LOS ANGELES, California — Three car generations and 14 years since BMW revived the Mini brand, it’s forming its own heritage. In the case of the 2016 Mini Cooper S convertible (and its hardtop sibling), signature styling elements that evoke those of the original Austin Mini Minor survive, but we are now 50-plus years beyond Mary Quant’s scandalously short skirts and the London that “swings like a pendulum do.” More Americans can quote the funniest lines from Austin Powers movies than can identify Austin-Rover as a defunct carmaker. Mini today is a BMW sub-brand of front-drive cars with German engineering marketed with a thin layer of “British” design charm bolstered by assembly (mostly) in Oxford, England.
This topless model is just the latest variation on the platform introduced in two-door hardtop form two model years ago. Like the hardtop, it’s larger than before, with a longer front overhang that controversially stretches the signature bulldog snout to schnauzer-like dimensions. It’s a more sophisticated and refined car made with higher-quality materials. It employs BMW TwinPower Turbo engines in three-cylinder Cooper, four-cylinder Cooper S, and high-performance John Cooper Works (JCW) models. The ragtop goes on sale in March (April for the JCW) just in time for warm weather in most of the country. It was an unseasonably warm 85-degree day when we drove the Cooper S in and around Los Angeles in early February.
BMW/Mini leaders profess they are surprised — pleasantly — that the brand has been so well-received in America with sales rising steadily, even last year in the face of low gas prices and a general trend away from small cars. Mini, remember, was a heritage/retro-car project BMW expected would do better in Europe than America, where the original Austin/Morris models never sold in any significant volume. The new one arrived in 2002 as the smallest car on the U.S. market. It never played into the small-equals-cheap mindset, instead becoming a fashion statement on wheels with a long list of personalization options. It’s not the small car you buy because you need to save money, so sales are not particularly susceptible to gas price variations.
That said, Mini is “repositioning the brand,” says David Duncan, vice president of Mini of the Americas. He’s been with Mini from the start, in 2001 (coming over from the BMW motorcycle side), and became VP in 2014. Duncan says his growth strategy centers on the Clubman, Mini’s biggest, most luxurious model. Given market trends toward crossovers, he’s also eager to bring on a new Countryman ALL4, which is due for an update to the latest BMW/Mini hardware.
Focus for now is on launching the JCW Convertible at April’s New York Auto Show. We were shown one — an early right-hand drive example — and told it would boast 228 horsepower, up 20 from the 2015 version. But the JCW could not be driven. Nor did Mini offer up any of its base U.S.-spec convertibles. The three-cylinder Mini Cooper that boasts a starting price of $24,900 (before destination fee) and claims to be the only European-made convertible costing less than $25,000? Nope. Our choices for driving were: Cooper S in Caribbean Aqua or Melting Silver paint, manual or automatic. Make it a Melting Silver manual with the cool new option of a roof with a gray Union Jack pattern woven into the black fabric.
As before, the roof opens in two stages with a sunroof function that slides the forward portion back while the remainder stays in place. Now, though, the opening is 16 inches, 1 inch bigger and, more significantly, the entire operation is electric. Folding the whole roof takes 18 seconds, and it’s almost eerily silent in operation, banishing memories of hydraulic systems that can sound like a garbage truck visit at 3 a.m. The top still stacks awkwardly over the trunk space, but no more so than on Volkswagen’s offerings. As with the hardtop, the cargo space is bigger than before by 25 percent. A two-position divider can hide the entire space from view (in which case the top can still be opened to the sunroof position, but not entirely) or lowered to permit a fully folded top. You lose 1.9 of the 7.6 cubic feet that way, bur retain access to the split-folding rear seat. As small convertibles go, it’s pretty convenient.
On the road we find the latest wind-blocker easier to mount and lighter to lift while really doing the job of shielding occupants from buffeting at highway speeds. Chassis stiffening is well-done, with no evident flex even when we took it on a hard run up a canyon road, and no more vibration than in the hardtop model.
Annoyingly, the rear seat headrests intrude in the driver’s vision through the rear-view mirror and cannot be lowered. Mini engineers explained that the U.S. regulatory standard sets a minimum distance between the seat-cushion (H-point) and center of the headrest, so the lowering function available in European Minis can’t be offered here. The headrests are removable, though, so if no one is sitting back there, the only necessary obstruction to your view would be the top stack. The latest version of active rollover protection is integrated more tidily than was the big chrome bar in the previous model. It’s now a pair of vertical posts, mostly tucked away out of sight, that deploy pyrotechnically when sensors detect trouble.
Overall, driving was much as in the hardtop — only with fresh air, sunshine, and a higher price on what is, already, a not-cheap small car. In this Cooper S form, Mini says 60 mph should come up in the mid- to high-6 second range though we suspect that’s conservative. Still, plenty of crossovers are in the 6s, so for all its nimble character the Cooper S Convertible is more about fun in the sun than serious performance. The JCW may change that equation, though the previous one exacted too high a price in comfort and money to seem worthwhile. There are among us those who say the hardtop version of this generation of Mini works best in base Cooper form. It might be so for the convertible, too, unless you’re measuring the profits in Munich.
2016 Mini Cooper S Convertible Specifications
||$30,450 (base Cooper S)
||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/189 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 207 lb-ft @ 1,250 rpm
||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, FWD convertible
||25/34 mpg (city/hwy)
|L x W x H:
||151.9 x 68.0 x 55.7 in