The verdict: The Mini Cooper S Convertible delivers one of the best open-air coupe convertible experiences you’ll find, with impressive driving capabilities and a price tag that starts out reasonable, but rises quickly as you add desirable options.
Versus the competition: Compared with other small, shorter-wheelbase, fun-to-drive droptops, the Mini Cooper S Convertible has a rich interior and excellent driving dynamics. Key competitors include the Mazda MX-5 Miata and Fiat 500C Abarth. Compare them here.
One doesn’t have to guess that the Cooper S Convertible is a Mini Cooper. It features the round headlights, rounded grille and generally small size the rest of the automaker’s Mini Cooper lineup shares. The convertible was redesigned for 2016 and got a little larger, but it’s hard to detect that from the outside. Yes, Mini Coopers keep getting bigger, but this is still a small car.
The windshield sits fairly far away from the driver, largely because the front ends of Mini hardtops and convertibles are the same. This pays a huge dividend for true convertible and sun lovers in that you are very much exposed to the air. In other convertibles, such as the Miata, the windshield is angled such that it slants back and almost touches your head; I always feel like an accident will leave me scalped. Not so in the Mini: There’s nothing but sky over your head and arms.
The convertible also has a sunroof feature that allows the top to be opened only over the front seat. I liked this for those times when I wanted an open-air experience but didn’t want to be fully exposed to the elements. Because the windshield is so far away, it exposes you in a way most sunroofs don’t. It’s a nice feature, especially if – like me – you find that most sunroofs put the sun only right on top of your head or provide light for rear passengers. Also, the sunroof can be opened or shut at any speed, which is nice on days when it might rain. (The top can be fully opened or closed only at speeds up to around 18 mph.)
The 500C Abarth offers a similar experience because it isn’t a true convertible; only the center, cloth section folds back, leaving the door frames and roof rails in place.
Minis’ handling has long been likened to that of a go-kart, much like a Volkswagen GTI, and even though each generation gets a little bigger and more refined, that comparison is still apt. The Mini darts, zigs and zags with the best of them, giving you the impression it’s always willing to go somewhere quickly and with gusto.
Still, it must be said that for overall sports car performance, the Miata leads the class. It’s the rare car that’s sometimes criticized as being “too good,” because of its composure and ability to completely dominate roads. On really twisty roads, the Miata will be the one you want to sling through corners. The Mini – particularly in convertible trim — will not feel as sharp.
The 500C trails the Mini and the MX-5 Miata because, while fun, it simply lacks the engine response and handling refinement necessary to keep up with the Cooper S and Miata.
The Mini Cooper Convertible we drove suffered a bit, though, because it is a convertible. Almost any time you chop the roof off a car you’ll lose some of the rigidity that makes for the sharpest handling. In the Mini it’s most noticeable over rough pavement, where a bit of chassis flex can be detected. While it is noticeable, however, it’s not so bad that it feels unsecure. The Cooper S Convertible is still a taut-handling machine.
It’s worth noting that our test car had the optional Sport Package, which includes Dynamic Damper Control, an adaptive suspension that’s stiffer than the standard setup. Further, you can dial up a Sport mode for more immediate throttle response and what felt like slightly less-assisted steering. Even with all this engaged, though, I still feel the MX-5 Miata is the superior machine.
The standout feature that gives you confidence to push the Mini hard is its steering. The Cooper S Convertible has some of the most direct-feeling steering on the market. Combined with a small steering wheel, it gives you the ability to shift between lanes quickly and make small corrections in corners.
Engine response is also very good, though it seems to be tuned so that it’s great right off the line but peters out at higher speeds. A few times during my drive I’d want to keep accelerating, only to realize I was already at the peak of the rev range and needed to upshift.
This is the biggest change for 2016: Mini is using new engines developed by parent company BMW. Mini Cooper Convertibles get a 134-horsepower, turbocharged three-cylinder engine, while Cooper S Convertibles get a 189-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
The Mini Cooper S Convertible we drove had the standard manual transmission. The clutch is light with a predictable take-up point. The gearshift is precise, making it easy to work through all six forward gears, but engaging Reverse is very bad. Every time I did so it felt like I was breaking the car; you have to push down and shift over, and doing so doesn’t have the natural, solid feeling you would like.
While one does tend to use Reverse regularly, you can put up with it because this is a very capable, very fun car to drive with a manual transmission. The engines have a nice, wide power band. They’re flexible enough to drive in stop-and-go traffic in a way the MX-5 Miata and 500C Abarth aren’t, thanks to their more peaky power bands.
As far as mileage goes, the Mini Cooper S Convertible gets an EPA-estimated 25/34/29 mpg city/highway/combined with the automatic transmission and 23/33/27 mpg with the manual. Premium gasoline is required.
The Cooper S Convertible’s biggest downside is that it manages to have bad visibility both with the top up and with it down.
The short, far-forward windshield that creates that great open-air experience with the top down makes it very hard to see traffic lights when the top is up. It’s almost as if you’re looking through a mail slot. With the top down — when the rear view typically improves in convertibles — rear visibility becomes very, very bad.
This flaw plays out not only in areas where you might expect it – for instance, backing the Mini out of a parking space — but also where you might not, like on the highway. On more than one occasion I was surprised to find a car right behind me because it changed into my lane and was close behind me.
It’s also worth noting that a backup camera is not standard, but it’s something you’ll want to add if you plan to back up with the top down. At least one can be purchased as a stand-alone option, rather than being bundled into an option package.
Visibility is similar throughout this class. The 500C Abarth has the best forward visibility, but it ties with the Mini for worst top-down rear visibility, as its folded top similarly rests high atop the rear deck. With the top up, however, the Mini’s rear visibility is superior to both the Fiat and the MX-5 Miata, which also suffers from “mail slot effect” with the top up. The Mini’s rear window is the largest of the group, making its top-up rear visibility the best.
Setting aside the visibility issues, our Cooper S Convertible’s interior looked sharp. A big part of that was its extra-cost leather interior, but Mini seems to have prioritized making its interiors pretty. From the finish on the dashboard to the look of the toggle switches, nothing looks cheap.
The Mini Cooper Convertible is also roomy enough, with long driver-seat travel. The rear seat in this lile four-seat Mini Cooper, however, isn’t very functional. With the front seat where I’d have it to drive, I couldn’t fit back there if I tried (I’m 6 feet 2 inches tall).
If rear visibility with the top down is the Cooper S Convertible’s biggest problem, its standard Mini Connected infotainment system is a close second. Simply put, it’s not intuitive, which makes it too hard to use the system.
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The best example is the split-screen function, which the user is led to believe could display, for instance, a navigation map on one part of the screen and audio information on the other. I never could figure out how to do that, but I was able to display gas mileage, range and so on. Read the owner’s manual, you other systems aren’t so complicated that I have to. Further, even when you know what to do the multimedia system always seems to require two steps to accomplish a task other systems complete in only one. It’s just a fiddly system.
Mini Connected’s saving grace, though, is its buttons and knobs. Not only are things like tuning the radio stations and adjusting the volume done by physical controls, there are also dedicated buttons that take you directly to the navigation system, radio or media, for example. That part was quick to learn and easy to use. Mini also deserves praise for its dials, knobs and switches, which feel substantial. In earlier versions of the Mini – Convertible or otherwise – those controls felt flimsy.
Elsewhere, there’s a center armrest that opens to reveal a useful storage space. However, I found it interfered with my ability to use the gearshift, so I had to fold it out of the way. Once out of the way, it looked pretty dorky in its upright/angled position.
The best thing a convertible can have for storage is a big trunk and other lockable compartments, so you can leave the top down and not have to worry about stuff getting stolen.
While the Convertible Cooper S doesn’t have a lot of lockable, usable space when the top is down, the trunk almost makes up for it. Because the roof folds the way it does (blocking your rear view in the process), it doesn’t seriously impinge on the cargo area. The specs say the Cooper S Convertible has 5.7 cubic feet of space, though the tailgate-style cargo door creates a fairly high liftover and a pronounced lip at the opening, making it not the easiest trunk to get stuff into.
On the plus side, the rear seats fold down – a rarity for a convertible – and there’s a way to enlarge the trunk opening to make space for larger, more awkward items when the top is raised. It’s nice that Mini thought to build such a feature into the car, but it’s kind of laborious to operate, so I’m not sure how often I’d use it.
Like many convertibles, the Cooper S Convertible has not been crash-tested by either the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. However, the Mini Cooper S Convertible with Mini’s optional Active Driving Assistant, which includes camera-based collision and pedestrian warning with automatic emergency braking, has IIHS’ rating of “advanced” for crash avoidance and mitigation.
In addition to a backup camera, our test car also had optional rear parking sensors. You can browse all the Mini’s safety features here.
Just looking at starting prices, the Mini Cooper S drop-top doesn’t seem too expensive, yet our test car cost $38,300, including an $850 destination charge. That included such features as a backup camera, an upgraded stereo, an adaptive suspension, heated front seats (part of a Fully Loaded Package that can be broken up into smaller bundles but as specified cost $4,750), $500 for its specific shade of silver exterior paint, and $1,750 for its brown leather interior. All told there was a total of $8,300 in options.
You can argue that you get what you pay for. While the backup camera is an option (available either in a package or as a stand-alone option), neither the 500C Abarth or MX-5 Miata offer one, and nor do they offer an adaptive suspension. And the Mini’s leather interior was lovely. The fact is, though, that buyers on a tighter budget will have to carefully spec their Cooper S Convertible to avoid sticker shock.
This can partly be accomplished by opting for stand-alone options or smaller option packages, such as the Sport Package versus the Fully Loaded Package. This could, however, mean ordering a car and waiting for it to be built rather than buying it off a lot from a dealer’s inventory.
Where the Mini Cooper Convertible does justify its price is with its sharp interior, its almost-the-best performance and its pure convertible experience. It’s a car where, yeah, you may have to explain to your neighbors why you spent so much money on it, but thanks to its strengths you’ll do so with a smile on your face. It’s hard to justify any car with an options list as expensive as the Mini Cooper’s, but this little Mini Cooper almost-roadster can just pull it off.