The Mini defies the odds by becoming more popular while being less appealing
The topic I get asked about most — apart from the number of points left on my licence — concerns what is my favourite car. It’s impossible to answer because when you know what’s out there — and you know what’s on the way — settling for one model would mean ruling out too much that’s desirable. Why only one?
It’s more fun to play a version of Desert Island Discs. Instead of eight records, you pick eight motors: Castaway Cars. Though my isle has an autobahn, a racetrack and lots of mountain passes.
But why does no one ever ask what is my least favourite car? What comes bottom of the list? Inevitably, when you drive lots of cars there are plenty you don’t like. Again, it would be a list, quite a long one: the Cars I’d Crush.
In the interests of fairness, I should say at this point that I have tried to like the Mini. With reservations, I was fond of the first reborn model produced by BMW in 2001. The exterior captured something of the original’s cuteness, the engines were characterful and it was fun to drive.
Moreover, when the history books are written, BMW will be credited with showing the way when it comes to marketing small premium cars. It reinvented a classless 1960s icon as a fashion statement for the iPod generation and offered enticing add-ons to make each car unique. Buyers become hooked on options lists. Mini was reaping a motza for what is essentially a small — albeit trendy — hatchback. With each successive generation, though, it has evolved the recipe by moving closer to the mainstream. This is partly because the mainstream started to catch up, with trendy small cars of its own. But also because Mini got bigger as it attempted to over- come the core virtue of the original. It spawned variants, including a four-door hatch and a mini-SUV, each one uglier and less authentic than the last.
Some were so far wide of the mark they have been culled. But overall, the strategy has been successful. Last year, sales grew 12 per cent to reach almost 340,000 worldwide, a record. BMW is well on the way to its goal of making Mini a stand-alone brand with a whole range of models.
The third generation, which arrived two years ago, is still filling out its line-up. The latest to arrive is the Convertible, which follows the hatch in getting wider and substantially longer, increasing cabin and cargo space. As with the hatch, prices have been cut, in this case by at least $4800 compared with the outgoing car, while equipment lists are longer.
The two turbocharged engines, a 1.5-litre threecylinder in the Cooper or 2.0-litre four-cylinder in the Cooper S, are both more powerful and more efficient than before. A carry-over six-speed automatic is standard, though you can have a six-speed manual if you like.
As ever from the BMW stable, the drivelines are a strong point. The triple — driven in other variants — is strong enough to do the job and the four has a convincing turn of pace once on the move.
Neither avoids the bane of turbo engines, which is the delayed response to accelerator pressure. And of course the convertibles are slower than their hatchback equivalents. At 7.1 seconds to 100km/h, the Cooper S Convertible is almost half-a -second slower. My fuel use was about 50 per cent higher than the official figure, too.
But the real problem lies elsewhere. The supercharged units in the Gen I Mini had feisty personalities and constantly emitted entertaining sounds. The occasional burp on over-run from the present Convertible feels like a contrived diversion from its industrial drone.
Some of the pleasure has also been dialled out of the chassis. This platform, suitably strengthened for a roofless car, is shared with front-wheel-drive BMWs. The result is commendably rigid, with little telltale shake or body roll through corners. But again, there’s precious little to inspire. The convertible lacks the alertness you should expect from a Mini. It’s leaden through directional changes, even reluctant, the steering artificial.
Worst of all is the ride, which is joltingly intrusive. You’d be more comfortable on a skateboard.
At least you’d have the wind in your hair. The roof opens sunroof-style with the first push of the button and folds completely if you hold it down. At 15 seconds to operate, it’s more than quick enough
and functions on the move, at speeds about 30km/h or less, which is a boon.
However, it concertinas behind the cabin as neatly as a discarded napkin and sits high enough to block out cars on your tail.
Regardless of the roof position, vision is an issue. With the roof up, the rear section is so wide that lane changing relies entirely on wing mirrors. Reversing, even with the standard rear camera, is a fingerscrossed affair.
If you raise the rear headrests so they can be used, they also block rear vision. However, you can lower them in perpetuity because anyone likely to fit in the rear will be so short they won’t need them. Adults would have to sit knees splayed, pressed into the seat back, feet crushed together. I didn’t even try to get into the back with the roof up.
So the increased dimensions have added little to occupant space and the extra luggage room is also heavily compromised. The boot hinges down, like a tailgate, to expose a narrow opening. A lever system allows you to expand this load aperture a little and the rear backs drop (against the front seats unless they are forward enough). But with 215 litres of space (160 litres with the roof down) in reality it’s limited to a couple of squishy bags.
With the third generation, cabin quality was supposed to have improved but it remains a monument to unpleasant plastic. There is simply too much of it, as everything in the cabin, from the vents to the control screen to the speaker grilles, sits on utterly pointless hard plastic plinths. It’s meant to be a design statement but it left function well behind and reaches a nadir in the absurdly shaped door handles.
Cheap gimmicks are another Mini specialty, epitomised by the round central display — a vestige of the 1960s speedo — which is surrounded by dancing coloured lights that would not be out of place at a toddler’s party.
In the test car, the cabin highlights were the chestnut brown, diamond quilted front seats and … that’s it.
And they were an option. As were other features that should be standard in a convertible, such as seat heaters and a wind deflector. All told, the test car had almost $11,000 in options for a $56,030 price before on-road costs.
For me, the Mini Convertible is where all the worst aspects of the model come together in their least convincing, most superficial form. You can buy a lot of fun motoring for the sort of money here.
The Mini Convertible isn’t my least favourite car. But it’s definitely got a reserved space in the crusher queue.