Test Drive: 2009 Mini Cooper S convertible

After year's absence, soft-top Mini gets a reworking for 2009, joining its closed coupe sibling

by James M. Flammang

2009 Mini Cooper S convertible

When BMW's Mini division redesigned the Cooper S for 2008, only a pair of closed coupe models made it to showroom floors. During that year, production of the previous-generation convertibles came to a halt, so Mini buyers temporarily had no soft-tops to choose from. That omission was remedied during the 2009 model year, as a pair of reworked Cooper convertibles reached U.S. dealerships.

Introduced at Detroit's North American International Auto Show in January 2009, the soft-top Minis are considered evolutionary in design. Styling hasn't changed dramatically at all. As before, and like the coupe, two versions are offered: base Cooper and turbocharged Cooper S.

Beneath the hood of the Cooper S sits a 172-horsepower, turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with direct fuel injection, driving a six-speed manual transmission. A 118-hp, non-turbo version of the 1.8-liter engine goes into the regular Cooper convertible, which also has a standard six-speed manual gearbox. Both models roll on 16-inch run-flat tires.

A sliding roof permits the driver to automatically open and close the soft top, while traveling up to 20 miles per hour. Rather than folding the fabric top all the way down, the driver can select a sunroof-style position, with only the area above the front seat open to the sun. A new electromechanically-operated rollover bar is installed behind the backseat.

In addition to the gigantic speedometer at the center of the dashboard, the Mini convertible features an "Openometer," which records the amount of time that the car has been driven with its top down. Options include a loading storage system that goes between the luggage and passenger compartments.

Few cars exceed soft-top Cooper's "fun" quotient, though it's only a joy for two occupants

Apart from lack of backseat space, there's not much to complain about when behind the wheel of a Cooper S. Noisy? Absolutely. Rough riding? Sure thing. Yet, even what would ordinarily appear to be drawbacks are almost positive selling points when you're talking about Minis.

Evaluating the Mini is a simple proposition: Few cars as much fun to drive, or as satisfying. BMW's claim of "go-kart" handling for its smallest model is substantially accurate. Though a Mini stays firmly on course on straightaways, a slight tug on the steering wheel heads it into a new direction, instantly.

On the other hand, a large penalty in ride comfort must be paid for such tenacious control and rewarding handling. Mini drivers must slow down appreciably for potholes and pavement flaws, as this little car hits them terrifyingly hard much of the time. Overall, ride quality is harsh indeed. Even over rough bumps, though, the Mini feels well held together, demonstrating particularly solid build quality.

In the Cooper S, the turbo engine delivers pulling power that's gratifying even to drivers who don't care all that much about ardent acceleration. The gearbox is definitely one of the best around: enjoyable to manipulate, readily changing gears with a true flick of the wrist. This 'box wants to be shifted regularly, and the clutch is beautifully matched to deliver the goods in performance and easy takeoffs.

Front-seat space is abundant enough, but the rear is laughable. If the front seat is positioned relatively rearward, back leg space may disappear completely. Cargo space is even more minuscule, through a low and restricted low opening, past a lid that opens downward.

Those front seats are beautifully supportive and serious, yet generally comfortable–though not everyone may be equally ecstatic. Visibility is actually rather good, despite thick fabric roof pillars. Regular use of mirrors is essential, though. On the dashboard, the huge center speedometer is great: a highlight of the interior design. The convertible top goes up/down without a bit of fuss, though blocking a bit of the rearward view when down, because it sticks up somewhat.

Driving home a Cooper S convertible will cost $27,450 (including the inevitable destination charge), though some dealers might even toss out a figure above the Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price. Settling for a regular Cooper convertible with the non-turbo engine nips $2,900 off the sticker price.

If everyday driving excitement isn't quite enough of an attraction, Minis also deliver impressive fuel economy, especially in highway driving. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives the basic Mini Cooper with manual shift a gas-mileage estimate of 28 mpg in city driving and 37 mpg on the highway. Moving to a Cooper S drops those figures to 26-mpg city/34-mpg highway. With an automatic transmission, the EPA estimates dip to 25/34 and 23/32 mpg, respectively.

At the Geneva (Switzerland) Motor Show in March 2009, Mini revealed a higher-performance John Cooper Works edition of the Cooper S, with a 208-horsepower engine.

Attention Editors: This complete 2009 Mini Cooper S convertible review is available now for your publication. Please contact us at JF@tirekick.com for details.

© All contents copyright 2009 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang
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