If you think the Mini Cooper S Cabrio is a hairdresser's car, I suggest you book yourself in for a consultation with a shrink because this topless Mini is one hell of a drive.
Here is the thing: when you see a twenty-thirty-forty-something-year-old guy driving in a Mini Cooper Cabrio, what do you instantly think? He bats for the other team? It's his girlfriend's car? Early mid-life crisis? One way or another, there is a stigma attached to compact convertibles.
Then again, there is a stigma attached to supercars too. What do you think when you see a guy drive past in a Ferrari or Lamborghini? Tall poppy syndrome is a rampant disease that plagues Australian culture. If you can live with that, the Mini Cooper S Cabrio is a seriously fun way to spend time under the sun (or the stars).
In Mini Cooper Cabrio's case, the only real comparable competition is the Audi A3 Cabriolet (or A1 Cabriolet when it gets here), which if you ask me, is a significantly more feminine car. Plus the Cooper S offers a far more engaging drive.
Prices for the standard Mini Cooper Cabrio start at $39,800* and that's all well and good for those of us that don't want sporty performance to go with the Mini's excellent handling dynamics. However, if the words turbo and handling make you excited, it's hard to resist the additional $8,200 to go for the Cooper S instead.
Long gone are the days of supercharged Cooper S models, for a good two years now BMW (MINI's owner) has switched Cooper S models to a 1.6-litre engine with a twin-scroll turbo that pumps out a reasonable 128kW and 240Nm of torque (up to 260Nm on overboost). That leaves the Cooper S Cabrio six-speed manual with a 0-100km/h sprint time of 7.4 seconds (7.7 seconds for six-speed automatic). That's about 0.3 seconds slower than the hard top, which is not bad given the Cabrio weighs an additional 100kg.
So what's so good about a Mini Cooper Cabrio? What makes anyone consider such a unique piece of machinery? Ask yourself this: how many Minis do you see on the road? In the entirety of 2010 Mini sold just 2267 cars in Australia, of which only 403 were Cooper Cabrios. We're not talking about a volume brand here.
If you end up with a Mini Cooper Cabrio, it's unlikely that someone else in your suburb would have the same car, which is not something you can say about brands like BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Audi any longer. So it certainly has the uniqueness factor going for it.
After a week of being driven around in the Cooper S Cabrio, my girlfriend is currently harassing me every five minutes about why we aren't buying one to keep. So it certainly has considerable female appeal.
Nonetheless, it's certainly not just a 'cute' car for girls. Any real car enthusiast would know the Mini Cooper is one of the better handling front-wheel drive cars money can buy. In fact, so strong is the sporting history of Mini Coopers that up until this year, they had their own race series (Mini Challenge) in Australia. How many apparent 'hairdresser cars' do you know have had their own race series?
From the outside there is no mistaking a Mini Cooper. Its unique shape gives it enormous character and a great deal of credibility. With the roof off, you might expect the little thing to look a tad awkward but it's actually well proportioned and looks great as it drives past you.
The roof (which is made of very hard-wearing textile material) is fully automated and takes just 15 seconds to open or close. Best of all, it can be operated at speeds of up to 30km/h. That means you can put the roof on or take it off at traffic lights as you get going. This is a rather unique feature for convertibles as most won't let you go past 5km/h before stopping the roof operation.
There is also the option of just opening the sliding roof (essentially a sunroof) without removing the entire roof frame and that can be done at speeds of up to 120 km/h. If you do happen to just want the sliding roof open it does tend to create a fair bit of wind-noise. Best to have the whole roof on or off.
With the roof off you can comfortably hold a conversation with a passenger at speeds up to 150km/h. As for any willing passenger crammed in one of the two rear seats, you'll converse ok until you get on to a highway where you're likely to hear them but they're unlikely to hear you.
Speaking of back seats, you can fit an adult in there semi-comfortably for short journeys so long as they, or the person sitting in-front, doesn't have long legs. The Mini is really a two-seater with the option of being able to carry an additional two friends when the time comes.
The rear seat backrests also fold down completely giving you a rather high 660 litres of luggage capacity, so you can even make a few trips to IKEA.
Driver and passenger are treated with cloth trim sports seats (upgradable to full leather for about $2500) that hold you in rather nicely.
The gigantic speedometer still takes centre stage inside but given that it sits outside of the driver's field of vision, Mini has also included a digital speedometer in the instrument cluster.
Something else that you can get in your Mini Cooper Cabrio S (for an additional $300) is an “Always Open Timer”. It is literally an instrument that does nothing but report how long you've been driving with the roof down. A bit of a gimmick.
The six-speaker stereo is actually rather good but for whatever reason you'll have to pay an extra $750 to have Bluetooth (phone only, no audio streaming) and USB interface. Something that should really be standard on a car like this. An extra $850 will get you a ten-speaker HiFi system. $2900 more for satellite navigation and add an extra $500 on top of that for voice control.
When it comes down to it, the options list is rather large and can get a little pricey at times. Even wanting a car alarm will set you back an additional $600. That's one downside of European cars, they have an extensive list of options that are hard to resist.
Numbers and prices aside, if you really need convincing, simply get behind the wheel of a Mini Cooper S Cabrio, take the roof off and press the sport button. Engage drive (or pick first gear) and go for a spirited drive up a twisty mountain road. The hardtop Cooper S is a great car as is, without a roof the fun factor is doubled.
Around corners the little Mini behaves exceptionally despite noticeable torque-steer at times. Given the short wheel base and the Mini's excellent dynamics, it's momentary torque-steer can even be a little fun and certainly ads loads of character and makes for a fun drive.
The front makes use of MacPherson spring struts while the rear sits on multi-arm systems developed by BMW. Overall, it's one neat package. If you want even better handling, simply tick the sport suspension box (+$440) and away you go.
When the sport button is engaged it modifies the gas pedal control map for more response from the engine while also improving steering response. I'd suggest you just leave it on at all times unless stuck in traffic.
The Mini Cooper S Cabrio reviewed was optioned with a six-speed automatic transmission which provides smooth gearshifts and quickly adapts to your driving style. If the Cooper S does get a little loose around tight corners the nanny control will cut in and ruin the fun. It's at those times that the Mini will hold you back a little while before giving it all again. If you're game, you can turn the nanny systems off or better yet, buy a manual and still turn the nanny systems off! Then you'll be having some serious fun.
Safety can be a concern when you're in a convertible, given there is no roof to protect you in case of a roll over. The Mini Cooper Cabrio provides four airbags plus rollbars that electromechanically engage within just 150 milliseconds if the car's systems detect an imminent roll over situation. A whole bunch of active safety features (or nanny controls) will also help to prevent accidents.
On the grand scheme of things, if you're willing to pay a little more for the prestige and handling dynamics of a Mini, it's hard to argue against a Cooper S Cabrio. I'd highly suggest you test drive the Audi A3 and Mazda MX-5 as well, just to get a feel and notice the difference.