► New Mini Cooper and Cooper S Convertible driven
► Third-generation Mini range gets its first hot drop-top
► Folding fabric roof, 189bhp in top Cooper S guise
The latest Mini Convertible is the third generation of BMW-built soft-top, and it goes on sale in March. Three versions are initially available: the Cooper (£18,475), Cooper D (£20,225) and Cooper S (£22,430). We’re driving Cooper and Cooper S variants. A JCW lunatic will be along shortly.
What’s changed since the last model?
Well, size for one thing. The new Convertible is a substantial 98mm longer than before, 1mm taller, and 44mm portlier to house a track some 42mm wider at the front and 34mm at the rear. Combined with a 28mm jump in wheelbase, rear passengers are claimed to get an extra 35mm knee room, while the boot is 25% larger – 215 litres with the roof closed, 160 litres with it open.
The 50/50 split rear seats, an 8mm wider ski hatch and an Easy Load function – that can swing the roof frame further out of the way during loading – also boosts practicality.
The Cooper gets a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine, good for 134bhp; the Cooper D a diesel 1.5-litre triple (114bhp); the S tucks an unusually-large-these-days 2.0-litre four under its vented bonnet to yield 189bhp. All are direct-injection turbo units, and are available with six-speed manual or optional automatic transmissions.
Standard equipment includes Bluetooth, air-con, rear parking sensors and a reversing camera, keyless start, plus an infotainment screen – not touchscreen – that lives where the Giant Speedo used to on early BMW Minis. There’s no CarPlay or Android Auto support, though.
Tell me about the roof…
All models get an electric folding fabric roof. Hold the button on the header rail and the roof opens or closes in 18 seconds at speeds of up to 18mph. The front section of the roof can also be retracted by up to 40cm at any speed. It’s a neat touch: the cant rails stay in position and the portion of roof above the front occupants’ heads scrolls back to reveal fresh air; it kind of rubs the Fiat 500 Convertible’s nose in it, as that’s basically all the Italian can do.
The roof has a very, very quiet mechanism, but the packaging leaves a little to be desired. Firstly, the header rail at the top of the windscreen has an extra chunk of metal that connects with the fabric roof further back than you’d expect, and also houses the old-school aerial; it looks gawky, like a teen with a receding hairline. Secondly, when the roof is folded back, it concertinas back on top of the boot like an accordion and has ugly gaps either side. It obscures your view rearwards too; the rear-view camera, with its fantastic resolution, is a godsend for reversing, but it can’t double for a rear-view mirror on the motorway.
You notice how well insulated the roof is in as much as very little traffic noise enters the cabin. There is, however, substantial wind noise around the top of the door glass at motorway speeds. Unlike previous models, however, the aluminium rollover hoops are now completely hidden and designed to pop up in the nick of time during those barrel-roll catastrophes.
Presumably there are option packs galore…
Indeed, Mini blazed a trail with small car personalisation, and it’s business as usual for the new Convertible. The big news is that convertible owners can now broadcast their support for a Brexit, with an optional black and grey Union Jack design woven into the normally black fabric roof. Yours for £490, Boris.
There’s also Chrome Line exterior detailing, personalised mirror caps and bonnet stripes. The Mini comes with 15-inch alloys are standard (16s for the Cooper S), while 16s and 18s are available.
The Chili Pack bundles options together, including full LED headlights, dual-zone climate control, cruise control and a few other niceties. Some 80% of buyers are expected to opt for it, likewise the Tech Pack with sat-nav, Harman-Kardon stereo and a heads-up display.
What’s it like inside?
The seats are comfy, but perched quite high. The armrest – part of the Chili Pack – obstructs the gear change and access to the iDrive controller a little, and the steering wheel spokes are too chunky to easily wrap your fingers around.
Quality is high, however, with soft-touch plastics, and that Mini quirkiness is still present with plenty of friendly round shapes and toggle switches.
There are two seats in the back, and you can just about squeeze four six-footers aboard, though it’s not much fun back there.
How does it drive?
Like its hardtop siblings, the Mini uses strut front suspension with a multi-link rear axle. Most cars in this class use a cheaper torsion beam – the all-wheel-drive Audi S1 being a notable exception. Extra strengthening has also been added to stop the Mini's body wobbling: braces create a diamond shape beneath the car, while there’s a stiffening plate under the engine and meatier A-pillars – which are also slightly more swept back than the coupe.
First impressions of our Cooper S on 17s disappointed. The ride is very fidgety and tremors constantly sneak up the steering column. It doesn’t feel like the structure’s particularly happy after being decapitated and it spoils the driving experience at a low-speed pose.
Up the pace, however, and things improve. You can option adaptive dampers and Mini Driving Modes, with Sport, Mid and Green to tweak throttle response, steering assistance and – if you’ve splashed the cash – the auto shift modes and damper firmness. Our manual Cooper S was fully loaded. An electronic differential lock is also standard. Like the Golf GTI, it’s not an actual locking differential, but uses the stability control software to subtly brake a spinning inside wheel and transfer the grunt to the tyre with more traction.
The good news is that Mini agility, the keenness to pivot into corners with a flick of the quick steering, is still there in abundance. The Cooper S corners flat and fast, and uses its mock LSD to fantastic effect, generating lots of traction out of corners.
The engine is eager and sprightly, has a fruity, up-for-it exhaust note, and it’s flexible enough to be left in third gear for a lot of the twisty stuff. Flick the shifter and you’ll find it light and easy, if not as tactile as, say, the Civic Type R.
Switch to Sport mode and the throttle response ramps up dramatically, making the Mid setting feel lethargic. It really injects a shot of adrenaline into the power delivery. Shame our car’s optional dampers simultaneously destroy the ride quality. In the UK, it’ll surely be go-kart like, as the infotainment screen promises no suspension whatsoever.
How does the Cooper compare?
It’s probably the better option. Our car was also on optional 17s but fixed dampers and while the ride isn’t great, it’s much more tolerable. The trade-off is much more body roll than the Cooper S, so it’s less fun and planted in the corners.
Of course, the 1.5-litre triple is far slower than the Cooper S, but it’s still flexible and, really, winding back the pace and having a slightly softer ride suits the Mini Convertible better.
There’s much to like about the Mini Convertible, but one critical downside of the Cooper S is the poor ride quality and the tremors you feel from the topless body. It adds a harshness to the low-speed driving experience that simply feels unnecessary. No doubt the inch-smaller standard wheels would help, but don’t expect miracles.
The roof, however, is versatile and impressive, folding away quickly. We’d prefer neater packaging and lower wind noise at higher speeds, though.
Happily, the Cooper S Convertible is still a very enjoyable car to punt along a twisting road, with a chassis more agile than a double-jointed gymnast and a powertrain always eager to hurl you a the next bend.
But if that’s your bag, you’ll probably be happier with the coupe – or a Mazda MX-5, for that matter. And if you just want to lap up the rays and you still want a Mini, the three-cylinder Cooper Convertible would be our choice.