A Quicker, Better-Packaged Mini Convertible
"Man up and put the top down," everybody's telling us as we get into our 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible. It's minus 2 degrees Celsius and big, wet snowflakes are falling. The Austrian Alps hover. We cinch our scarf until it's noose-tight.
Apparently, though, the optional seat heaters in the redesigned Mini convertible are industrial-strength. When used with the car's conventional heater, we hear they're capable of transforming a winter day in Austria into a spring day on Spain's Costa del Sol.
Still, we refuse to lower the top. But today we're in good company. Rauno Aaltonen, winner of the 1967 Monte Carlo Rally (while at the wheel of a classic Mini Cooper S, of course), is also driving a 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible. He's leaving the roof up, too.
Aaltonen is from Turku, Finland. He still runs an arctic rally-driving school there. He's no wimp, so surely we're not, either.
This Mini's on Studs
Though he's taking cover from the weather, Aaltonen isn't taking it easy on his 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible, which wears studded Michelin tires.
Aaltonen was one of the first rally drivers to use left-foot braking, and as he overlaps brake and throttle through a small autocross course on hardpacked snow, his Mini convertible feels perfectly in control. From the passenger seat, we don't notice hard transitions from understeer to oversteer. Instead, the car feels as if it's rotating easily about an invisible central axis.
Where we might saw at the wheel to contain slides, Aaltonen's hands remain quiet, his feet doing all the work. He's the quickest one out there by a wide margin.
This Mini's on Blizzaks
Even though it's fitted with a non-OEM set of Bridgestone Blizzak LM-25 run-flat tires (albeit in the factory-correct, optional 205/45R17 size), our 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible doesn't have quite the same grip as Aaltonen's car on unplowed Austrian back roads. We keep a steady pace and smooth out our inputs to avert a stability-control spaz attack — especially crucial on the uphill grades with blind turns.
Even at lower speeds, though, the second-generation convertible (designated R57 within the company) feels like one of the Mini family. It's not exactly a Lotus Elise, but as four-seat convertibles go, it responds quickly to its driver. Its electrically assisted power steering is weighted as naturally as any of BMW's hydraulic setups.
A quick 14.1:1 steering ratio is common across the Mini line, while the brakes on our Cooper S convertible are shared with the Cooper S hatch and Cooper S Clubman. You can get any 2009 Mini convertible with the usual sport suspension ($500) that includes firmer springs, dampers and antiroll bars. When you order it as part of the Sport package ($1,500), the standard 195/55R16 run-flat all-season tires are swapped for 17-inch run-flat summer tires.
Of course, on the winter-ravaged roads along our route, there's no hiding the fact that the 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible isn't as structurally rigid as the hardtop Minis.
Our convertible is, however, 10 percent more rigid than the previous Mini drop top. The major upgrade here is a new sandwich-style crossmember that's double the thickness of the one used on the hatchback. Triangular welds at the intersection of this crossmember and the 2009 convertible's reinforced sills significantly reduce torsional flex, we're told by Johannes Guggenmos, the convertible's chief of development.
Ultimately a Little Heavier
Even with these stiffening measures, Mini reports that the 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible has shed 22 pounds in the redesign, thanks to the new-generation car's switch to the 1.6-liter inline-4 engineered by a collaboration between BMW and PSA.
This is significant on a car that's not only stiffer but also 2.5 inches longer overall than before. At the same time, the Mini convertible's wheelbase is still 97.5 inches, and it still rides on a 57.2-inch front track and a 57.5-inch rear track.
Unfortunately, Mini's dieting effort doesn't show up in the specifications. When weighed with all the options you're likely to order, a Cooper S convertible with a six-speed manual transmission comes in 11 pounds heavier than before. The gain is 33 pounds with the optional six-speed automatic ($1,250).
But It's Quicker
Like the Cooper S hatch and Cooper S Clubman, our Cooper S convertible has a turbocharged, direct-injected version of the 1.6-liter engine rated at 172 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 177 pound-feet of torque from 1,600-5,000 rpm (192 lb-ft on overboost).
The normally aspirated 1.6-liter in the base Cooper convertible provides 118 hp at 6,000 rpm and 114 lb-ft of torque at 4,250 rpm. A 208-hp John Cooper Works version of the Cooper S convertible is coming, too.
Mini says a manual-shift 2009 Cooper S Convertible will hit 60 mph in 7 seconds flat and go through the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds. Add a couple tenths if you order the automatic (which includes shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel).
This makes the 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible about as quick as a Cooper S Clubman, which weighs nearly the same.
Even plodding through snow, our test car feels quicker than last year's convertible, which is no surprise given that the old car's supercharged 1.6-liter didn't see its 162-lb-ft torque peak until 4,000 rpm. We timed a 2005 Cooper S convertible at 7.7 seconds to 60 and 15.7 for the quarter-mile.
And It's More Fuel-Efficient
Fuel economy ratings are better, too, at least with a manual gearbox. A 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible has an EPA rating of 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway, compared to 25 mpg city/32 mpg highway for a 2008 model. The automatic Cooper S convertible retains a less impressive 23 mpg city/32 mpg highway rating, likely due to its shorter gearing.
When we pull up to a traffic light in our European-spec, manual-shift Cooper S convertible, the engine shuts off, hybrid-style. The car also has a mild regenerative braking function, whereby a small electric motor recaptures energy during deceleration and uses it to re-juice the 12-volt battery, thus reducing alternator load.
This stuff improves fuel mileage by 4-5 percent, we're told, and it's part of Mini parent company BMW's Efficient Dynamics initiative, a response to an EU mandate to reduce fleet-wide CO2. With no similar legislation in the U.S., we don't have to worry about such mild inconveniences just yet.
A Better View, Top Up or Down
During our day of avoiding windburned cheeks and fresh-frozen snot, we decide that the most important change on the redesigned 2009 Mini Cooper Convertible has nothing to do with how it drives, at least not directly.
Mini has engineered a single-piece, electromechanically operated aluminum rollover bar. In the highly unlikely event that you and your Mini barrel-roll into a ravine, a computer activates the bar, raising it about 5.9 inches in a few milliseconds. The upshot is that when the rollover bar is in its dormant state, you can actually see die Polizei behind you.
Granted, it's still not the panoramic landscape a Miata driver sees over his shoulder, because the standard, power-operated cloth top still folds back, stacking behind the rear deck, à la VW Beetle convertible.
It's a compromise in the name of preserving luggage space. You get 6 cubic feet of it in the 2009 convertible whether the top's up or down — again thanks to the improved rollover bar design.
Imagine There's No Recession
If we were residents of Bad Bleiberg, Austria, the 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible wouldn't be our first choice in transportation. Mainly, we'd feel like wimps for leaving the top up for four months straight.
But there's nothing wrong with the actual car. Not only does our 2009 Cooper S Convertible keep us warm and dry, during two days of driving, we don't so much as dirty a pant leg against its gunked-up door sills. More importantly, the new Cooper S convertible is easier to drive than the old one. There's usable torque at much lower engine speeds, and you can actually see out the back of this Mini convertible. And as you'd expect, there are all sorts of cheery new color combinations.
If there's any downside, it's that Mini is coming off an extraordinarily strong sales year and knows full well that you're going to like its redesigned convertible. Though Mini officials won't say how many convertibles they plan to sell, they'll likely double 2008's 4,880 units (out of 54,077 total Minis).
So you'll pay $1,400 more for a 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible ($27,450) and you'll be happy about it.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.