First Drive: New Mini Convertible Embraces All The Labels

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Four days before I drove the new Mini Convertible in Los Angeles, Mini aired its first Super Bowl ad during one of the 12,000 commercial breaks you were using to get another beer.

And it was as if the company was preemptively trying to stop a gaggle of auto writers from dismissing the new soft-top as a chick car. That term is usually thrown at small and trendy cars, often by men who’d rather be going flat out in a Corvette. The Mini Convertible, however, is incredibly adorable. Your voice goes up an octave or two when you look at it. Puppies wish they were this cute.

Still, could you live with a car that’s constantly adorable, even when you don’t feel the same way? You’ll attract attention and passing judgement in the Mini Convertible no matter where you are or what you’re doing. And it wants you to get over it.

I want to be the one to walk in the sun

I never asked Mini why we were in Los Angeles, but I’m sure it was a combination of the city being where you drive convertibles in February and that it’s also basically the Mini capital of the U.S. California as a whole is a strong market for Mini, as their top boss in the States told me last year, so it’s unsurprising there were Minis left and right along the drive.

Take the roof off of a Mini and you pretty much know what you’re going to get, which is undoubtedly reassuring for those Angelenos who love their droptop Coopers. As before, the roof opens in two steps, first a rather narrow “sunroof option” that will open at highway speeds over the heads of the front passengers. Stop the car, and the roof can be fully lowered to rest behind the rear seats.

You’ll think you’re in an early Volkswagen Cabriolet because of the upright glass and far-away windshield in the Mini. It’s decidedly un-convertible-like and contributes to its rather awkward look when the roof is up. Yet the car embraces it and those who don’t like the low slung seating position in many other droptops can feel comfortable adjusting the seat height here.

There’s just a little more room in the rear of the Mini Convertible than before, so squeezing a couple of friends in the back on short rides to the beach isn’t as taxing on the relationships as it was in the past. Don’t offer to pick up too many people from the airport, though, because the trunk is still tiny.

A photo posted by Zac Estrada (@zacestrada) style="font-family: Arial,sans-serif; font-size: 14px; line-height: 17px;">Jul 8, 2015 at 12:49pm PDT

The $500 Union Jack roof graphic should look like a Ben Sherman catalog exploded all over the car. It’s goofy, unnecessary, a $500 option – but I love it because it screams “Mini.” Don’t drive this car without it.

Twist and shout

BMW has worked out some of the puppy-dog enthusiasm of the Minis over the years, focusing on refinement as the brand gets positioned firmly among other premium-labeled cars. The latest examples go the furthest, partly because new Minis share a lot of pieces with some new BMW vehicles like the 2016 X1.

The premium-izing is most felt in the ride and powertrain. The brittle ride that provided stiff jolts to your backside in old Minis is significantly mitigated, even on the test car’s 18-inch wheels. It’s no luxury car, but your Audi A3-driving friends shouldn’t complain as much as before. And it’s just surprising from a Mini.

Then there’s the zingy turbocharged engine that lurks under the Cooper S. Sure, the car weighs just around 3,000 lbs., but the 2.0-liter turbo four and its 189 horses are more than enough for energetic driving. Feel the boost smoothly build up and the smile on your face grows wider. Mini only had Cooper S models for us to drive, but had both manual and automatic versions (both with six speeds) to try.

As is the case with most convertibles, the automatic is the one you’re probably going to be happier with every day. In what’s become a Mini tradition, the manual has silly long throws that’s more characterful than annoying. What’s more frustrating, however, is its imprecision that meant second gear was never where I left it – expletive-inducing when you’re looking to slow down for a canyon corner.

And you’re actually going to want to go slower around the corners than you might think. What makes the new Mini ride much better than before conspires to make the handling softer and reflexes duller than before. Turning the wheel produces less assurance the car is changing direction than before.

Another worry is the body flex. Poorly maintained highways and surface streets – and lord knows LA is a network of both – bring out all the shakes and shudders from the structure. It’s an inherent problem with convertibles created from hardtops, but one might expect the sporty Mini to be better in this regard.

Put simply, other convertibles for similar money do performance or comfort better than the Mini. But that’s not going to be a deal breaker.

Tell me what you want, what you really, really want

The fact it’s easy to spend $40,000 on a Cooper S convertible won’t matter one bit to the people who truly want one. The Mini Convertible is still a must-have accessory for some, the fact it feels more grown-up than ever is just icing on the cake.

For that kind of money, you could grow up even more and get an Audi A3 convertible, or even a Buick Cascada. Both cars will let you drop the roof at the touch of a button so your insecurities about playing the new Justin Bieber too loudly vanish. But the Audi and the Buick are grown-up cars, lacking any silliness the Mini has in surplus.

I wish the Mini were sharper to drive and I balk at the nickel-and-diming imposed that suddenly makes the better automatic a $1,500 option (stick with the manual and drive everywhere in third if you have to). Yet the great thing about this car is its ability to make you feel silly just long enough to forget you’ve been waiting 10 minutes to make a left turn onto Pico Boulevard.

While Mini as a whole can defy labels, the Mini Convertible seems to embrace them. It is a chick car, a gay car, a fast car and (often) an expensive car. But most of all, it’s a happy car that just wants to have fun.

Photos: Zac Estrada/Carscoops