When BMW Canada informed me that I’d be getting a Mini Cooper S convertible in January, I immediately thought it was some kind of a joke. To be fair, I would have preferred having the car during the warm summer months to fully appreciate classic wind-in-your-hair motoring. But, since all I seem to be reviewing lately are boring crossovers and SUVs with CVT transmissions, I relished the idea of finally driving a proper sport compact car with a do-it-yourself 6-speed manual transmission. Essentially, what this means is that everything is justifiable when you’re handed the keys to a Mini.
Normally, in a traditional car, I hesitate before lowering the window in winter. Because I hate winter. I hate the cold. I hate how it makes my skin crack on my hands. And I hate what it does to a car by making it sound funny when you start it in the morning, and instantly covering it with calcium and brown grime the moment you exit the carwash.
But this Mini Cooper is the only car in which I’ve had the guts to lower its rag-top during what is typically the coldest week of the year in Quebec. Now why is that? Because a Mini isn’t a serious car. It’s a vehicle born from emotion, which is why it makes you do ridiculously immature things. Cold out? No problem. Drop the top, put your tuque and mittens on, crank up the heater full blast, and let’s motor hard!
The Essence of the Mini Brand
Very similar to Porsche’s 911, the Cooper is the reason the Mini brand exists – it’s what purists call “a real Mini”. Although I did enjoy the Clubman I drove several weeks back, I must admit that I’ve never really given much attention to the rest of the Mini lineup. In my book, they only exist to make the Cooper be a better car. So, the Cooper S then. It’s the essence of the Mini brand, and one of those cars that makes you LOL the moment you get behind the wheel.
It’s a vehicle that needs no introduction now does it? Ever since BMW brought the iconic Mini nameplate back to life in 2002, we’ve seen the Cooper evolve incrementally while the Germans did their best to keep it true to its roots. Yes, this Cooper S is considerably larger than the first one that appeared on our roads 15 years ago, but it still remains a small car compared to today’s automotive landscape. In a sea of overweight crossovers and compact sedans larger than late eighties Oldsmobiles, the Cooper, especially when tucked in between two mall finders in a parking lot, is a cute and refreshing sign that there’s still hope for fun motoring in this soon-to-be-autonomous world.
Mind you, the fact that this new Cooper S, which was redesigned for the 2015 model year, is significantly bloated compared to its 2002 relaunch isn’t exactly a bad thing. Riding on BMW’s UKL front-wheel-drive platform, the same that underpins that Clubman I reviewed, this new, more “mature” Cooper 3-door is 182 mm longer, 39 mm wider, and a whole 128 kg heavier than the first Coopers of ’02 (add 107 kg for the convertible you see here). This added size and heft has indeed toned down the Cooper’s frantic behaviour, but it all translates into significantly more interior room and a considerably more refined experience behind the wheel. I’m a big guy, and I had no problem spending a lot of time in this thing.
As far as exterior styling goes, well, this is still very much a Mini Cooper. This means that you still get a pair of cheerful oval headlights lying on top of a clam-shell hood. There’s the classic Mini front grille sitting there to remind us of the creator: Alec Issigonis. And I’m a particular fan of the design cues that are exclusive to the Cooper S such as the subtle, yet functional air intake on the hood, additional dual air intakes located at the bottom of the now more aggressive front bumper, and centre-mounted dual exhaust out the back which, it must be said, adds to this little brat the sporty decibels it deserves.
That’s what a Mini Cooper S is telling you the moment you set your eyes on its cute little face. And drive the snot out of it I did! What you must understand is that even though this Cooper S is now significantly heavier than its predecessor, it’s also considerably more powerful. This is a driver’s car. And it’s quick. Under its hood now sits a 2.0L, turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder good for a healthy 189 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. My tester was, of course, fitted with a 6-speed manual transmission, but a six-speed automatic is available for those who care.
That said, sitting inside a Cooper S does come with a series of quirks. Very much like the Clubman, there were some irritating bits about this car’s cabin that grinded my gears the entire time I had it. First, there’s the centre-mounted armrest which no matter in which position it’s in, obstructs the otherwise enjoyable gear lever’s downward throws. Then, there are the headlight and fog light switches that are located way down underneath the left-hand side of the dashboard in a downward tilted position, just to make sure you can’t see them, or easily find them with a stretch of your arm. Like in the Clubman, ridiculously tiny side-view mirrors significantly reduce lateral visibility, and although a roofless Cooper will give you miles of 360 degree visibility, when that ragtop is raised, the C-pillars are so wide that it’s virtually impossible to see your blind spots.
Unfortunately, a blind spot monitoring system isn’t available.
Once all these aggravating details are out of your way though, it’s shits and giggles the entire time. Flip the starter button toggle switch located at the bottom of the centre stack, and this little Cooper roars to life in an authoritative, yet properly tuner-esque growl. Like in the Clubman, there are three driving modes to choose from: Sport, Mid, and Green. Engage Sport mode (engage it all the time), and a poorly translated from German exclamation “Let’s Motor Hard!” lights up the centre screen, the car’s ambient lighting starts acting up as if the entire car is excited to be in Sport mode, the steering tightens up, throttle mapping is set to its most aggressive setting, and the dynamic dampers (optional) instantly firm up.
Finally, a Sport mode that actually does something.
That 2.0T is a peach, one filled with massive low-end torque, plenty of mid-range grunt, and a willingness to deliver good power all the way to its redline. It also requires premium fuel to operate. Never did I feel any turbo lag from this little motor, and it always felt like I was driving a car with an abundance of power for its size, no matter which gear I was in. 0-100 km/h is claimed at around 6.8 seconds, but this Cooper S definitely feels quicker behind the wheel.
Also, that 6-speed manual is slick, fun to row through the gears, and although I would have preferred an option to remove the immature automatic throttle blips upon downshifts, the clutch is smooth, with a near seamless bite point with perfectly placed pedals for heel-and-toe driving. The Cooper S emits some rather cool popping and crackling sounds upon throttle lift off, which I never got bored of listening to.
The chassis is also superbly well calibrated. And thanks to the seemingly narrow 16-inch winter tires my car was fitted with, the lack of grip on cold tarmac combined with the short wheelbase and balanced chassis resulted in some very entertaining lift-off oversteer through the bends.
The Cooper S, it’s just so alive. All the time.
Drop it Like It’s Hot
So, that convertible top. What I can tell you is that it can be lowered in the cold, as long as it’s over -10 degrees Celsius outside. During our photoshoot in Sutton, Quebec, the Cooper’s gauge cluster indicated -10.5 degrees. Urgh. Believe it or not, we drove south towards the US border until we found the ideal sweet spot that would allow us to drop the rag off this Cooper – I can’t believe we actually did that.
Anyway, the power retractable roof in the Cooper S, initiated either by a toggle switch located by the rearview mirror, or directly from the key fob, takes just 18 seconds to neatly stow itself over the trunk. The first portion of the roof also retracts like a sunroof. Once the top is down, blind spots suddenly reappear, but rearward visibility slightly disappears due to the stacked roof. Luckily, my tester was fitted with a rear-view camera, which, you guessed it, is an option you have to pay for.
It must be said though, there’s something seriously hilarious about driving a car with no roof in the middle of winter, especially a Mini – with people giving me huge smiles and thumbs ups as I zoomed past them with the largest grin plastered across my face. This is the first car that actually made me laugh hysterically while I was driving it, probably because I couldn’t feel my face from the cold.
The Cooper S’ soft top does come with some minor performance downsides, because it adds a significant amount of weight to the car, thus reducing its 0-100 km/h time. Also, although BMW has fortified all convertible Minis with structural bracing in the rocker panels and a stiffening plate under the engine, as well as torsional reinforcement struts, some cowl shake does remain. This is the inevitable symptom of removing a car’s most important structural reinforcement – the roof. This means that driving the Cooper S convertible on Quebec roads, especially in its most aggressive (and fun!) Sport setting, resulted in rather unpleasant rattling sounds throughout the entire cabin.
But who cares right? Considering the number of smiles per hour I was getting out of this thing, plus the entire car’s tendency to want to play; either through its sporty driving dynamics, funky infotainment interface, cool interior design cues, and overall shape that’s all about breaking the status quo while looking cute and cool, the 2017 Mini Cooper S simply kicks ass!
Prepare Your Wallet
How much for this little snot on wheels that can barely seat a child out the back, stow more than 4 grocery bags in its trunk and barely cut the 8.9 L / 100 km fuel consumption mark? The blunt answer is: $42 230 as seen here.
Yeah, that’s not exactly cheap. A base Mini Cooper S convertible starts at $32 240, but requires a whole set of optional packages to add simple convenience features such as that much needed rear-view camera, heated seats, navigation, LED fog lights, and rain-sensing wipers. Ok. I mean, I know this is a German car and that its Premium and exclusive and yadda yadda, but, 42 thousand freakin bucks? Are you kidding? That’s Ford Mustang GT money for crying out loud.
And that’s where I was rather frustrated with the entire car. Because I really, really want a Cooper S hardtop. That one sells for a more decent entry price of $26 935 before options, but is still quite expensive considering there’s a thing called a VW Golf GTI sitting in another showroom somewhere. The most frustrating part is that I’m right smack in the middle of this car’s demographics.
This is a car built for a dude like me. I make a decent living. I’m single, I have no kids. I love driving. But I’m sorry, but I can’t afford paying this kind of money for a Mini. BMW will tell you that you don’t buy a Mini out of logic, you buy one out of desire. Fine, I totally get that. But does that desire need to be so expensive? The original Morris was never a premium car, why does this one need to be?
Here’s my final verdict: what you have here folks is a car that exists more as a social statement than an actual car. It’s an automotive icon. A legend. A fashion statement. A fun little buddy that’s always eager to play. And a weapon against crossover domination. So please, if you can afford one, then go out and buy a Mini Cooper S. Trust me, you’ll be giving your money to a good cause.
Review of the 2017 Mini Cooper S Convertible by William Clavey
Sport Compact Cars
+ Bonkers fun to drive.
+ Great handling and respectfully quick.
+ Cheerful and instantly recognizable Mini looks.
– Very limited rear leg room and cargo space.
– Convertible roof leads to unwanted cowl shake.
Clavey’s Corner is located in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Prices and trim levels discussed in this article reflect the Canadian car market.
Special thanks: Mini Canada
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