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Third-generation drop-top joins Mini’s new and improved line-up, delivering the same vivacious driving experience while exposed to the elements

While it has since expanded the Mini family to include estates, coupés, SUVs and five-door hatchbacks, in 2005 BMW chose a soft-top with which to first broaden the catalogue of its then still relatively newly acquired automotive fashion brand.

The Mini Convertible represented safe ground back then, not least because Rover had only happened on the idea itself the decade before, and only then because it was impressed with the reception that a limited-edition, dealer-converted Mini received.

The Convertible looks a bit less pretty than a fixed roof, but it really opens up the cabin when furled back

The 2005 Mini Convertible came with a proper folding cloth roof, rather than the half-baked full-length canvas sunroof employed by old Mini soft-tops and the current Fiat 500C and others.

The design eliminated both the B-pillars and full-sized tailgate, replacing the latter with a bottom-hinged bootlid very much like the one with which Issigonis’s original Mini had come.

The Mini Convertible proved to be popular, almost 30,000 cars being sold in Britain before the previous generation came to an end.

Now it returns atop the new Mini UKL1 platform, promising enhanced levels of comfort and refinement based partly on the new architecture’s increased size and rigidity.

The appearance stays much the same, and it’s because of the fully electric fabric hood that BMW can claim that the model sits alone in the supermini segment as a true premium-brand four-seat convertible.

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That status is important because no market prizes a drop-top like the UK, and the manufacturer has sold more here than it has managed anywhere else.

It would like that trend to continue and has covered almost all of the trim level bases to ensure that it does, making the new Convertible available in Cooper, Cooper D, Cooper S and even JCW specifications. We’re putting the entry-level Cooper version to the test.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Mini Convertible rear

The most obvious benefit of the UKL1 platform concerns size: the new Mini Convertible is almost 10cm longer than its predecessor and more than 4cm wider.

The result is more rear space – BMW claims an extra 36mm of knee room – and 25% more luggage capacity, now 215 litres with the roof up and 160 litres with it down.

The low-slung Mini driving position is an advantage here, because sitting lower keeps your head farther from the wind

The opening also comes with ‘Easy Load’ fittings that enable the roof frame to be lifted higher than before and then locked in place, for easier loading and unloading. The open tailgate can support 80kg.

Along with the extra convenience of larger dimensions comes a gently revised and already familiar new look. Of greater note is the updated roof, which Mini says has been greatly improved.

Still fully electric, the soft-top’s insulation has been optimised for both heat and sound performance, and the front section can be retracted by a sunroof-sized 400mm at any speed. Opening and closing it fully takes 18 seconds and can be accomplished at up to 18mph.

Due to the absence of a fixed roof, the platform has been bulked out. The suspension and speed-sensitive steering are essentially carried over from the hatch, but the drop-top gets reinforcing torsion struts front and rear, strengthened sills and a stiffening plate under the engine.

The Convertible’s engines are shared with the Mini hatchbacks. BMW’s latest 1.5-litre triples feature in both the Cooper and Cooper D. They develop 134bhp and 114bhp respectively, the diesel providing the most parsimonious option at 70.6mpg combined and 100g/km of CO2 in six-speed manual format.

Performance options come in Cooper S and JCW forms, which get 2.0-litre turbo four-pot petrol engines making 189bhp and 228bhp respectively.

Twin the latter with the optional six-speed Steptronic automatic gearbox (available across the range) and the Convertible will crack 150mph. Unlike with the Mini hatchback, there’s no auto-only 148bhp Cooper SD Convertible.

INTERIOR

Mini Convertible interior

The Convertible’s greeting is welcoming as you bend low into its driving seat and thunk the long door closed. A pillarless glasshouse makes the over-shoulder view good, and because BMW has worked at increasing the size of the glass rear window, you can now see almost as much out of the back with the hood up as you could out of a hatchback.

The driver’s seat is widely adjustable and supportive but quite unyielding, and you’re faced with a fascia that rises high and proud.

The Always Open Timer records every second you spend driving with the roof open. It’s a £130 option

A large centre stack is crowned by an oversized LED light feature that encircles the infotainment display and replaces the old Mini’s central speedo. At our third encounter, it still seems like an unnecessary and distracting gimmick.

The entry-level Mini Cooper Convertible gets a 6.5in colour infotainment system with Mini’s ‘Visual Boost’ audio system, which consists of a DAB/FM tuner, six-speaker audio and Mini Connected USB interfacing to your smartphone. You don’t get satellite navigation or steering wheel controls for the audio system without paying for them.

The Media Pack — which our test car had — is likely to be a popular upgrade and brings with it enhanced Bluetooth connectivity, widescreen control display, navigation XL and Mini Connected XL (the latter funnelling weather reports and being quite neatly capable of providing an electronic warning of rain before it arrives).

In this specification, the audio system quality was good, the Bluetooth connection reliable and the navigation system up to parent firm BMW’s usual high standards of mapping detail and usability.

Mini’s Harman/Kardon hi-fi is a £590 upgrade that increases the car’s speaker count to 12 — and, pleasingly, you don’t have to have all the other expensive infotainment systems in order to get it.

Directly in front of you, mounted on the steering column, you’ll find the much smaller speedometer and half-size rev counter, both of which could be usefully enlarged and more readable.

Solid-feeling stalks sprout from either side of the wheel and, to the left, neat and expensive-feeling dials and buttons for the climate control and heated seats compete for your attention.

This is the more refined and higher-quality but still determinedly eccentric Mini cabin ambience we’ve become used to since 2014 – and it serves the Convertible as well as any other model sibling.

On the header rail you’ll find the switch for motoring the roof up and down. Now fully electric rather than part-hydraulic, the mechanism is much quieter and works quickly enough, but that 18mph operating limit can too often leave you praying for a bout of heavy urban traffic to complete a cycle if you risk one on the move.

But with the roof down, the Mini ushers the outside in as effectively as any cabriolet, which is more than can be said for most of its supermini-based rivals.

As for the promise of greater rear room and cargo space, both may be true – but you still won’t be inviting adult friends for a lift very often. The rear bench remains narrow and its seatbacks upright, and while there’s respectable head room, there’s only really sufficient leg room for kids under the age of 10. Still, it’s more than many of the car’s rivals grant.

The revisions to the boot access are more telling, opening up a smallish but usable space good for a modest weekly shop or a couple of soft bags. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

1.5-litre Mini Convertible Cooper engine

Having tested the five-door hatch in 189bhp Cooper S form two years ago and the six-door Mini Clubman as a 148bhp Cooper D earlier this year, we’ve waited until now to evaluate a Mini with a three-cylinder engine: in this case, the 134bhp petrol unit.

And having found much to like about the 1.5-litre triple in other applications, we expected good things – but came away with some ambivalence.

The Mini Convertible will crack 0-60mph in 9.2 seconds, but the long-legged gearing is frustrating

There’s not a lot wrong with the Convertible’s outright performance, but it could feel stronger. We tested the car alongside one of its rivals, the DS 3 Puretech 130 Cabrio, and the DS outperformed the Mini most tellingly on flexibility – by more than three seconds when accelerating from 30-70mph in fourth.

Overly tall gearing is the Mini’s key problem, and it pours cold water on the performance of what ought to feel like a torquey turbocharged engine, as well as putting obstacles in the driving experience.

The engine feels strong and broad-chested in second gear, spinning freely to the far side of 60mph. But shift to third and much of the keenness gets lost to the car’s unnecessarily long legs.

A-road overtakes become needlessly tricky, obliging you to throw in a shift mid-sweep or settle for an insouciant rate of acceleration. And while the car’s ultimate pace is assured in the higher gears, it doesn’t always feel that way.

Insouciant progress, however, suits the Mini Convertible well. The engine is refined enough, after all, and the roof provides commendable wind protection when it’s in place.

When it’s down, the side windows are up and the optional wind deflector is fitted above the back seats, the cabin remains sheltered enough for comfortable extended touring at A-road speeds.

Bigger cabrios have less blustery cockpits – and you wouldn’t leave the Mini’s roof down for hours at a time on the motorway – but that’s hardly a serious fault on the only car in its class that provides a fully open driving experience.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mini Convertible cornering

The jockeying shimmy of the back-row headrests in the rear-view mirror; the gentle, independent roll-and-sway of the A-pillars and front bulkhead; an outwardly emanating shudder of the body structure around the rear suspension turrets: these are the ways in which lesser drop-tops than the Mini Convertible betray their torsional weakness, even in 2016.

Many of the signs are harder to spot now than they were in small cabrios 25 years ago, granted, but they’re there if you care to look. And we can only assume that most of their owners simply don’t care to look.

The suspension deals with the tricky cambers and tightness very well. You needn’t fear chucking it in

But if Mini owners care, they’ll have a tough job detecting the signs. Despite its relatively firm suspension rates, this car doesn’t suffer from any torsional flex or scuttle shake to speak of at normal road speeds, and although tougher surfaces and faster prevailing pace can bring out a soft, recurrent fidget from the body structure, it’s barely felt and never heard.

On the 17in alloy wheels and 205-section non-runflat tyres of our test subject, the Mini’s ride was quiet, supple and well damped while remaining better isolated from bigger intrusions than you might expect – either of a Mini or any small convertible, frankly.

The car’s handling is also well judged: sufficiently agile, flat and keen to present a dynamic selling point to drivers out to enjoy every corner, but not drastically hyper-sensitive to steering inputs or so pointy as to put high-speed stability at risk.

The steering will still be overly direct for some tastes, ours among them, and its sheer pace makes the chances of feeling what the front tyres are up to through the rim vanishingly small.

It’s a particular shame here, because the Convertible’s extra weight and inevitable minor body flex under high lateral load make it a little more given to mid-corner understeer than its hatchback brethren. It’s a simple fact that if you could better detect the grip level under the front wheels, you could drive to its limit more easily.

But such criticisms feel decidedly unwarranted of a soft-top that has a greater sense of integrity to it than most of its kind and whose seven-tenths ground-covering pace makes it a great deal of fun.

It may well be that a Cooper Convertible on non-runflat 17in wheels and tyres is the ideal dynamic specification for the drop-top Mini and that bigger rims, stiffer springs and more powerful engines would only make the car less precise, less well balanced and generally harder to drive.

That would be our bet, because our test car responded with aplomb when driven to the limit and felt little more stretched than an equivalent tin-top hatchback would surely have done.

The car turns in with typical zip and balance and will carve a tight enough line through any given corner to convince you to carry more and more speed. But when you do arrive at the Mini’s adhesive limit, the grip ebbs away gradually and from the front first.

Unlike in other small drop-tops, there is no cliff-edge cornering speed beyond which the chassis simply refuses to work, and the traction control and DSC systems are well tuned.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mini Convertible

Mini’s sub-£19k basic price for this entry-level Cooper is something of a red herring, in as much as any dealer will tell you that the majority of owners treat the £3200 Chili pack as the departure point for their order, and to buy a car without either that or with the cheaper Pepper pack is to risk costing yourself at resale time.

Our friends at CAP disagree. According to their forecasts, neither Mini’s Chili, Pepper, Tech or Media XL packs will lift the expected value of a three-year-old, 36,000-mile Cooper above 47%.

The Mini’s residual values aren’t as phenomenal as they used to be but still outstrip its rivals

We’d imagine the pecuniary influence of Mini’s fixed-price extended warranty and servicing packs is less questionable, but even so, if you’re buying, don’t be afraid to fill in the order form exactly as you prefer.

Mini’s standard kit is far from mean, giving you DAB, a reversing camera and cruise control at no extra cost. If you are disciplined with the options, then, this car needn’t turn into an expensive buy.

If you do want to dress up your car to a rare old specification, Mini allows you greater opportunity than almost any other car maker.

The standard paint palette runs to 13 colours, with graphics and contrasting body parts on request, and there are five different leather colours for the seats. Mini will even weave a Union Flag into your cloth-top roof – if you really want one.

But we would suggest opting for automatic gearbox (£1250), in the process avoiding the wonky manual ‘box. Add to that the wind deflector (£235), media pack (£1400) and heated seats (£215) too and you will have a well-heeled Mini Convertible. 

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VERDICT

4.5 star Mini Convertible

You can’t help but conclude, on acquainting yourself with the established players in the market segment that the new Mini Convertible is entering, that buyers of downsized drop-tops aren’t a very demanding bunch.

There is evidence that people will pay close to £20,000 for cars that are slow, unresponsive and impractical and feel flimsy and imprecise on the road – provided they come with a roof that lets the sunshine in and a must-have badge on their bonnet. 

Mini’s drop-top style icon offers substance, integrity and plenty of fun

Against that background, BMW could have got away with ‘phoning one in’ with this car – but to its credit, it hasn’t.

The Mini Convertible feels like a much better-engineered car than it needs to be, one of integrity and attention to detail, improved significantly over the car it replaces.

It opens up the vivacious Mini driving experience to the elements without compromising it. And given that open really does mean open with this car and doesn’t with most of its rivals, that’s no mean feat.

Hence why the Mini Convertible leads the way in our top five beating the Volkswagen Beetle, DS 3, Fiat 500C and Vauxhall Adam Rocks Air in the process.

However, for the facelift we think Mini need to address the gearing by giving it a shorter final drive, make the seats comfier, thicker and softer and to further refine and fettle the steering set-up.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Mini Convertible 2016-2020 First drives