- Undiluted driving joy
- Powerful, pleasing, efficient engines
- Careful attention to detail inside and out
- Diminutive rear seats
- Nervous ride over broken surfaces
- Numb, artificial feel to the electric power steering
The 2009 MINI Cooper Convertible melds athleticism, quality, comfort, joy, and efficiency in a way matched by few vehicles produced today.
The 2009 MINI Cooper Convertible is based on the new-for-'08 Cooper hatchback bones (the 2008 convertible was based on the first-gen platform). We lauded the new generation last year for its even more delightful ride/handling mix, greater interior room, baked-in BMW solidity, sprightlier pair of engines, and (finally) the banishment of the CVT automatic that was at odds with the Cooper's sporting nature. Given the changes, the MINI Cooper Convertible offers even fewer compromises and merits serious consideration for buyers looking for a tenacious runabout that provides surprising interior room (at least up front), pure driving joy nearly unmatched in the automotive realm, and a brilliant balance between sport and day-to-day livability. But in Convertible format, the MINI Cooper is really a two-person vehicle; we stick to our assertion that the backseat is a place for occasional riders in a good mood.
The 2009 MINI Cooper Convertible gets all the subtle styling upgrades made to the hatchback last year. The interior strikes a great balance between cute and functional, though the massive central speedometer is one form-over-function touch that sent our eyes to the digital speed readout in the tach every time. Stereo controls are well-integrated into the center stack, but a visual oddity is the lonely volume knob below the rest of the audio buttons.
Engines are perfectly suited to the MINI's mission, providing lively response throughout the operating range and a sweet demeanor with perfectly tuned aural cues from intake to exhaust. Both engines displace 1.6 liters and feature the performance and fuel-efficiency benefits of direct injection. Even the base 2009 MINI Cooper Convertible, at 120 horsepower and managing a 0-60 time of 8.5 seconds with the six-speed manual, is a blast to drive and feels quicker than its acceleration numbers suggest. Move up to the turbocharged, 172-hp engine standard in the MINI Cooper Convertible S models and revel in 177 pound-feet of torque that's delivered in a relentless wave from 1,600 to 5,000 rpm (0-60 in about 7 seconds). A turbo six-speed manual requires absolutely no downshifting to pass at highway speeds; hit the throttle, wait a millisecond, and the turbo will waft you swiftly past traffic with ease. That all of this performance is achieved with EPA numbers of 28 mpg city, 37 highway (base) and 26/34 mpg (S) proves the intelligence of BMW engineering acumen and the indisputable advantages of a lightweight vehicle. If you're at all prone to manual transmission, get the six-speed; slick and sweet, it makes you look like a skilled driver every time.
Everything about the MINI's driving experience forces a grin. The joy is perhaps most noticed in its chassis, which combines MacPherson struts up front with a sophisticated central-arm rear axle to strike a sublime balance between razor-sharp reflexes in town and all-day driving comfort even at 80 mph and above. The sport suspension, with its performance-oriented 17-inch wheel/tire combo, does suffer some impact harshness and nervousness over rough roads, but its dizzying levels of grip will provide copious rewards for aggressive drivers. The biggest drawback in the Cooper S Convertible is the electrically boosted power steering, which has a rather digital, numb feel that's out of character with the rest of this vehicle; while an extremely accurate implement, it's a bit of a letdown, especially compared to BMW's typically brilliant feel. One other gripe: The S-mode, which heightens throttle response, alters steering effort, and raises shift points in the automatic, should really be the default setting for a car of the MINI's intent and demeanor. Without the S-mode button depressed, the electronic throttle feels a little sluggish and non-linear.
For the front cockpit anyway, MINI has maximized comfort and ergonomics in the Cooper Convertible. Even those surpassing six feet tall will find ample room and a hospitable driving environment, courtesy of three seat levers that allow both front seats to conform to a rider's physique. Along with the tilt/telescoping steering wheel, this tidy car is uncanny in its ability to suit drivers large or small. One ergonomic letdown is marginal rearward visibility due to prominent rear seat headrests. A premium 10-speaker stereo is optional, as are a nav system ($2,000) and a USB iPod interface ($250) that augments the standard aux-input jack.
Amplifying the brand's eccentric joie de vivre in the 2009 MINI Cooper Convertible are touches like the seemingly silly Openometer, a prominent analog gauge to the left of the tach that tracks hours spent with the top down. But even as a tool to make you take the world less seriously—as well as work on your tan and soak in some Vitamin D—the Openometer ends up playing perfectly into the Convertible's grin-inducing kitsch. A surprising touch is a convertible top that features a built-in sunroof for fresh air without the full alfresco experience; if you want to go all the way, the automatic top scissors back and down in only about 15 seconds with the touch of a button. Radio and conversations can still be heard well with the top down at freeway speeds as long as the windows are up. Another nice touch is the convertible's tailgate that renders the rather tight luggage space accessible and convenient.
The 2009 MINI Cooper Convertible includes Dynamic Stability Control and anti-lock brakes, even at the base Cooper level. Airbags are front, side-seat-mounted (thorax protective on the convertible), and side curtain units on Coupe and Clubman models. Dynamic Traction Control comes standard on Sport models. Notable safety options are xenon high-intensity discharge headlamps, Park Distance Control, and run-flat tires with certain wheel/tire combos (standard on S models). NHTSA testing for the Coupe results in a decent four-star performance in most measures of impact safety (small, light vehicles do have their limitations), though the MINI's low center of gravity allows for a perfect five stars for rollover resistance.