Review: 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible

Up Front

I used to consider the Mini Cooper convertible one of the most economical fun-to-drive cars on the market. However, the price soared when the model was redesigned for '09.

The base sticker on the regular Mini Cooper Convertible has risen about two grand since 2007, to $24,550. The more powerful S Convertible now starts at $29,950, nearly $3,000 more than the car cost in 2007. That's a big jump in the midst of an economic crisis, and more typical of parent company BMW (BMWG) than Mini.

It's also a significant premium to pay for a convertible—especially one of such modest proportions. At the same time the price of the entry-level '09 Mini Cooper hatchback has gone up by only $500 since 2007, to $19,200, and the hatchback Mini Cooper S by $750, to $22,600. Is a convertible really worth an extra five to seven grand?

The good news is that the speedy new Mini Cooper S Convertible—the ragtop model I test-drove and prefer—is rated to average 29 miles-per-gallon (26 in the city and 34 on the highway), despite having a powerful, turbocharged, 1.6-liter, 172-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. Granted, the car uses premium gasoline and such high fuel economy is achieved only with a stick shift. But that's amazing mileage for such a quick, sporty car.

The new Mini Cooper Convertible also is better in many ways than the previous model because it's now based on the latest Mini Cooper body, introduced two years ago in the car's hatchback versions. The engine is slightly more powerful than before, and there are now roll bars that pop up in 10 milliseconds if an accident is in the offing, but otherwise remain retracted. That has improved sight lines at the rear window.

The Mini convertible still comes packed with standard equipment. Even the base model comes with 15-inch alloy wheels, full power accessories, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, a trip computer, and a six-speaker CD system. The S adds 16-inch alloy wheels, sport seats and a firmer suspension.

The long list of available options includes such standard fare as a navigation system and leather upholstery ($2,000 each) plus Xenon headlights, parking assist, high definition radio, and heated front seats ($500 each). You also can customize the Mini in a seemingly infinite number of ways, by adding such things as bonnet stripes, a denim-blue or chocolate-colored rag top, numerous types of interior trim (including piano black and wood), and a variety of custom wheels.

The Mini Cooper hatchback earned four- and five-star government crash test ratings, and the top "Good" rating in frontal offset crashes from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Standard safety equipment includes stability control, anti-lock disk brakes, and front-seat side airbags. Traction control costs $500 extra.

If fuel economy is your top priority, check out the regular Mini Cooper convertible. It has a naturally aspirated, 118 horsepower version of the same four-cylinder engine found in the S, and averages 32 mpg (28 mpg city and 37 on the highway).

The Mini Cooper is selling relatively well, considering the economic crisis. Mini Cooper convertible sales fell 32.6% in the first six months of this year, to 2,327. However, the falloff slowed in June, when sales only dropped 15.7%, to 585 units, for the month. Mini Cooper plans to expand its dealer network by 20%, to 100, over the next 18 months.

Women purchase 43.6% of all S convertibles, according to the Power Information Network, and 47.5% of all regular Mini Cooper Convertibles. The average buyer is 49 years old.

Behind the Wheel

Whichever version of the car you opt for, the Mini Cooper's vaunted "go-kart " driving characteristics are one of its greatest appeals. The Mini Cooper's wheels are set out at the corners of the vehicle, making it very stable in spirited driving, and the brakes bite hard. As befits a BMW, there's virtually no play in the steering wheel; shift throws in the manual transmission are short and tight. A "sport" mode makes the engine respond quicker when you punch the gas and steering response "more direct."

Despite its high price, the S is the preferable version of the Mini Cooper Convertible for those who like sporty driving. The regular Mini Cooper Convertible is too slow, taking 10.2 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 with an automatic transmission, which is slower than the new Toyota Prius. (The time drops to 8.9 seconds with a stick shift.)

The new S Convertible, on the other hand, is even quicker than the old one, jumping from 0 to 60 in about 7 seconds with either transmission. If speed is a priority, you can always opt for the John Cooper Works version of the Mini Convertible, which has a juiced-up 208-hp engine that propels it from 0 to 60 in about 6 seconds. The catch is that the Cooper Works convertible starts at almost $35,000.

The Mini Cooper is a tiny car but tall drivers will be surprised by how much legroom there is in the front seats. The rear seat is mainly for small kids and dogs.

The convertible top goes up and down quickly and flawlessly in a few seconds. It can be stopped halfway to create an open sunroof over the front seat. The top stows automatically behind the rear seats, leaving a small but adequate luggage space if you pack carefully. A convenient new feature is a rear door that opens downward, making it easy to stow with the top down.

There are, however, a few downsides to the Mini. The ride may be too harsh and the cabin too noisy for many people, especially in the S. As in other powerful front-wheel-drive cars, there's also a fair amount of torque steer—meaning that when you accelerate hard, the Mini tends to lurch to the left or right.

Then there's the interior, which is too cutesy for my taste, featuring a round, personal-pizza-sized speedometer in the middle of the dash, and clunky retro-radio-style sound system knobs. A new gauge, dubbed an "Openometer," tracks how much time you spend with the top down. (It seems totally superfluous to me.)

A couple of further nitpicks: I love the Mini's manual transmission, but I don't understand why reverse is at the upper left side of the shifting pattern, next to first gear. It's too easy to think it's first gear and shove the transmission into reverse, which could lead you to ram into the car behind you when you punch the gas. And a center armrest costs an extra $250 in the regular Mini Cooper Convertible. It's annoying to have to pay extra for something so basic.

Buy it or Bag It?

The '09 Mini Cooper S Convertible sells for an average of $33,258, according to PIN, a little more than two grand over the average price of a regular '09 Mini Cooper convertible. If you're into sporty driving, the extra two grand for the S is money well spent. Personally, though, I would go with the hardtop version of the Mini and save at least an additional $5,000.

The Mini Cooper's closest convertible-topped competitor in terms of price and performance is Volkswagen's (VOWG) underappreciated Eos, which is roomier, features an ingenious retractable hardtop, and sells for an average of $32,441, according to PIN (which, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Companies).

Those who can afford to spend more should check out the '09 BMW 128i convertible, which is about as quick as the John Cooper Works version of the Mini Cooper and goes for an average of $38,804, PIN calculates.

My bottom line: The Mini Cooper convertible is a wonderful car, but no longer a bargain.

Click here to see more of the 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible.