CARS.COM — Mazda Miatas are a blast to drive, but what do you do when you want a convertible that can carry more people or stuff than the two-seat roadster can accommodate? You don’t necessarily want to upgrade to something as big as a Mustang convertible, and you still value speed and handling, so a Buick Cascada is out. What’s left? Why not the 2016 Mini Cooper Convertible, seen here in sportier S trim?
It ticks all the boxes for someone wanting a sporty convertible that has a little extra room. Playful styling? Check. Go-kart handling? Yep. Easy-to-operate top? Room for four and some luggage? Powerful engine? It’s all there. Mini finished it off with some premium materials throughout the cabin, an upgraded power soft-top that now is fully electric instead of partially hydraulic, a choice of powertrains and the traditional customization levels for which Mini is famous.
This is the third-generation Mini Cooper, which has grown a little bit larger and more refined with each iteration. The styling is instantly recognizable but features larger headlights and taillights, changing the proportions slightly from the original rebooted version. Still, unless you saw all three generations next to each other, you’d be hard-pressed to pick out the variations — and even seeing a picture of all three together, it’s not easy to tell the order in which they arrived.
The latest Mini Cooper has a bit more sculpting to its lower body, both up front and down the sides. It’s still spunky and cute, and the convertible’s lines improve with the elimination of rollover-protection hoops that were present in previous cars. They’ve been replaced by safety struts that spring up in the event the car detects a rollover event, much like Mercedes-Benz and other luxury brands have been doing for years on some of their convertibles. Their absence cleans up the lines of the car with the top down, but doesn’t do much to improve visibility: When lowered, the folded top obscures half of your rear view, and when it’s up, the cloth “pillars” present massive blind spots to either side of the rear window. The “sunroof” mode that opens just the front portion of the top by sliding it rearward returns in this model. One cool option for the new top: a Union Jack flag that’s actually embroidered into the top material, duplicating one of the decal options you can get on the Mini Hardtop.
Under the hood of the Cooper S I drove is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 189 horsepower and 207 pounds-feet of torque. The base engine in the Mini Cooper Convertible is a turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine producing 134 hp and 162 pounds-feet of torque, or you can opt for the John Cooper Works Convertible and get that turbo 2.0-liter making 228 hp and 236 pounds-feet of torque. Any of the engines is powerful enough to move the Mini smartly off the line, but the Cooper S motor probably is the sweet spot – not overpowered, but not lacking for motivating force when you need it.
My test car came with the six-speed automatic transmission, but a six-speed manual is standard. The automatic is the one most buyers will select, and it’s by no means a poor alternative to the manual. Slick-shifting and immediately responsive, it’s very well-matched to the output of the engine. This becomes especially noticeable when you select Sport mode from one of three driving modes (the others being Green and Mid). Sport mode tightens the steering, makes the throttle response more immediate and — in models equipped like mine with the optional adaptive suspension — firms up the ride. Even in the normal Mid mode, the suspension is firm in the Cooper S, but select Sport, and it becomes even sportier. Broken pavement on my drive around Southeast Michigan definitely sets my teeth rattling, but the Convertible is remarkably solid and stiff, with very little cowl shake and no rattles whatsoever, despite the lack of a roof structure.
The driving experience in just about any Mini Cooper is already a hoot, and losing the top to allow the wind inside makes it even more fun. Buffeting is tolerable, despite how far the windshield seems to be from your face, and putting the windows up while the top is down really doesn’t seem to change the airflow pattern much. The steering is direct and entertaining, and even just gripping the chunky steering wheel is a pleasure. The brakes are firm and confidence-inspiring, and they add to the ready-to-race feel that the whole car provides. It’s a brilliant chassis combined with an outstanding powertrain, making for one of the most enjoyable motoring experiences available.
Inside, the Mini Cooper S Convertible is tight, but unless you missed what the badge on the hood says, this is to be expected. Taller drivers will have an issue seeing the top of the speedometer, which is obscured by the steering wheel even when the wheel is adjusted to its highest position. Headroom isn’t a problem, however, with plenty of it even when the top is raised; similarly, ingress and egress with the top up is easy for front occupants. Backseat passengers have it a little tougher — width and legroom are sparse back there, with the seats best used for children or very, very brief trips with adults. Cargo room is surprisingly good, thanks to the Convertible’s ability to accommodate a small suitcase or two in the trunk without folding down the rear seats. For larger loads, the rear seats fold down 50/50, but a structural ring remains around the cargo area to help stiffen the overall structure.
Many of the interior switches are the fun, toggle-style throwback units we’ve come to enjoy from Mini, while the multimedia system is derived from BMW’s iDrive unit, meaning it’s relatively easy to operate. The only issue is the iDrive controller’s location, low and between the seats, where it cannot be operated without taking your eyes off the road — and it has a few too many buttons to be operated solely by feel. A 6.5-inch display screen is standard, and the surrounding LED ring can be customized to your own preferred settings.
Mini has crafted a truly entertaining machine for convertible fans who find themselves in need of a bit more usable space. The starting price for such open-air fun is $26,800 including destination for the Cooper Convertible, but stepping up to the more-powerful, better-equipped Cooper S Convertible will run you $30,450. Start playing with the customizer, and you easily can top $40,000. That’s still cheaper than four-seat convertible options from BMW, Audi or Mercedes-Benz, and none of those brands’ soft-tops offer up the smiles that the Mini Convertible generates.