If the 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible took out a personal ad, it would get a whole lot of first dates. Just think of the alluring attributes it could list: adorable face, tight proportions, endearing voice...the list goes on. To meet the drop-top Mini in the flesh, though, is to realize that this firebrand requires an indulgent partner. It doesn't react well when things get bumpy, it's kind of loud and it all but laughs at you when you ask it to carry your golf bag.
If these foibles sound like potential deal-breakers, parent company BMW will gladly set you up with an impeccably refined 128i convertible for a few thousand dollars more. But if it's character you're looking for, look no further, because the turbocharged 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible has it in spades.
Another point in the Mini's favor is the paucity of comparable convertibles near our nicely equipped test car's $32,700 MSRP. The aforementioned BMW starts at $34,000, but it'll be pushing $40,000 if you want it to match our Mini's feature content. The Ford Mustang GT substitutes rowdy rear-wheel-drive V8 power for the Mini's exemplary handling, but at a base price of $32,995, it's awfully expensive for an old-school muscle car.
The Mazda MX-5 Miata and Volkswagen Eos book-end the Mini's price point and offer retractable hardtops, but the former only has two seats and the latter isn't nearly as fun. The base Mini Cooper convertible is cheaper, but we think the turbocharged S model is well worth its $2,900 premium given that it's far quicker without exacting much of a penalty at the pump.
In short, if you want an appealing and affordable four-place convertible with a sporting flavor, the 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible is one of the only games in town. Its strong personality isn't for everyone, but those who find it irresistible on the first date are unlikely to regret making a long-term commitment.
The front-wheel-drive 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible is powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with a twin-scroll turbocharger that enhances low-end power without sacrificing midrange punch. Output is rated at 172 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque (192 lb-ft when the "overboost" function is activated by full-throttle acceleration). At the test track, our Mini zipped from zero to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds en route to a 15.3-second quarter-mile at 90.4 mph. EPA fuel economy ratings are 26 mpg city/34 highway and 29 combined with the six-speed manual transmission, phenomenal numbers in light of the car's zesty performance. Braking is likewise excellent, with our standard panic stop from 60 mph requiring just 112 feet.
On curvy back roads, the torque-rich Cooper S is in its element. The Sport package's 17-inch performance tires provide stellar grip (0.90g on the skid pad), the firm suspension tuning keeps body roll to a minimum and the button-activated sport mode's tight and ultra-responsive steering inspires confidence. The open-roof structure does jiggle over bumps, but tolerably so.
The trusty six-speed manual glides through its gates eagerly and precisely, and the pedals are perfectly placed for heel-toe downshifts. One of our few recurring complaints concerned the pronounced torque steer under hard acceleration, an unavoidable consequence of the Cooper S's powerful engine, front-drive layout and slop-free steering. Overall, though, this is about as much fun as you can possibly have behind the wheel of a front-wheel-drive car.
There's a trade-off for the Mini's engaging performance, and you'll be reminded of it every time you go over a bump. The Cooper S convertible doesn't offer much in the way of shock absorption, and those optional 17-inch wheels exacerbate the car's tendency to jiggle over road imperfections. We suggest sticking with the 16-inch wheels, but keep in mind that the Mini rides firmly in any state of tune. As for the convertible top, there's significant wind noise at highway speeds with it closed, and this is compounded by intrusive road noise that thankfully fades into the background during open-air driving.
The driving position is quintessential Mini: cheekily upright, with a telescoping steering wheel and a generous manual height adjuster should you wish to pretend you're driving a kitchen table. Front-seat comfort is no more than adequate, while rear-seat comfort is compromised by paltry legroom and the seatback's stern cant. The 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible may be a desirable car in many ways, but let's just say that comfort isn't its strong suit.
Decades before BMW bought the rights to the Mini name, it was affixed to a teensy tiny British-built bug-eyed runabout that served as the primary inspiration for the current car. Like those Minis of yore, the 2009 model has a speedometer the size of a dinner plate mounted smack in the middle of the dash. That's not where the road is, of course, so you have to look sideways to see how fast you're going.
The tachometer, on the other hand, is located on the steering column, and its integrated digital readout can be configured to display vehicle speed, but this is an imperfect solution to a needless problem. Other ergonomic missteps include the annoying vertical thumb wheels that control cabin temperature, polished toggle switches for various functions that are hard to differentiate at a glance, and a confounding stereo interface highlighted by a volume knob that's marooned by itself a few inches south of the action. How much are you willing to sacrifice for style?
The same could be asked of the convertible roof, which compromises visibility whether the roof's up or down. It's actually worse when lowered, as the stacked roof reveals only the roofs of trailing cars, though this is an improvement over the first-generation Cooper convertible, which had fixed roll bars instead of the current pop-up system. One saving grace is the roof's unique two-stage functionality -- it can be slid back a couple feet with the frame still in place, sunroof-style, in addition to going all the way down.
In our real-world functionality tests, the ragtop Cooper reminded us that while it's considerably larger than the original Mini, it's still a tiny car by contemporary standards. The 6-cubic-foot trunk is cute -- access is via a bottom-hinged door that opens flat like a tailgate -- but it could barely accommodate our standard suitcase. As for our golf bag, we found there were two options: Fold the seatbacks down and shove it in lengthwise, or put the top down and lift it into the backseat (our preferred method). Surprisingly, our child safety seat actually fit in the Mini's rear quarters, likely because the upright posture of the front seats minimizes their intrusion on rear passenger space.
Design/Fit and Finish
Viewed from the curb, the 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible is a stunning execution of the retro design philosophy. At once instantly identifiable as a Mini and dripping with contemporary cool, the Cooper S marries the aesthetics of old and new with rare success. The cabin design, as noted, is less successful from an ergonomic standpoint, though it does look distinctive, albeit in a Playskool kind of way. Materials quality is decent on the dashboard but marred on the center stack by cheap-feeling plastic controls. Build quality on our test car was satisfactory, and we observed none of the incessant rattles that plagued the original Mini convertible.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible will appeal to those who dig its slick handling and particular brand of retro character, and are willing to sacrifice some practicality and comfort in the process. Its balance of fuel-efficiency and performance is another strong selling point.