Car reviews - Mini - Convertible - range
Improvements across the board, good handling, strong Cooper S engine, minimal wind buffeting
Room for improvement
Hardly any boot space, lots of tyre noise, roof does not fold into boot
17 Mar 2009
THE new Mini Cabrio is not the fastest, quietest or smoothest convertible around, but it is still good fun and has loads of charm.
It is also one of the more affordable top-down options on the market, if you resist ticking the many boxes of the options list.
The new model is significantly better than the old, with some excellent attributes as well as some flaws.
Value for money is an issue with this car. On paper, the Mini Cooper Cabrio looks relatively affordable at $39,800.
We can’t tell you what that car feels like, because the only Mini Cooper Cabrio on this week’s national launch in Melbourne was loaded with extras that raised the price to an eye-popping $53,000.
The Mini Cooper S Cabrio also looks like a reasonable buy at $48,000, but the one we drove on the launch would cost around $62,000 with all its options added.
Both cars are fun to drive, but aren’t worth anywhere near this kind of money.
It would be nice to make an educated guess what the base cars would be like to drive, but that is impossible because the options Mini threw at its cars included features that affect the whole drive experience from limited slip differentials to larger wheels, different tyres, seats and interior trim.
So, keep in mind that this drive impression is of two cars that cost a lot more than the standard models.
It should be noted that many Mini customers enjoy the massive options list that allows them to change just about everything in their cars from interior trim colours to roofs featuring the Union Jack and even items such as clear indicator lenses (a $200 option).
This choice is welcome, but if you test-drive a Mini with a mind to buy one remember to ask what options it is fitted with as it is unlikely to be standard.
Some of the features sold as options should be standard, including heated seats, which cost an extra $490, even in the Cooper S Chilli, while a Bluetooth phone connection with USB connection and armrest is a hefty $1470 above the cost of the Cooper Chilli.
Options or no options, the new Mini Cabrio is a great improvement over the previous model as it picks up considerable advancements including two excellent new engines, improved suspension and a classier interior.
Rear visibility has also been improved thanks to the fact that the fixed roll bar, which obliterated rear vision on the old car, has been replaced by a lower-sitting version that pops up in a crash.
Interestingly, rear vision is better with the roof in place, because when the roof folds down it blocks about one third of the rear view.
Indeed, the way the roof sits folded at the back, rather than stowed away in the boot, also detracts from the look of the car.
The Mini seats four people, and as is the case with the hard-top there is not a heap of legroom in the back.
That said, thanks to the upright design of the roof, there is more than enough headroom for rear passengers. It doesn’t need to be mentioned that there is more than enough headroom when the roof is folded down.
Mini has done a good job to limit wind buffeting in the Cabrio. You can happily travel at 100km/h with roof down and windows up without being hit too hard by the wind, even without the optional wind diffuser.
If you plan to travel lid-down in winter, you best invest in the optional heated seat function, which, together with the excellent heater, allow you to keep warm even on a rather chilly day.
A nice feature new to the Cabrio allows you to open the roof using the key fob, which is handy on a hot day as it not only saves time, but also allows all the hot air in the car to dissipate quickly.
You can also partially pull back the front section of the roof while driving to simulate a sunroof.
We tested this feature, but found it to be so loud at 80km/h that we quickly closed the roof again.
One of the nice things about driving the Mini Cabrio with the roof down is being able to hear the exhaust, especially on the Cooper S.
Mini has given it quite a sporty note with plenty of meat under throttle and a definite sporty crackle when you back off. It really fits in with the character of the car.
The engines are a strong point although the cars don’t feel quite as quick as their hard-top siblings, probably because they are 100kg heavier.
That said, they aren’t slow even though they deliver excellent fuel economy.
On wet roads, with the traction control off, the Cooper S easily lit up the front wheels.
There is a little bit of a tug at the front wheel under acceleration, but it really isn’t very bad.
The brilliant Cooper S turbo is at its strongest between 3000rpm and 5000rpm, where it is sweet and smooth-revving.
Our test car was fitted with a six-speed manual and it is a nice crisp gearbox.
All but one of the test cars on the launch were sporty Cooper S which naturally generated a suspicion that the ordinary Cooper was slow and therefore kept away from the scribes.
We drove the solitary non-turbo Cabrio and found that while it was not a rip-snorter, it wasn’t as slow as you might expect.
Once it gets past about 2300rpm, this engine is smooth and linear, even if it takes some time to wind up. Below that point, it is really sluggish.
It never feels fast and you would often find yourself wishing you could have paid the extra for the turbo. But the performance of the standard Cooper Cabrio could be described as adequate.
The Cabrios both handle well. They are agile and the steering is sharp. They aren’t in the same league as the Mazda MX-5, but what is at this end of the market?
While they are good fun, the Cabrios don’t feel quite as lithe as their hardtop siblings, and this might have something to do with the extra weight as well as damping tweaks that go with it.
The ride is still a touch on the firm side for Australian country roads, managing most of the dips and undulations well enough, but crashing and bashing over ruts and sharp bumps.
As all the cars had larger wheels and run-flat tyres, we can’t say whether the base cars would be able to manage these conditions well.
Driving with the roof up, you notice there is not much wind buffeting even at highway speeds. That is a pleasant surprise, but the launch roads generated quite a lot of tyre and road noise, which was especially bad on the coarse chip surfaces.
The interior of the Cabrios look quite nice, although there were a lot of chrome, leather, colour options in here.
A new feature – the roof timer – is a $300 option on regular Cabrio models and comes as part of the Chilli upgrade packages.
This circular instrument sits off to the side of the tacho and blocks half of one of the air-vents. All it does is show the amount of time the car’s roof is retracted.
We are not sure why Mini thought this was a good idea, other than extracting another $300 from customers who might not have worked out that any good watch could do exactly the same thing.
All Cabrios have split-fold rear seats and an opening behind them that leads into the boot.
This is a good feature, but it should be noted that the boot itself is incredibly small and no good for much more than a few bags of shopping or an overnight bag.
Anyone going on an overnight trip with their partner will need to use the rear seats to carry their bags.
It seems that the Mini Cabrios live up to the promise of fun top-down driving, at least when they are loaded to the hilt with options.
There is no way the cars we drove were worth anything approaching $53,000 and $62,000. That kind of money would buy a loaded MX-5 with considerable change or come within $5000 of a Nissan 370Z.
The base Mini Cabriolets compete with the excellent Peugeot 207CC, Audi A3 Cabriolet and MX-5 which are all competent.
They may well do well against this crop without any options, but who knows?
If we are ever able to test a Cabrio that is not loaded with lots of gear, you will be the first to know.
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