soon.
EPA-Estimated Fuel Economy
Manual (city/highway, mpg)
Automatic (city/highway, mpg)
Cooper S Convertible
NL = not listed
As reflected in the table, the fuel economy penalty for the convertible's additional weight is minimal, if early EPA estimates are correct. Note that this is for top-up driving. With the top down, the aerodynamics are blown, as it were, and significant fuel-efficiency losses ensue. Overall, the fuel economy is quite respectable, though not as high as in many other small cars. The Cooper's emissions levels actual pollutants are nothing to get excited about, though. The EPA Green Vehicle Guide rates all versions a 6 out of 10 (10 is best). This puts the Cooper in the company of the Mazda Miata, Scion xA and Toyota Echo. Considering that the score is comparable across all vehicle sizes, there are many significantly larger and/or faster cars and trucks that pollute considerably less per mile, either in models sold nationally or those operated in California and the more restrictive Northeastern states, or both.
Anyone who has driven a BMW will recognize the Cooper's braking performance. Mini's parent company has always erred on the side of overkill, and the Cooper follows in kind. It has standard large-disc brakes at all four corners supplemented by ABS, electronic brake-force distribution and a BMW technology called Cornering Brake Control that accounts for varying wheel loads during a turn. All you need to know of this is that the brakes are very effective in all circumstances. The Inside The convertible soft-top is a powered, fully automatic design, which means you don't even have to unlatch it from the windshield frame. Another neat trick, the top's front section slides back almost 16 inches at the first touch of the button, opening a sunroof of sorts. Push again and the side rails detach from the windshield and the top folds relatively neatly behind the backseat. (You can see it all in action by clicking on the video icon atop this page's right-hand column.) There are also global window buttons that lower and raise all the windows at once. Talk about slick, the standard remote keyless entry can be used to lower the windows and open the top from a distance. Sadly, the remote won't close the top, so if you're indoors and rain starts to fall, you'll soon be out in it. One can close the windows and the top from outside the car by turning the key in the driver's door lock.
The Coopers do away with some of the convertible pitfalls. For example, there's a dome light on the top of the windshield frame, so the front seats are well illuminated at night. The rear window is glass and incorporates a defogger. For a two-door, the front seat belts are relatively simple to reach at one's outboard shoulder. On the flip side, the backseat is as dark as a cave at night, and the rear visibility is just plain poor, top up or down. The top forms large blind spots in the rear corners, flanking a relatively small window, and the lowered top adds to a high trunk and roll bars. Mini wisely includes sonar-based rear parking assist as standard equipment to alert drivers to obstacles when in Reverse gear.
The soft-top isn't as thick as some of the multilayer convertible tops I've encountered, but cabin noise wasn't too bad at speed except for the aforementioned rattles and squeaks. Wind buffeting is minimal when the top is down, and the car has an uncommonly open feeling for the driver. The windshield is upright enough that the driver sees the sky above it, unlike many convertibles, in which the windshields sweep back so far that the driver practically feels like it's not a convertible at all.
The interior shares the same whimsical design as the hardtop, characterized by a large speedometer in the middle of the dashboard rather than in front of the steering wheel which seems to drive some people into a rage. These folks should consider the optional Premium Package, the trip computer of which can be configured to display the speed digitally on the tachometer's face. (The tach is mounted to the steering column.) Or there's the more affordable Chrono Gauge Package, which relocates the speedometer to the steering column to make room for a chronograph-style cluster of fuel level, oil pressure, and oil and coolant temperature gauges mid-dash.
Sport bucket seats are standard on the S trim level and optional on the base convertible. But all versions of the front seats, driver and passenger, include manual seat-height adjustments the jack lever style that's easy to operate even when your full weight is in the seat. The range of heights is generous. Vinyl seats are standard, cloth is a no-cost option, and leather comes in a package with manual lumbar adjustments, for either trim level. Heated seats are a stand-alone $270 option. Nice.
The seats are supportive and comfortable in the European tradition. I could use a center armrest, and apparently others have asked for the same. Mini will include one in the Premium Package, and possibly separately, starting in the first quarter of 2005. The convertibles' front-seat headroom is 0.4 inch less than in the hardtop, but the backseat's is 0.5 inch greater. Mini doesn't give legroom dimensions for the cars, and that makes it seem like they're hiding something. In fact, the legroom is quite good thanks to long seat travel. At 6 feet tall, I didn't even have the seat all the way back. The problem is that all the legroom is shared between the front and rear seats. With the driver's seat in my position, there was literally zero legroom in the backseat. The hardtop Cooper is similar, though the convertible has 9 percent less interior volume, and some of it appears to have come from this dimension.
Anyone who does care to ride in the backseat will find ingress is eased by front seats that slide way forward when their backrests are tilted. Many two-doors only offer this on the passenger seat. It's good in theory that the two rear seats have head restraints, but they're affixed to the roll bars, and I'm pretty sure someone of my height would brain himself on the bar, not the pad, in a rear-end collision. Safety Safety is a common concern among Mini shoppers, and understandably so. Unfortunately, there are no concrete conclusions in this area. Our trusted source for crash tests, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, tested the hardtop, which scored Good in the frontal test and Marginal in the rear-impact test. (There are no side-impact results as of this writing). But a hardtop's results do not reflect the convertible's performance. The chances are very slim that IIHS would ever test the convertible because of its low production volume. This leaves us to examine safety features and characteristics hardly conclusive, but it's all we have.
The convertibles have dual-stage front airbags and side airbags that deploy from the front-seat backrests. The side curtain-type airbags from the hardtop coupe are not here, but the side-impact bags are designed to provide head as well as torso protection. As mentioned, ABS is standard, and traction control is standard on the S trim level. An electronic stability system, which Mini calls Dynamic Stability Control, is a stand-alone option on all Cooper models.
Anyone who hopes to transport a baby will want to try installing the child-safety seat in the backseat. Child seats can be quite large, and the backseat is not. The front passenger seat features occupant classification, which automatically disables its front airbag if there is a child or child seat present. Still, the center of a backseat is always the best place for a child, so the Mini Cooper Convertible is simply not a parent's best option.
Where the Coopers arguably excel is in the area of active safety. Their small size, nimble nature and effective brakes might help a driver avoid a collision. But when I think of car safety, I think of how well the vehicle protects its occupants when a collision does happen. For what it's worth, weight is important in this equation, and the Cooper, though small, is actually heavier than some larger cars, such as the Honda Civic. Cargo Though convertibles are known for having less cargo volume than the model on which they're based, the Cooper Convertible isn't far behind. It has something of a trunk compared to the hardtop's hatchback. Instead of a liftgate, it has a tailgate that drops down and can support up to 175 pounds, handy for tailgate parties. With 5.8 cubic feet of space between the cargo floor and the removable cargo cover, this trunk is roughly the volume of the hardtop's comparable space. When the top is up, one can actually extend the uppermost barrier higher something best illustrated by the photos and video. Then there's the feature I've seen on only one other convertible: a folding backseat. With the 50/50-split backrest folded forward, cargo volume increases to 21.3 cubic feet, close to the hardtop's 23.6 cubic feet, according to Mini.
The backrests are lockable from the cabin side so you can leave the car unattended with the top down. The glove box has a lock for the same reason. Cooper owners have complained that there's not enough covered storage in the cabin, and I agree. If Mini adds any such compartment, it too should be lockable. Features Complete lists of the standard and optional features are available by clicking the buttons at the upper left of this page. Overall, the Cooper Convertible, like the hardtop, has an impressive array of standard and optional features for a reasonably priced car. Upscale standard features not already mentioned include tire pressure monitoring, automatic on/off headlights, perimeter lighting, and a leather steering wheel and shift knob. Notable options not already mentioned include xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights, stereo controls on the steering wheel, run-flat tires, automatic climate control, heated side mirrors and windshield washer nozzles, and a GPS-based navigation system. Cooper Convertible in the Market The Cooper Convertible will be in high demand and short supply. Supply of the coupe never reached what you'd consider normal market levels, and the convertible will account for only about 20 percent of the Coopers that Mini's Oxford, England, assembly plant produces. Most of the world is as enthusiastic about Minis as we in the United States are, and we're all fighting over the same output.
I won't mince words here: You can count on waiting lists and premium prices. Call it "price gouging" if you must, but this is an example of car dealers making a profit margin on a particular model at a time when they no longer make much of a margin on new-car sales. When no one's buying a particular model, they have to drop prices and decrease their profit. When a model is hot, they raise their profit. The market decides how much you pay. So long as there are consumers willing to pay more than sticker price for a scarce product, that's what the price will be. If you're really interested, check with a dealer now and perhaps get on a waiting list before winter ends and everyone across the country gets the same idea. . . .