2016 Mini Cooper S Convertible first drive

March 3, 2016

Gimmickry and retro design cues have always been part of the beguiling formula for Mini—especially ever since the brand was resurrected by BMW earlier last decade, and up to present day and the 2016 Mini Cooper S Convertible we drove around Los Angeles earlier this month.

It’s just that the fanciful side needs to be balanced with real function—plus driving credentials that are far more than skin-deep.

As such, Mini’s formula has changed for the better with these latest, third-generation Cooper models, to downplay the tongue-in-cheek playfulness and extrovertedness while grounding these models in a bit more practicality and serious performance credentials.

It’s the Mini Cooper S Convertible, arriving this spring as a 2016 model, that perhaps best shows off that newfound focus on the fundamentals.

Partly, it’s because the Mini Cooper Convertible is still a heck of a lot of fun to drive in its higher-performance Cooper S form, as we found earlier this month on Los Angeles boulevards, out on freeways, and perhaps mostly importantly, along curvy canyon roads.

We’ve already had a few driving experiences with the Cooper S as a hatchback—a quick, responsive, relatively versatile one. But as a drop-top, the Cooper S Convertible does a much better job selling itself. This model’s smart soft-top design, versatile seating and cargo layout, and good passenger comfort, top up or top down, all factor into that.

All the zippy you’d expect, and more

But back to the driving-enjoyment point, the Cooper S Convertible packs a lot of zip and attitude into its tidy little 152-inch-long package. You sit low, in what feels like the natural midpoint of the car. Mini loves using the term “go-kart” to describe the steering, and here it’s an apt description. You’ll notice some body roll in the tightest corners, but it’s the right amount to keep the limits progressive, and otherwise this is a vehicle you can literally whip about, with super-quick changes of direction and a general lack of fluster.

2016 MINI Cooper S Convertible

2016 MINI Cooper S Convertible

Rough pavement, in this convertible, doesn’t elicit the shuddering you might find in other drop-tops. This model gets about 200 pounds of added weight, most of it dedicated to structural bolstering; and it works—keeping the steering communicative and the center of weight (perceived and real) very low).

That added weight might make Cooper Convertible models with the standard 134-horsepower, 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine a little sluggish. Yet the Cooper S, with its 189-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four, never felt short on power and was downright quick in all but a few situations.

We spent the day and more than 200 miles driving two fully loaded (beyond fully loaded, and we’ll get to that later) Cooper S models, one with the six-speed automatic transmission and the other with a six-speed manual.

MINI is one of the few brands that hasn’t given up on manual transmissions; pretty much the entire model line—and all three performance levels of it—are offered with a choice. Acceleration is virtually identical between the two transmissions, at 6.7 or 6.8 seconds for the automatic and manual, respectively (or 8.2 and 8.3 for the Cooper), and the automatic performs just fine.

Save your fun for the manual

Here, we’d recommend that you go with the manual if you like rowing your own gears, as while the linkage is a little notchy, in a plasticky sort of way, but the clutch takeup is light and neat and it emphasizes the lightness and sense of fun built into the car—including the rorty exhaust note and the crackling overrun that becomes emphasized in Sport mode.

At the same time, there’s something distinctly out of character about this engine and its torque curve—one that doesn’t exactly encourage winding the engine into its upper revs. You can inadvertently lug the engine, coming out of a tight corner at 1,500 rpm or less, only to find you’re not really lugging it at all. It feels like it could be nearly as happy with a three-speed.

Which leads to the other non-MINI thing about these models, regardless of transmission: their absurdly tall gearing. We found that with the manual-shift model in third gear (yes, this is a six-speed), the engine was spinning just under 4,000 rpm. A Honda Fit manual, for example, is at nearly those revs in sixth gear.

The bright spot in the way the Cooper S goes down a curvy road is its steering. Whether at low speed, in parking lots or in hairpin corners, going around high-speed sweepers, or making deliberate lane changes on the Interstate at 75 mph, the steering stays light and well-weighted. It avoids the artificial-feeling heft of many other electric power steering systems (including many within the BMW fold)—with the obvious exception being the brilliant BMW M2 we drove the following day.

2016 MINI Cooper S Convertible - First Drive

2016 MINI Cooper S Convertible - First Drive

All Cooper S models have a three-mode system (Green, Mid, or Sport modes) that affects the powertrain’s responsiveness, shift points, and the electric power steering’s calibration, as well as the Dynamic Damper System—which we see as a deal at $500. From experience with the MINI Cooper S Coupe, we know that these models ride considerably harsher without that suspension system—and there might be a bit more cabin noise without it.

Mini’s up-sizing again

Mini models keep getting not-so-mini boosts in size with each generation, and the 2016 Cooper is no exception. The new model is 4.5 inches longer, 1.7 inches wider, and 1.1 inches longer in wheelbase than the outgoing model—as well as nearly an inch taller overall. It’s just 152 inches long, with a wheelbase of just 98.2 inches. Turning circle is just 35.4 feet.

The Cooper Convertible’s master move is its versatility. With that added cabin space, the Cooper Convertible gets an interior that’s optimized for all four seats, plus more supportive rear seats, a wider range of adjustment for the front seats, and cargo space that’s been boosted by more than 25 percent.

It’s surprisingly good for stashing cargo. Flip the tailgate down, and if you pull an additional lever just inside the top you can lift the bottom of it to create an opening that’s about a foot taller. And while the rear seats remain small, you can flip them forward for a useful pass-through to the cargo bay.

The fabric cloth top, which does interfere with outward visibility a bit when it’s up, does an impressive job in sealing out road and wind noise. With the top down, there’s not as much turbulence as you might expect for a shorter vehicle like this. And it’s a well-designed power mechanism, capable of putting the top down in just 18 seconds, up to 18 mph.

Lots of customization, of course

MINI says that the level of customization sets it aside from other convertibles. That can include a themed top with a Union Jack flag theme and herringbone-patterned detailing, Both of the cars we drove had the attention-getting Caribbean Aqua hue, which is one of eleven exterior colors. Eight different upholsteries are offered, including a new Malt Brown leather, and Mini Yours finishes like Fiber Alloy and porcelain-like Off-White add a more distinctive look to the cabin.

Base 2016 Mini Cooper Convertible models include keyless ignition, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone automatic climate control, leather steering-wheel and shift-knob trim, MINI Driving modes, and a 6.5-inch infotainment system with a 6.5-inch display, Bluetooth audio streaming, voice control, and support for some apps.

A Technology Package brings an 8.8-inch wide-screen display plus a rearview camera system, rear parking sensors, navigation, real-time traffic info, a full portfolio of MINI Connected apps, and a Convertible Rain Warner feature that will tell you when rainstorms are approaching and you should really consider putting the top up.

Our car also had the Premium Package (Comfort Access entry, heated front seats, Harman/Kardon premium audio, satellite radio, a folding wind deflector, and power-folding exterior mirrors), and the Sport Package, which trades off the S’s 16-inch wheels for larger 17s or 18s, plus full-LED headlamps and taillamps, LED foglamps, and the Dynamic Damper Control (adjustable, multi-mode) suspension.

Dropping the top, and shedding some of the whimsy

There are more than a few indications that, from a feature and interior standpoint, that altogether bring a more serious look and feel to the cabin. The Openometer is gone, instead moved to the infotainment system and buried within menus. And of course the soft top is now all-power, an upgrade over the previous generation. There’s even a new rain-warning app that will warn you to put up the top as a storm approaches. Although the color ring around the center stack remains a novel centerpiece.

2016 MINI Cooper S Convertible - First Drive

2016 MINI Cooper S Convertible - First Drive

Mini still could use a clean-slate rethink on its dash and switchgear layout; it feels far busier (or more cluttered) than it should be, and it feels from inside like it’s far, far away from the classic Mini Cooper interior look—one that, admittedly, not many Americans remember anyway.

Driven very rapidly along a mix of canyon roads, freeways, and surface streets around LA, we managed about 25 mpg in both of these vehicles. That’s about a worst-case scenario for this car; EPA ratings are at 23 city, 33 highway (27 combined) for the S. And the engine stop-start in the MINI Cooper is the kind you’ll leave enabled, as it’s smoother than what’s offered in much of the BMW lineup.

From a practical standpoint, the 2016 Mini Cooper S Convertible is basically a hot hatch that lets you drop the top. It’s quite the counterpoint to a roadster like the Mazda MX-5 Miata—as it provides much (admittedly, not all) of the thrilling driving experience yet offers that flexibility. It’s far more exciting to drive than the Volkswagen Beetle Convertible or Fiat 500 Convertible and closely rivals the driving fun of the base Audi TT, albeit at a lower price—$30,450 for the Cooper S Convertible. Just take it easy on the options, as you can add nearly $10k to the bottom line.

No need to be overly gimmicky this time: This is one that shows how fun can be serious business, too.

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