What better place to test the more affordable 2016 Mini Convertible than in and around Los Angeles, California?
This is a city that puts on a show for anyone who’ll look, but there’s a deeper story that can be discovered. It seems fitting for this new-generation Mini Convertible, which – while pretty to look at – has some secrets of its own.
First off, Mini has dumped the Cabrio name. Why? Presumably because Convertible sounds more mature and clever, and also a bit more masculine.
And that’s exactly what this new model is. It is more efficient, has more technology, and has grown in size. It also has more muscle than ever before, and there's a chance the sales figures will reflect that. The current model has a skew of 60 per cent female to 40 per cent male, where the rest of the Mini range is closer to 50/50.
This fourth member of the third-generation Mini family sits alongside the three-door Hatch, Mini 5 Door and six-door Clubman, and it, too, is more substantial than before. From nose to tail it spans up to 3850mm long (121mm longer than before) while its broader 1727mm wide body is 44mm hippier than before, and a little taller (1mm). The new Mini’s 2495mm wheelbase means it has 28mm more room between the front and rear wheels.
All of that should equate to more interior space – and it does.
The interior feels broad – much more so than its predecessor, especially up front. The seats aren’t shoulder to shoulder anymore, but the rear is still tight for two adults (there are only two seats).
There are adjustable headrests back there, and the rollover hoops are gone – instead there is a pyrotechnic system that will shoot struts out of the back of the car if a potential rollover is detected.
Further to that there are four airbags – dual front and front side protection – but as is the case with many convertibles on sale today, there is no rear airbag protection. There are, however, ISOFIX anchorpoints for the rear seats.
Rear seat space is on the tight side but is amenable for short trips. With the driver’s seat positioned for a six-foot occupant, the same-sized person will find their knees up against the seatback and their feet hemmed in.
Still, if the front seaters can slide forward an inch or two, there’s enough space for road trip buddies to be comfortable.
Further to that, the boot is about 25 per cent larger than its forebear, at 215 litres. That’s still small for a hatch of this size, and the space still gets munched upon when the roof is lowered (160L). The rear seats can be folded down using boot-mounted levers to allow extra space.
The roof takes 18 seconds to raise or lower fully electronically – that’s right, unlike the Ford Mustang (semi-automatic, requires locking in and out) and the Mazda MX-5 (fully manual), the Mini’s system is as simple as pressing a button. And you can do it at up to 30km/h. Previously, the roof operated only at "rolling speed" - about 5km/h, maximum - so if you're caught in a sudden downpour in traffic, you don't have to come to a complete stop.
Further, if you want to show your mates a party trick, you can raise and lower the roof using the key. Or if you don't want the full roof down experience, you can roll it back to just behind the front seats, sort of like a sunroof.
As with the Mini Clubman, the Convertible gets the Mini Controller rotary dial interface between the seats. This system, similar to BMW’s iDrive controller, allows you to more easily switch between menus than in the regular Mini hatch models when using the standard 6.5-inch media screen.
Of course Bluetooth phone and audio streaming is standard, and the Cooper S will get navigation as standard, too. Both models come with a rear-view camera system and rear parking sensors, too.
As we've already reported, despite the bigger dimensions and strong equipment, the new Mini Convertible will be significantly cheaper than before, by between $4800 and $5750. The price of entry is only $37,900 plus on-road costs, while the Cooper S version will cost $45,400. This makes it among the cheapest soft-tops on the market.
As for the drive experience, Mini prides itself on what it calls the “go kart feeling”, something that is essentially described as an innate connection between the driver and the road.
And for the most part, the Mini Convertible – which we tested in Cooper S guise – lives up to that promise.
The steering – which in previous Mini models has been the absolute highlight of the experience – is a little duller this time around due to the electric steering system (instead of the good old hydraulic power assisted steering of old). That helps cut fuel use, but there’s disadvantage in that it doesn’t have quite as much feel in the driver’s hands. That said, if you’ve never driven a supercar, you’re likely to be totally happy with the steering.
It is quick and responsive, direct and nicely weighted. And it makes the Mini a lot of fun to drive, particularly on tight, twisty canyon roads like those outside LA.
One thing that Mini suffered criticism for in the previous model was the ride, which was brittle and sharp over most bumps.
The new model’s suspension isn’t anywhere near as uncivilised as before – indeed, it is much more supple and well sorted at most speeds, riding over speedhumps with far less jolting felt in the cabin.
The front end, however, can still crash into deep potholes. And the brakes could be better – the Cooper S gets bigger brakes than the standard model to deal with the extra grunt, the pedal feel of our test car became a bit dull and doughy after a long stint of speedy cornering.
Notably, the new Mini soft-top feels stiffer than most without the roof on, and with it up there's still a bit of windscreen wobble but less than, say, a Mustang.
Of course, all the “go kart feel” in the world won’t do you any good unless you have a good engine under the bonnet – and the Mini Cooper S certainly does.
The 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol unit pumps out 141kW of power and 280Nm of torque. Those aren’t huge numbers, but they’re enough to propel it from 0-100km/h in 7.1 seconds in the six-speed auto, and 7.2sec in the six-speed manual.
The engine is a lively thing, with nice, linear power delivery from about 2000rpm onwards. It isn’t ridiculously fast, but in Sport mode it responds to throttle inputs with rapidity. However, there is some evidence of torque steer under hard acceleration.
With the auto gearbox the shifts are rapid and the paddleshifters offer some extra driver engagement – though they will overrule any attempts to bounce off the rev limiter.
The best word to describe the drivetrain is ‘entertaining’.
The exhaust pops and burbles on the overrun, and there’s even a nice little intake flutter audible with the roof down. It sounded great echoing off the canyon walls under mixed throttle.
We also spent some time in the manual model, and it impressed with its in-gear tractability. Third gear is particularly sweet, allowing the driver to happily explore speeds between 40km/h and 100km/h without hassle. The gearshift action is clicky and a little long, but the clutch is light, making it user-friendly around town.
Mini Australia won’t sell the Convertible with a manual gearbox in showrooms, but CarAdvice understands that buyers keen on shifting cogs themselves can special order such a model. The take-up rate of manual across the Mini brand is marginal in Australia.
Having spent quite a bit of time in the previous versions of the Mini Cabrio, the quietness on offer in the new Convertible is impressive. With the roof up you can easily hold a conversation, and even with the roof down and the windows up it’s not too blustery.
One of the most eye-catching elements of the Mini Convertible’s design is the optional Union Jack woven roof fabric, which may look a little twee in the pictures, but in the metal – or should that be in the material? – it’s the business.
As you would expect of a playful little convertible there are plenty of colours to choose from: Electric Blue, Caribbean Aqua, Pepper White, White Silver, Moonwalk Grey, Volcanic Orange, Chili Red, Blazing Red, Deep Blue, Mini Yours Lapisluxury Blue, British Racing Green, Melting Silver (seen in these images), Thunder Grey, Midnight Black and the dark Rebel Green.
There are customisable mirror caps, too – they can be the body colour of the car, or contrasting Aspen White, chrome, Jet Black or, for the JCW model, Chili Red.
If you want to take the customisation show indoors, there are eight interior surface finishes you can choose from that cover the plastics on the doors and dashboard, and five colour lines for the padded plastics on the dash and doors.
After our drive around Los Angeles, it has become clear that the new Mini Convertible has indeed grown up a bit.
It is smarter, smoother and more sizeable than before, and it's still showy enough to catch glimpses from the sidewalk. And with aggressive new pricing, it’s no secret that the new Mini Convertible could be a bit of a bargain in the market when it arrives around May this year.