Over 2 million “new” MINIs have been sold since the first models appeared in the autumn of 2001. By any standards, that is an impressive tally, and the commercial achievement that this represents is even better when you learn that not only do many of the customers buy the car without bothering to test it (they just “know” they want one) and that they typically spend quite a lot on extra cost items to personalise their cars. Test Reports on a variety models in the still expanding MINI range have made a not infrequent appearance here, and in general, the driver has expressed, usually with more than a little enthusiasm, how much they had enjoyed sampling the product. There have generally been plenty of voices adding their agreement to the sentiments published, and indeed there are now a number of MINI models in the fleet of TheMotor forummers and their families, which must be a good sign too for the intrinsic merit of the product and indeed the brand. Believe it or not, in the 10 years since the rebirth of MINI, although I must have sampled something like 400 different cars, I have never actually managed to get a test of a MINI in any form, despite trying quite hard more than once. When planning my recent weekend to Madrid, I spotted that Hertz had the Mini Cooper in their “Fun Collection”, available at an affordable rental rate. I booked one. When I arrived at Barajas airport, I was told I had been upgraded, and wondered if this meant that yet again a MINI would elude me, but no, the upgrade was simply from a hatchback to a convertible. Given a forecast for a weekend of largely unbroken sunshine, I was pleased, though I when I found that the car was finished in what its maker calls “Hot Chocolate”, I did wonder whether to go back inside and ask to be swapped into the red car that was parked alongside.
As already noted, many MINI owners do not bother to test the car before they buy it, for many others, it is the very reputation for driving enjoyment which attracts them to the marque in the first place. So, I was looking forward to getting behind the wheel of my rental-mobile to see if this reputation is deserved. My test car was a Cooper model, which means a 122bhp petrol engine and a 6 speed manual gearbox, complete with Stop/Start system. Sufficient, therefore, to endow the car with brisk performance, but far from enough horses to make it truly rapid, and so it proved to be. The engine and exhaust system in these cars will never prizes for the quality of sound, which I also find to be disappointing, especially when standing outside a MINI, when there is almost an unpleasant whine-y sound to the motor, but for sure it is in all other respects a good powerplant. It is smooth and refined, and combined with apposite gearing, it does allow the driver to make progress quite readily. Unlike many modern petrol engined cars where there is marginal acceleration in the upper gears, in the quest for better CO2 figures, this limitation did not apply with the MINI Cooper. Even if it did, using the gearbox would prove to be no real hardship, as the gear chance quality is good. The gate between the first/second and third/fourth plane is quite wide, compared to that up to fifth/sixth, but the lever slots cleanly and precisely between the gears with just the right amount of feel. Once underway and in second or third gear, there is ample power and torque for the little car to accelerate away quite pleasingly, which did make me suspect that the Cooper S with another 60 bhp or so must be really quite rapid. The Stop/Start system is not particularly intrusive, and worked well, saving a precious few drops of fuel when paused at traffic lights. Overall, I achieved 7.6 litre/100km, which equates to 37 mpg, and this could doubtless be improved somewhat had I not been driving with the roof down for most of the test. Whilst performance was peppy, it is the steering and handling characteristics that really make the MINI good to drive.
The steering is nicely weighted and has good feel, which is so welcome after a surfeit of recent test cars with vague and light steering, and there is much of the go-kart like feel to the handling and road-holding that so characterised the Issigonis MINI. It is not all Good News, though. Although the ride comfort is not too bad, this is most definitely a car that does not like any imperfections in the road surface. Even on roads that looked pretty smooth, when the hood was up, I was treated to a whole symphony of creaks and groans from the hood and body structure which quickly became very wearing indeed. The solution, it seemed, was simply to lower the roof, which I did as soon as the early morning temperature had risen enough for me not to be just too cold. This solved the other most notable problem that of truly terrible over the shoulder and rear visibility, which is created by the relatively small side rear windows and large expanse of hood. Sadly, although the lowered roof does mean that you can actually see at side junctions, the visibility problem is not completely solved, as the lowered hood sits sufficiently high on the rear deck that the rear view mirror becomes largely useless. You have to learn to rely solely on the good field of view provided by the door mirrors. In the UK, I would anticipate that the car would need to be driven with the roof in place far more of the time than not, and so you would have to be very sure that you could live with the problems expressed here. I am pretty sure that I could not. Back on the positives, the brakes were good, and there is still a proper conventional pull handbrake located between the seats.
The interior of the MINI is dominated by a huge centrally positioned speedometer. This heavily stylised unit is surprisingly difficult to interpret at a glance, but MINI has solved that problem by providing a small digital repeater of your current speed set in the lower part of the rev counter, which is positioned right in front of the driver. So, there is no real need to look to the right to that massive dial at all. The fuel gauge is set in the lower right of the speedo and comprises an almost complete circle of small dots which gradually extinguish as the contents of the tank are consumed. More insight can be gleaned by cycling through the on board computer info display, which is presented in the bottom part of that rev counter. This operated by pushing in the end of the left hand column stalk, the one that does the indicators. Wipers are operated by the right hand stalk, as are the lights. A small row of toggle switches sit in the centre of the dash, low down, below the climate control dials, for lesser used functions. The audio unit is mounted at the bottom of the speedo unit, and proved easy to use, in my quest for some sound (until I lowered the roof, at which point, it could not compete!). There are buttons on the steering wheel for some of the more commonly used functions as well. Although heavily stylised as a design, I found that it was all ergonomically pretty good. I was less impressed by the quality of some of the materials, though. The main dash panel is a piece of rather cheap looking silver coloured plastic, which MINI call “Polar beige” and the door casings and lower part of the centre of the dash are made from some very hard and rather unpleasant plastics.
Unlike the original Issigonis MINI, whose seats were far from comfortable those in the test car suited me perfectly. Adjusting the wheel up to its maximum position, and setting the driver’s seat as low as it would good – my normal configuration in just about any car – gave me an excellent driving position. The seats of the test car were covered in the same sort of slightly cheap feeling cloth that features in so many cars devoid of leather trim these days. Nonetheless, on a hot day they did not get sticky, and I was able to take in all the good points about driving MINI, both with the roof up and down as I travelled around the Madrid area and up to Salamanca and down to Toledo. ,
Think of the MINI Convertible as a two seater with occasional use rear seats and you will not be disappointed. Whilst not over-endowed with legroom, children could certainly occupy them quite happily, but adults might find the space quite limited, and thanks to the relatively small side windows rather dark and claustrophobic when the roof is erected. The boot is not particularly generous, either, though it accommodated my weekend luggage more readily than the 3 Series Convertible that I sampled a few weeks earlier. There is a warning posted on the drop down boot lid noting that heavy items should not be placed on it, so the temptation to drive with extra luggage poking out onto an opened boot lid is probably better avoided. The rear seat backrests are split and can be folded down, though, to increase carrying capacity should the need arise. Inside the cabin, there is a lockable glove box in front of the passenger, and some rather small door pockets, as well as a small recess in front of the cup holders that are in front of the gearlever. There is also a storage net on the side of the centre console. Adequate for odds and ends, for sure.
The test car was not fitted with the “Openometer”, the slightly gimmicky feature which records how many hours the roof has been open, but if it were, I would have added significantly to the total. Lowering the roof is very easy. Press the small button in the middle of the row above the rear view mirror and electric motors do the rest. It is a two stage process, so you can pause in Landaulet mode, with the roof over the front seat passengers rolled back, but the rest still in place. Press the button again and the whole lot folds back onto the rear bulkhead. With the side windows erected, it was perfectly feasible to drive on the autovia and autopista without undue buffeting.
MINI is available with an extensive range of options, allowing users to personalise their cars to meet their precise needs, but from what I could tell, the test car had largely avoided the price-increasing options list. It did feature the Hot Chocolate metallic paint, but pretty much everything else that featured on the car was part of the standard spec. Air conditioning is standard, but you need to pay extra for the fully automated climate control that featured on the test car. You also get a DAB digital radio, heated mirrors, rear parking sensors, You can readily bump up the really rather reasonable list price of £17350 by going for an upgraded Harman Kardon audio unit, a radio boost, bluetooth, a navigation system, and numerous trim and convenience features from floor mats to run flat tyres and xenon lights. Tick every box and you could add £10k to the price of the car.
Despite the visibility challenges with the roof up or down, and the terrible creaks and groans when the car rode over anything rougher than a paperclip, be in no doubt that I enjoyed my weekend with the MINI Cooper Convertible. When the weather permits, I do like driving around with the roof down, and MINI is definitely a fun car to drive around. It suited my needs for a weekend away just perfectly. Whilst I do not regret going Abarth rather MINI for my fun car, I will be making a repeat booking with Hertz Espana for a Hatchback model, and if someone could source a Cooper S or a JCW, that would be good. Indeed there is a bright red JCW that is often parked up in the underground carpark in London, and I think it looks really rather good.