LOS ANGELES — “L.A.’s fine, sunshine most of the time. The feeling is laid back.”
So sang Neil Diamond 45 years ago. And, yes, it is indeed a fine, sunshiny day, made all the more glorious by the fact that southern Ontario is experiencing a genuinely frigid stretch of weather.
Shades on, slathered in sunscreen and in a California state of supreme mellowness, I push the start button, slide the shifter into drive and pull out of the hotel onto Wilshire Boulevard in the all-new Mini Cooper S Convertible. And unlike Mr. Diamond, who further lamented that he was lost and couldn’t say why, I know exactly where I’m going — cruisin’, baby! The Pacific Coast Highway beckons. But first a little detour on some of the gnarliest, twistiest roads Los Angeles County offers.
As the newest addition to the Mini product line, the convertible is, at least to the folks at BMW who pump out the media material, “both practical and customizable, delivering unlimited open-air motoring fun.” OK, “unlimited” is a slight exaggeration, but “open-air motoring fun” is spot on. And, in a world where cutting the roof off a car and replacing it with some sort of cloth material increases its price, the “premium four-seater” droptop Mini is certainly affordable hedonism. (OK, they don’t just chop off roofs anymore; the car was designed from the ground up as a convertible.)
The 2016 base Cooper edition debuts with a sticker price of $27,990 — one of the least expensive new cars around with which to develop a golden glow while motoring. (The MSRP for the more powerful Cooper S is $32,240.)
While the Convertible is new, it’s not exactly an unknown quantity. The hardtop 3-Door model, with which the Convertible shares much of its mechanicals, debuted two years ago, followed by the 5-Door and the Clubman. All share the same powertrains. Base Coopers are motivated by a 134-horsepower, turbocharged three cylinder, while the S versions gain a cylinder, get a half-litre bump in displacement and turn out a far more significant 189 h.p. Said engines are mated to a standard six-speed manual transmission or optional six-speed Steptronic automatic. (And, yes, performance junkies, there will be a performance-oriented, 228-h.p., John Cooper Works Convertible later in the year. Save up; it starts at $39,740.)
As much as the new Mini is, well, mini, its exterior dimensions have increased when compared with its predecessor. Those who see the ragtop as the perfect weekend getaway vehicle will be happy to hear that the luggage compartment is about 25 per cent larger than last year’s model. However, while the new dimensions give passengers a little extra room, the rear seats are still best suited to the young and/or flexible.
The ride, while always firm, is not punishing. And, over rougher sections of pavement, cowl shake is conspicuously absent, thanks to such engineering efforts as the addition of torsion struts in the front and rear area of the underbody, “selective optimization” in the area of the side sills and a stiffening plate underneath the engine.
The Steptronic transmission is a model of precision and, so fitted, the Cooper S Convertible will experience slightly faster acceleration: BMW claims 7.1 seconds to hit 100 km/h with the automatic, 7.2 for the manual. Still, the six-speed manual is the transmission of choice for enthusiasts. Its shift actuation is first rate — light and direct — making it one of the best manual gearboxes found in any sub-exotic sports car.
The standard Mini driving modes enable vehicle setup to be tailored by means of a rotary switch at the base of the shifter, regardless of whether it’s the automatic or manual transmission. In addition to the standard Mid mode there is a choice of Sport and Green modes.
Rather than attack the canyon roads again, we cruise top-down along the highway from Zuma Beach to Santa Monica, checking out the surf action. A push of the toggle sets the roof operation in motion. It takes only 18 seconds to let the sunshine in, and the top can be opened and closed while the car is moving at speeds of up to 30 km/h. The soft-top operation is fully automatic, electrically powered and very quiet, with a rollover-protection system that is now fully integrated. There’s also a sliding-roof function, which allows the front section of the top to be retracted to continuously variable levels.
Previous Mini Convertibles came equipped with a standard Always Open Timer, providing sun-worshipping geeks with the ability to calculate the number of hours driven with the top down. With the new model, the timer will also be available with the Mini Connected infotainment system. The system includes a standard 6.5-inch high-resolution screen or an optional 8.8-inch display with navigation and a rain-warning app, which notifies drivers of impending storms.
Along with Mazda’s newest MX-5, the Mini Convertible — especially the Cooper S version — is one of those cars that delights with its duality. Most of the time it’s a laid-back, affordable runabout. But, when the mood strikes and the conditions allow, it transforms into a fierce tarmac warrior that will surprise many with its sports car-like performance.
Ultimately, the Convertible charms all with a personality as big as the outdoors it lets in.
— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016