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Car Review: 2017 Mini John Cooper Works Convertible

Driving.ca logo Driving.ca 2017-05-17 Brian Harper
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My dad used to say, “Every young man should have a convertible.” Before he enlisted in the army in 1944, just weeks after he turned 18, he tooled around Montreal in his beloved 1931 DeSoto roadster. On the other hand, I waited much longer before I bought my droptop. But Dad was right; motoring al fresco is an experience that is impossible to duplicate with any hardtop, no matter how sleek or sexy. He kept a photo of the DeSoto in his wallet until the day he died. Can you imagine a Camry owner doing the same?

I would like to expand on Dad’s thoughts: Every young — or young at heart — man or woman should also own a sports car at some point, if for no other reason than, within a generation or two, autonomous vehicles are likely to own the roads. If (or when) this happens, kiss the rush that comes from enhanced, engineered dynamism — acceleration, speed, cornering forces, etc. — goodbye.

Naturally, combining both into one vehicle is a bonus, which brings me to the Mini Cooper Convertible. In base form, the pug-like soft-top, powered by a 134-horsepower, turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder, is a fairly inexpensive way to get that wind-in-the-hair feeling. But it’s no sports car. While closer, even the Cooper S version and its 189-hp, turbo 2.0L four lacks the required urge. However, throw a John Cooper Works badge on that S, with a breathed-on 228-hp motor and a bunch of go-faster bits that come with the name, and you have a player.

Oh, some so-called motorheads will scoff or make rude comments. But droptop sports cars don’t have to be Crown Jewel–priced, mega-horsepower monsters like the Lamborghini Huracán Spyder or Aston Martin Vanquish Volante to ignite some form of passion. Or even Corvette, Mustang and Camaro. Think Mazda MX-5 or its Italian cousin, the Fiat 124 (Fiata) — fun-in-the-sun cars that dance through the corners rather than scorch the pavement. As such, the Mini JCW will boogaloo with the best of them.

Since the British brand is owned by BMW, John Cooper Works versions can legitimately stake a claim as “the ultimate front-wheel-driving machine.” Twisting, undulating roads are what this car lives for. The ride, go-kart-like on most tarmac surfaces, can be punishing on broken pavement, the 40-profile run-flat rubber as flexible as a brick wall. Yet, as testament to a solid build, there is minimal cowl flex.

As a convertible, the Mini’s powered soft-top operation is simplicity itself and comes with the George Hamilton seal of approval. (Kidding!) Just push of the toggle in the front roof frame panel and 18 seconds later the top is neatly stowed. It can even be fully opened and closed while the car is moving, as long as the speed is less than 30 km/h. The operation is fully automatic and very quiet, and comes with an integrated rollover protection system. There’s also a sliding sunroof function, which allows the front section of the top to be retracted to continuously variable levels.

As with the previous Convertible, the newest generation — which debuted early in 2016 — comes equipped with the “Always Open Timer,” providing sun worshippers with the ability to calculate the number of hours driven with the top down. Regrettably, there is no sunscreen dispenser included.

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Now, back to the defence of the Mini JCW as a sports car. Its hard numbers might not be the stuff of legend, but they are solid. Credit the engine’s 228 horsepower having to only pull 1,390 kilograms worth of convertible. So, according to BMW, the JCW droptop will zip to 100 km/h in 6.5 seconds and, should you find yourself on the Autobahn with nothing better to do, top out at 240 km/h. That’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

Unfortunately, BMW insists that, like it, Mini is a premium (small) car brand, which means BMW-like pricing. Thus, the JCW Convertible comes with a retail price of $40,240 — to start. Okay, one can buy a fully loaded MX-5 GT or Fiat 124 Abarth for about the same money. It gets more painful. The tester received a liberal dose of Mini option packages, swelling the as-tested price to just under $52,000. At this point, the list of performance-oriented convertibles now includes V8-powered Camaros and Mustangs – so a judicious review of what is really necessary would be prudent. Personally, I’d ante up for heated seats and the backup camera, though they’re not available as stand-alone options, meaning ticking the boxes for the $1,000 Essential package and $800 for the Visibility package.

I’d also keep the price more palatable by sticking with the standard six-speed manual instead of the tester’s $1,650 six-speed autobox with paddle shifters. (Which brings me to a third “must do:” Anybody who enjoys driving should learn to drive stick.) The Mini six-speed manual is an absolute jewel to row, though, to be fair, the automatic makes more sense in high-traffic situations. And, in manual mode, the paddles do deliver crisp shifts, although I personally preferred using the console-located lever (pull back to upshift, push forward to downshift). In Sport mode — as opposed to Mid and Green modes — the exhaust pipes delivered a pleasing “pop” on the upshift and a melodious burble on the down.

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Cabin-wise, the Mini is comfy cozy for the driver and front-seat passenger; not so much the rear seats, which are best left for toddlers. And, yes, the tester’s Dinamica/leather seats are stunning, yet pricey ($2,250). Actually, the back seats are generally utilized as extra luggage space. The actual rear trunk compartment will take a couple of gym bags, but its functionality is still limited — there’s just 5.7 cubic feet when the top is open, 7.6 cu. ft. when it’s closed.

There’s a definite duality to JCW Convertible — mellow runabout on sunshiny days, track warrior when opportunity arises. I won’t try to convince you it’s the best deal in town, nor the best looking. But its giant-killer power, pugnacity and relative uncommonness on the streets make it a beguiling opportunity for the trendy gearhead. As for me, I’d take a photo of it and put it in my wallet.

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