If you think about it, a convertible 2+2 with a 192hp turbocharged engine is about as far removed as possible from what the Mini was originally designed for. Way back in 1959, the British Motor Corporation (BMC) tasked Alec Issigonis, the man who’d designed the 1948 Morris Minor, with a tough target. Create a small car, frugal enough to cope with the pain of post-Suez Crisis fuel costs, but still big enough to take a family of four and luggage. The Minor has been a major success for Issigonis; the Mini would be his most iconic creation.
But, it was designed to be cheap. Affordable to run. Simple, even if (back then) its front-drive mechanical layout was unusual. Today, the Mini isn’t really a Mini at all — it’s the same size as a conventional hatchback, has very small back seats (that effectively make it a coupe) and, depending on how you spec yours, it can cost as much as a decent luxury saloon.
Does any of that matter; does any of that make it a bad car? Nope — not when it’s this much fun to drive.
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For 2018, Mini (which, of course, since the 1990s, has been owned by BMW) is giving the core hatchback and convertible models a major update and upgrade that means new tech, improved performance and some seriously high-end options. Such as the new LED Matrix headlights, which are not only incredibly bright, but which have an automatic high-beam function that can black out selected patches of the beam. That avoids dazzling other traffic, but keeps the widest possible amount of light on the road, improving your own vision. It’s not new tech (it’s been around for a while on various BMW models), but to have it on a Mini feels like a big tech step forward.
Speaking of lights, the rear lamps have been restyled. And you might notice that these new LED units have a distinctive pattern — that of the British Union Flag, picked out in red, white and orange. How you feel about that probably depends on your relationship (or otherwise) with any British relatives you might have…
There’s also a new badge (flatter, simpler, and less ‘3-D’ in its shape), new colours (Emerald Grey metallic, Starlight Blue metallic and Solaris Orange metallic) and an option for shiny ‘Piano Black’ finishes for the exterior trim.
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In the cabin you can now have what I’d like to call ‘Maximum Brown’, but what Mini calls the new Malt Brown colour line, with ‘Chester’ leather. Chester is, of course, the town in north west England where many of the most successful (read, overpaid) Premiership footballers live, and the Maximum Brown cabin of our Mini Cooper S Convertible test car looked and felt appropriately luxurious. It is, as mentioned, a heck of a long way away from Issigonis’ economical original (all you got then was vinyl seats and barely any carpet), but it’s hard to complain when the cabin looks this smart and feels this cosseting. There’s still very little useable space in the back seats, but then, this being a convertible, you’re probably not expecting anything else, are you?
You can option it all up with the new Mini Yours customisation programme, which includes side scuttles, decorative strips for the interior on the passenger side, LED door sill finishers and LED door projectors, as well as colours, patterns, surface structures and badges. The Mini has always been a leader when it comes to buyers being able to make their car their own (for a price) and Mini Yours means that, possibly, no two cars rolling out of the English factory need be the same.
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All of which brings us to finally sit down in the Maximum Brown cabin and investigate the odd-looking gear shifter. We’ve seen Mini automatics before, but not like this, and certainly not with a shifter like this. It looks somewhat like an early 2000s Motorola Pebl mobile phone, but it sure feels good to hold, and it gives you access to the Mini’s new seven-speed ‘Steptronic’ dual-clutch gearbox. Previous automatic Minis have used a conventional torque convertor auto, but this one is a big improvement on those old slush-boxes. Bolted to the rear of the familiar 192hp 2.0-litre turbocharged Cooper S engine, it feels brilliant — changes snap through quickly and smoothly, and it feels close to seamless, whether you’ve left it to its own devices in D, or are using the manual change mode (thankfully turned the right way around — forward for down, backward for up, Touring Car-style) to pop through the seven cogs yourself. One small issue — if you want paddle shifters for the gearchange, you’ll have to pay extra for the Steptronic Sport option.
Perhaps the lack of behind-the-wheel shifters is an indication that Mini reckons you’re not actually going to be driving this Cooper S Convertible all that quickly. Perhaps that’s fair enough. The hatchback Cooper S feels lively and engaging to drive, but this Convertible is 90kg heavier, which you can definitely feel in the slightly more laid-back acceleration, and very definitely when you’re braking for a tight corner. The body is also, of course, a little less stiff and rigid, which you’ll really notice if you hit some mid-corner bumps. Better by far to just back-off the throttle and cruise, and let the turbocharged engine’s 280Nm of torque waft you along. That way you get to enjoy the sun on your face and the wind in your hair.
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Well, I assume you do in the Emirates... Sadly, on our test drive in Mallorca, it was constantly wet and cold, so we never got the roof down, and the ‘Open-Top Timer’ — which records how many times and for how long you’ve kept the car open to the elements — remained stubbornly at zero. It might not be going too far to say that we’d have been better off with an original Issigonis Mini in such conditions, but for sunnier climes, this rapid, high-quality, Mini Convertible is a cute and rapid little thing, all but guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.