Is this soft-top hot hatch still top fun after seven years, following its latest update?
Why we’re running it: To discover whether a drop-top Mini could be the perfect car for summer
Month 1 – Specs
Life with a Mini Convertible: Month 1
Its handling prowess comes to the fore on a trip to the Peaks – 18 August 2021
So southern am I that I was once part of a football crowd singing a rude song about the north to the fans of, er, Watford. Forgiveness is therefore begged for the fact that, until just recently, I had never visited the Peak District.
Beautiful, isn’t it? Lush hills turn into sheer-faced mountains, conjoined by wide valleys, covered intermittently in heather and peat bogs and grazing sheep. Overlapping a railway line miraculously surviving from a bygone era, serpentine roads meander their way through a series of picturesque villages, flanked by flint walls and cottages that soothe the city-dweller’s soul.
Not many of these roads are fast (not if you have any respect for your own safety, anyway), but some of them allow you to get up to 60mph for a time. And as you will well know, speed is hardly a prerequisite for a corner to be fun; it’s all about how you can get from one to the next.
Piloting my Mini Convertible Cooper S with my friend from his Nottingham home, through Bakewell and up to Blue John Cavern, I came to thoroughly appreciate the compact Convertible’s combination of a lithe chassis, accurate and weighty steering and strong performance. (A shout-out to the chap enjoying his 1960s Alfa Romeo Spider who, seeing our intention and recognising his relative lack of pace, allowed us past; the opposite to Derbyshire’s most cautious Kia Sportage driver.)
Carry an appropriate amount of speed into the approaching corner and the Mini will follow you obediently to the apex, then get its head down and power out at a lick.
I don’t like the description of Mini’s ‘go-kart handling’ because, if you’ve ever had a go in a kart, you will know that the chassis lacks any sophistication whatsoever; and that couldn’t be less true of this car. The handling, now a hallmark of the Mini brand, really is great. Even when reined in because the road surface was wet, it still shone.
It’s all made even more enjoyable if you stick the automatic gearbox into manual mode and use the steering wheel-mounted shift paddles to anticipate the gear you want for a bend and to make the rapid acceleration out an involved process.
I just wish we could have had the soft top retracted for more than a few minutes on our jaunt; despite it being July, mist hung over the landscape and rain was never far away. I guess that’s the price you pay for such verdancy.
This was almost as much of a let-down as the ride comfort. While I understand that much of the Mini’s agility is owed to the stiffness of its suspension, it really can be quite unpleasant, so much so that on especially bad roads I find myself devoting some attention to avoiding larger potholes and ruts.
On a couple of occasions, I’ve had my passenger genuinely jump and express concern after we’ve clattered over one; and on less-than-smooth surfaces, the constant jostling has made it obvious to me that I was a bit too inactive during the lockdowns… I wonder whether the adjustable sports suspension you get on Sport trim (mine is an Exclusive) would allow the car to relax a bit more?
As well as a new appreciation for my Mini and the Midlands, I learned something else on this trip: ‘party mode’. My friend used to work at Mini, and he revealed that if you hold the ambient lighting switch through every colour option, it then goes into slowly fading between each of them. It creates a great night-driving vibe.
Athleticism The agile chassis and nicely set-up steering combine for a car that can be really fun on country roads.
In the slammer The firmness fades to the back of your mind when you’re having fun, but it can really get tiring in town.
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An unwanted fan – 4 August 2021
As a lover of both roofless driving and hot weather, I’ve been making the absolute most of the Mini lately. Somehow I’ve avoided being caught in the rain or getting bombed by a bird, but I have had one intruder: a dopey bumblebee, who set down on the steering wheel, of all places. This all occurred in a car park, thankfully; I might have panicked on the road.
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Welcoming the Mini Convertible to the fleet – 28 July 2021
“You’re a journalist, you said?” a fellow attendee at the British Grand Prix joked as we discussed my new hi-vis-jacket-coloured Mini Convertible. “Not a hairdresser?”
It’s safe to say that you can’t miss this car – and that everybody has an opinion about it. As well as that quip, which I must admit made me laugh, those I’ve heard from friends, family and strangers have ranged from “that’s so cool!” and “I absolutely love it” to “shame about the colour” and, amusingly, coming from a gay man, “ugh, that’s such a gay car”. My friend and I even got laughed at by a young bloke driving a Ford Fiesta while waiting at traffic lights.
Frankly, though, I couldn’t care less what other people think, because I’m loving this car. It looks superb, it’s very compact, I’m a fan of the Zesty Yellow (painting fun cars dull colours is criminal) and it has agile handling to match its thrilling performance.
That’s because it’s the Cooper S, which sits above the healthy Cooper and below the scorching John Cooper Works. It uses a 176bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine related to those found in everything from the BMW X1 to the Toyota GR Supra. Driving the front wheels, it comes with either a six-speed manual gearbox or, as in our car, a sevenspeed dual-clutch automatic with paddle shifters behind the wheel.
The Cooper S starts at £25,080 in Classic trim, or you can step up to Sport or Exclusive, which cost from £27,330 and £27,665. We went for Exclusive, which is aimed at the driver who is “a connoisseur of the finer details and lover of luxury”, whereas Sport “brings a taste of the track to your everyday drive”.
What it means in practical terms is that this particular connoisseur (ahem) benefits from additional air intakes in the front bumper, a bonnet air scoop and a central twin exhaust, which give the Convertible a subtly purposeful look. Then inside there’s a nappa leather steering wheel, electronically adjustable leather sports seats, aluminium trim and multicoloured ambient lighting.
We’ve then ladled on £6275 worth of options, most coming in packs. Navigation Plus brings a head-up display, connected services, wireless smartphone charging and sat-nav for the standard 8.8in touchscreen.
Comfort Plus contributes electrically folding mirrors, a rearview camera, a front centre armrest, heated front seats, automatic air-con, parking assistance and parking sensors front and rear. This is one that I reckon few would pass over.
Driving Assistant adds active cruise control, automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assistance (which, once turned off, has actually stayed off, so kudos to Mini for that). We’ve also added a heated steering wheel and the 360W, 12-speaker Harman Kardon stereo, which sounds absolutely superb. Music is one of my greatest passions in life, so this pleases me no end.
Oh, and one other thing: the Union Jack pattern on the roof? Like that in the tail-lights, you have to have it on Exclusive trim. Some love it, some don’t. I’m neutral on the issue, but I’ve found 15 such motifs on the car, which feels excessive either way.
I’ve already had plenty of time to ruminate on the Mini, because with societal restrictions being lifted at last, I’ve actually been able to leave my flat. Visiting friends up in Nottingham afforded a fantastically enjoyable introductory drive in the Peak District (which I will detail soon), even if it was in the rain, plus I took it to the Goodwood Festival of Speed (wet again…) and in blazing heat (at last!) up to Silverstone. I had the top down for every one of the 130 miles home, obviously; I feel a pang of irritation whenever I see a cabriolet driver with the roof up on a nice day while I’m sweltering under a fixed tin lid.
I’ve always loved soft-tops and small, sporty cars, so the Convertible Cooper S really appeals to me in combining the two things. And when you look for rivals, there really is very little out there. In fact, with hot hatches, I can’t think of any at all. Okay, there’s the Abarth 595C, but that’s really a landaulet, it’s wanting in terms of handling and the less said about its interior the better… So really there’s only the BMW 2 Series Convertible (which is great), the Mazda MX-5 (which is superb but has only two seats) and the Volkswagen T-Roc Cabriolet (the sight of which makes me feel sad).
It’s really good to see that, despite evidently having a corner of the market essentially all to itself, Mini hasn’t rested on its laurels. Indeed, we’re testing a car that has been out since 2014 because it was recently updated, gaining a somewhat controversial new look, the excellent digital dial display first seen in the Mini Electric, new infotainment software, greater scope for personalisation and new adaptive suspension for cars in Sport trim.
So, it seems that I will have a summer to savour – and not just because I can finally do things again.
Struggling to get the kids to school? Invest in a Mini Convertible is my tip: when I borrowed Kris’s car, my two ran out of the house each morning to fight over who gets to retract the roof. Space is tight in the back, but their seats did fit (just) and the two-stage top was ideal for all weather.
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Mini Convertible Cooper S Exclusive DCT specification
Specs: Price New £29,035 Price as tested £35,310 Options Navigation Plus Pack £2400, Comfort Plus Pack £1400, Driving Assistant Pack £800, Harman Kardon surround-sound system £600, Zesty Yellow paint £525, Piano Black exterior trim £300, heated steering wheel £250
Test Data: Engine 4 cyls in line, 1998cc, turbocharged, petrol Power 176bhp Torque 207lb ft Kerb weight 1325kg Top speed 143mph 0-62mph 6.9sec Fuel economy 45.6mpg CO2 143g/km Faults None Expenses None
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