Car reviews - Mini - Convertible - JCW
Genuine everyday versatility, unique looks, strong all-round performance, fuel economy
Room for improvement
Roof robs boot space, not as vicious as previous JCWs
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15 Mar 2017
Price and equipment
FOR its most powerful convertible to date, Mini asks $54,900 plus on-road costs, which makes it $9500 more expensive than the next Convertible below it in the range.
For the extra cash you get a car that can accelerate to from zero to 100km/h 0.6 seconds faster than the convertible Cooper S and specification that largely mirrors the hatchback JCW with full sports interior in synthetic suede, sports leather steering wheel, checkered flag themed interior trims and JCW sill trims.
On the outside the JCW has a fatter bodykit, 18-inch alloys, a tuned suspension system with adaptive dampers, sports stainless exhaust and bigger performance brakes.
Unlike the JCW three-door, a six-speed automatic transmission is standard fare in the Convertible (as fitted to our test car) but a manual is on offer as a no-cost option to customers who want to pick gears for themselves.
Compared with the previous JCW cabriolet, the new version is $6000 more affordable but Mini says that it has added in another $6000 worth of extra equipment, making it a $12,000 better deal than before.
But the big news is the electro-mechanical roof which stows and opens in 18 seconds in each direction and adds $4950 over the price of the hatchback.
Customers can elect to have their roof decorated in a subtle grey Union Jack flag which is woven in to the fabric of the roof and costs an extra $900.
We wholeheartedly encourage splashing some cash on Mini’s extensive range of customisation options as it is one of the company’s most likeable personality traits and sets it apart from many others.
Another of the Mini’s unique qualities lies in the constantly evolving interiors and the Convertible JCW is no different. The same blend of unusual design and high quality is carried over from the rest of the range, including the excellent circular central display, which features charming graphics in high definition and a comprehensive range of services.
The dash is dusted with JCW highlights such as a checkered flag theme and JCW badges and the sporty theme is continued through to the excellent sports seats in synthetic suede, which provide a supportive and comfortable driving position not commonly found in the hot-hatch segment.
Some will prefer the more bohemian interior materials and finishes of the Cooper and Cooper S but the JCW is obviously targeting sportscar fans more than contemporary design fans.
While it isn’t quite as frivolous as the dedicated gauge in the previous-generation Convertible, we are pleased to see a return of the Always Open timer that clocks up your time spent with the roof stowed.
The gauge is buried in the driver’s digital display and will appeal to top-down motoring enthusiasts who are frustrated by other soft-top owners seen driving with the roof up on a perfect sunny 25-degree day.
If the temperature does drop below the Goldilocks zone, optional seat heaters ($490) and a cosy cabin will ensure owners keep adding to their Always Open score.
If you have to put the roof up, the cabin transforms into a cosy and dark interior with good sound insulation from the outside world thanks to the triple-layer fabric roof. We love the look of the convertible with the roof up but all windows down to emphasise its frameless doors and handsome proportions.
The Mini is not known for a capacious boot in standard hatchback form and the convertible version sacrifices even more for a total volume of 215 litres with the roof closed, and that shrinks further to 160 litres when the roof is opened.
However, a clever easy load feature allows the folded roof to be hinged out of the way for better boot access even when the roof is open.
We also frequently used the second row of seating for storage which is simple to load and unload when the roof is open and attracts amused glances from passers by when the back seat is accommodating a large Esky and you are filling it with ice at a service station.
Standout points are the top-notch Harmon Kardon stereo and the switchable colour mood lighting that completes a top-down driving experience on a hot summer night.
Engine and transmission
At the heart of the hottest Mini convertible is a version of the 2.0-litre turbo engine that hides under the bonnet of the Cooper S, but the four-pot has been fettled to produce 170kW and 320Nm.
That’s plenty of go for the Mini even if the convertible version gains more than 100kg in roof mechanism and extra body stiffening to compensate.
Torque seems to be the tuning focus of the latest JCW with lots of useful low-down grunt allowing easy progress irrespective of your journey. The 2.0-litre will eagerly spin up to high revs with a bit of turbo whistle and a satisfying exhaust bark but it doesn’t crave the high rpm that previous JCWs did.
We found the performance to be enough fun to encourage enthusiastic driving without posing too much of a risk to the driver’s licence.
With a variety of driving styles we were also impressed at the Mini’s fuel economy which totalled an average of 7.6L/100km over the course of three weeks.
Despite the Mini’s impressive performance and economy there is a little part of us that can’t help feeling that the true John Cooper soul has not been fully invoked.
In a previous role, our reviewer fondly remembers relishing being handed a work order to convert the standard Cooper S to a JCW using the a retro-fit kit, and spending the next few hours swapping the cylinder head for a ported and flowed version, fitting a smaller supercharger pulley, changing the exhaust for a higher-flow version, before finishing the job off with a set of badges and an ECU re-map.
Later, and for the first turbocharged versions, the set of upgrade parts was simplified to a new air-box, exhaust manifold and silencer system as well as the badges, but a majority of the power gains came from an engine management reprogram.
For the latest version, the JCW tune-up happens at the factory and is almost completely attributable to software modifications. Yes the results are respectable power and performance gains but we miss the romance of turning spanners and torquing bolts – and we think Mr Cooper would agree.
True driving enthusiasts would not give the standard six-speed automatic transmission a second thought and go for the no-cost optional manual, but the auto is a slick bit of kit and matches the strong engine well.
We hardly used the steering wheel paddles opting instead for the selector level manual mode which is correctly oriented for downshifts with a push forward and pulling back for a higher gear.
With only a six-speed transmission, we found the ratios could be a little wide, particularly in the lower gears, which made us miss the early Cooper S manual gearbox which had a delightfully tight set of gears and added a true racecar feel.
Generally speaking though, the combination of punchy four-pot and solid transmission makes the JCW a strong performer on the back roads but a breeze about town when in smooth auto mode.
Ride and handling
Despite being owned and designed by a car-maker that forged a reputation for precise handling through rear-wheel drive, the Mini range has deservedly earned itself a reputation for sharp front-wheel-drive chassis. The Convertible JCW is no different.
A stiffer, lowered suspension setup contributes to plenty of positive feedback and control on more exciting roads but, critically, the Convertible has a slightly softened edge compared with the hatchback JCW.
The result is not a car that is obviously less potent or responsive but one which is far easier to live with without compromising on driving enjoyment.
Only a direct side-by-side comparison would reveal the exact differences but the drop-top version rolls on a less aggressive chassis tune that is more cosseting.
That will not sit well with some purists, but for a majority of high-performance Mini fans, the compromise between everyday accessibility and corner carving dynamics for the weekend, combined with cabriolet fun will be right on the sweet spot.
Adding to the JCW’s impressive road manners are a mighty set of front brakes that have a solid pedal feel and massive stopping power, which is more than enough to cope with the convertible’s extra weight and scrubbed speed all day without complaint. They also look great through the big wheels.
With the Convertible JCW, Mini is continuing to prove just how much can be achieved by a front-engine, front-wheel-drive layout – an approach that was pioneered by the original 1959 Mini in the name of cabin space and practicality. Designer Alec Issigonis would be surprised at how big a modern Mini is, but proud.
Safety and servicing
Standard safety kit includes six airbags for front passengers, active pop-up roll-over protection bars, all the usual electronic stability aids, a reversing camera and run-flat tyres.
Neither the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) nor its European counterpart Euro NCAP have tested a convertible version of the Mini. ANCAP has previously rated the Cooper hatch with four stars.
Like every Mini, the Convertible JCW has a three-year unlimited kilometre warranty. On-board electronics determine service intervals according to driving style, frequency and environmental variables and customers are offered a range of service packs that can be added in the first year of ownership.
Compared with its hatchback sibling, the Mini Convertible JCW is a slightly softer option with some acceleration and raw road-holding sacrificed in the name of topless fun, but that need not be a negative.
With a milder chassis that still allows fun in the corners and respectable performance despite the extra weight, the drop-top is notably easier to live with day to day.
The addition of the more aggressive JCW exterior aesthetics also gives the Convertible a tougher look and an assertive stance that is more befitting of its potential. Some hatchback-turned-cabriolets are perceived as impotent but the convertible JCW should not be tarred with the same brush.
For a blast around a track, the hard-top version will always prevail, but as another member of the family, what the Convertible offers in motoring fun far outweighs a small price to pay in the performance stakes.
And we feel we can prove that categorically with a simple read out of the Always Open timer which, after just three weeks, read 22 hours and 19 minutes.
DS3 Cabrio from $36,590 before on-road costs
Powered by a version of the previous-generation JCW’s engine, the DS has a little Mini DNA running through it but with only 1.6-litres to play with and a lower state of tune, the French car cannot match the Mini’s punch. It does offer a sporty front-drive rag-top with head-turning styling but its roof is retractable roof-panel compared with the Mini’s full convertible top.
Abarth 595 Convertible from $31,500 before on-road costs
Italy’s offering in the hot front-drive category is about as compact as it gets with Fiat 500 underpinnings and a prickly 1.4-litre turbo engine. Like the DS, the Abarth won’t keep up with the Mini and its roof is not a full top-and-side convertible but it does offer performance-focussed open top motoring in a body that looks like nothing else.
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