Car reviews - Mini - Hatch - Cooper S convertible
Sharp handling, dynamic transmission, purposeful tech updates
Room for improvement
Quirky interior design hinders usability, lacking bottom-end pull, lazy steering feedback, high price
Mini's updated drop-top sportster recaptures young appeal
10 Oct 2018
EARLIER this year, Mini freshened up its hatch range which now spans three body styles, and three grades.
In truth, it was a minor update, bringing slightly more modern styling cues and added cosmetic touches to distinguish it from its predecessors.
The important changes were found behind the dash, with the new Mini armed to the teeth with high-end interior tech, connectivity and entertainment features.
Where racing history and design lineage were once the main-game for Mini's marketing department, clearly Mini is aiming to recapture the interest of a younger audience by offering what it believes young people want most.
To understand why this is significant, open up your textbooks to chapter three, here's a bit of history.
In the late 50s, the fine chaps at British Motor Company (BMC) designed what would soon be, arguably, one of the most influential vehicles of all time.
It was called the Mini, so named for its tiny proportions, simplicity and in turn, affordability.
But it didn't take long for punters to see the sporting potential of the newborn lightweight. It handled like a go-kart, was easy on rubber and fuel, and with only a few carburettor and cam adjustments could be given a healthy dose of vigor for the straight line stuff.
Soon, one John Newton Cooper of the Cooper Car Company lifted his checkered socks and adjusted his silk waistcoat – pointed at the Mini – and asked “what if we made it faster?”
Pip pip, tally-ho, the Mini Cooper was born.
When the marque was relaunched under BMW ownership in 2000, the designers were careful to stay true to Mini's origins.
The iconic look and feel has unquestionably helped sales performance. A nostalgic drive for some, and a quirky accessory for others.
However, the latest update brings a new element of appeal to the British light car, with a plethora of new technology that rivals luxury vehicles well above its price point.
We recently sampled a Mini Convertible Cooper S; the rag-top two-door variant that sits between the entry-spec Cooper and the high-performance JCW.
Fitting the cliché, we filled it full of friends and went for a spirited drive down to Victoria's Mornington Peninsula.
Okay Google, shuffle Classic Rock Essentials, we're going cruising.
Price and equipment
The Mini Hatch range is available in three body styles, 3-door, 5-door and, as tested here, Convertible, with the line-up kicking off at $29,990 plus on-roads for the entry-level 3-door Cooper.
The rag-top is the most expensive of the three, starting at $37,900 for the Cooper and topping out at $56,900 for the high-performance JCW (John Cooper Works), with the model we have on test, the Cooper S, slotted right between the two at $45,900.
Mechanically, the facelifted model is mostly unchanged aside from a few engine tweaks to improve fuel economy.
What it did get however, is a strong suite of tech updates including a standard 6.5-inch infotainment system with satellite navigation, wireless Apple CarPlay, a digital radio and Bluetooth.
The Cooper S is also treated to 17-inch alloys, selectable driving modes, wireless phone charging, a USB port, sports seats, leather upholstery and dual-zone climate control.
Furthermore, all Cooper grades are fitted with a 4G sim card slot to give access to things like real-time traffic data, weather information, an automatic emergency call function as well as access to Mini's Connected smartphone application.
On the outside, the update brought new LED lighting front and rear, with the tail-lights loudly displaying the Union Jack. A bold design choice which, while a bit of gimmick, certainly adds to the charm.
In earlier generations, the Mini's interior was dominated by a very large speedometre at the top of the centre stack. The circular surround remains in the new model but now houses a widescreen infotainment display.
It's kind of a square in a round hole situation, and arguably puts style ahead of functionality.
This theme continues around the interior, with lots of quirky design elements that in some cases hinder usability.
However it must be said that the interior design is clever and gives the car a unique touch compared to the fairly conservative setups of its peers.
And it does well to blend both classic and modern styles, with LED strips and ambient lights actively illuminating, while chrome Aeroplane-style toggle switches are used for things like drive mode control, traction control and the engine start/stop switch. Very cool.
The power folding fabric roof works in two stages so you can have it half way open for a sunroof-style experience, or all the way down.
When on, the roof holds in wind noise well for a rag-top, however the cabin can get fairly blowy with the roof retracted.
The weather dropped below the 15-degree mark during testing, and so the driver and passenger seat warmers equipped on our test car were a welcomed addition.
Another interior feature that was well received was the centre console-mounted wireless charger which locks devices in via a spring mechanism. This stops your phone from flying around the cabin when the going gets twisty. A subtle, yet ultra-convenient touch.
Engine and transmission
The Cooper S is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine tuned to the sound of 141kW at 6000rpm and 280Nm between 1350-4600rpm.
With the recent update, Mini managed to shed 8kg from the four-cylinder unit, however the weight drop had no affect on output.
Mini claims a 6.5L/100km fuel economy figure on the combined cycle, however the best we managed was 8.6 after a day of driving in varying conditions.
Standard is a six-speed manual transmission, but our test car was equipped with the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission which comes at a $2800 premium.
The self-shifter was surprisingly slick, reacting rapidly via the the wheel-mounted paddles.
You also get a great noise from the exhaust, which is amplified when the roof is down, making lairy downshifts a pleasure.
When compared with other warm hatch-style vehicles in its price range, the Cooper S can occasionally feel underpowered. While no slouch, it feels as if there is an extra 30kW dying to be unleashed with an ECU reflash. It is a 2.0 litre, afterall.
We gave the Mini a nudge up Arthur's Seat, an iconic mountain pass on the Mornington Peninsula with lots of tight hairpins and off-camber turns.
Of course, an extra $9000 nets you the JCW version that adds an extra 29kW and 50Nm.
Think Mini. Think handling.
The Cooper S has always been a quick steerer, and while slightly dulled over the years with modern power steering and increased weight, the latest iteration still holds up.
It’s sharp and predictable, with less torque steer than many of its rivals, and good grip on all four corners.
In Sport mode, the adaptive suspension improves things significantly, however it does reveal some scuttle shake in white-knuckle runnings.
As spirited drivers, we would have liked to have seen a bit more feedback, particularly through the steering, as it felt a bit disassociating in fast sections.
It's always a compromise between on-road ride comfort and driver feedback, and the Cooper S leans more towards the former in that regard.
Safety and servicing
Standard on the drop-top is ABS, dynamic stability and traction control, electronic differential lock control and an emergency call button.
Two packages are available, Basic and Plus, with the former covering scheduled servicing and the latter also dealing with “selected” maintenance items.
True to its namesake, the Mini Cooper S is an exciting and unique experience, particularly in drop-top guise.
With such competitive offerings on the market, that can offer more go and better value, it might not appeal to die-hard spirited drivers. But again, that’s what the JCW is for.
But its iconic looks, build quality and strong equipment list will help it satisfy a different crowd; those who favour cutting edge tech and fun, unintimidating performance.
While a long way from the historic vehicles upon which it gets its name, it's still a Mini, and that ain't gonna change.
Mazda MX-5, from $34,190 plus on-road costs
It's difficult to mention convertibles without bringing up the tried-and-true MX-5 range. A focused two-door sportscar that puts driver engagement and enjoyment at the forefront of its philosophy. If practicality and day-to-day usability is important, then consider something else. But that just ain't what the humble Five is all about.
Audi A3 Cabriolet, from $49,000 plus on-road costs
The rag-top A3 range is particularly versatile, offering four grades that range from the comfortable 1.4 TFSI to the full-fruit performance S3 2.0 TFSI quattro. High-end build quality and a strong list of standard equipment make the A3 a venerable model in the convertible segment.
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