An addictive car that leaves drivers always wanting to get behind the wheel.
When it comes to the combination of fun, compact, and front-wheel drive, few automakers do it better than MINI. While today’s iterations are significantly larger than the original model released in 1959, they retain plenty of the same DNA, with the exception of a few of the larger, borderline sport-utility variants. The latest one to wind up in the garage is the four-passenger 2017 MINI John Cooper Works Convertible, which is the top of the range for MINI convertibles. It was chock full of JCW accessories to jazz up its appearance, and when combined with performance oriented go-fast goodies, it definitely looks like a fun car right off the bat.
With a base price of $40,240, the JCW Convertible tested also featured a glut of options and packages. For $1,200, the Loaded Package includes, among other things, adjustable dampers, Comfort Access, and automatic climate control. The $1,000 Wired Navigation Package adds navigation (of course), wireless charging, and an 8.8-inch central touch screen. $2,250 adds Dinamica (synthetic suede) and Leather seating, and $1,650 gets you a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. 18-by-7.5-inch JCW Cup Spoke wheels with 205/40 R18 tires were $800, Harman Kardon audio was $750, and SiriusXM satellite radio is another $450. All told, the as-tested price came out to $51,480.
On top of the options and packages, the test car included another $4,000 worth of John Cooper Works accessories, including $1,965 for a JCW Pro Exhaust System, $262 for chrome tailpipe finishers, $220 for checkered mirror covers, $576 for black bumper-mounted driving lights, and $321 for JCW door sill strips. A sticker price north of $55,000 is definitely a pretty penny for a compact convertible, but isn’t so bad after dropping much of the gravy. It does remain reasonably competitive to well-equipped versions of the rear-wheel drive Mazda MX-5 (reviewed here) and Fiat 124 Spider, which are in the low-$40,000 range.
Even though the Mazda and Fiat twins have an inherent advantage on paper thanks to their drivetrain layout, the MINI manages to demonstrate its competence and makes the most of front-wheel drive. With the adjustable dampers on top of the John Cooper Works tuning, the JCW Convertible has razor-sharp turn-in and tackles all corners with full confidence. Second only to the newly released Honda Civic Type R, it’s hard to think of a better handling front-driver. The electrically assisted power steering is weighted very well and manages to transfer a good amount of road feel to the driver, and the big JCW brakes allow the MINI to stop on a dime with great brake feel and no fade after repeated hard stops. The 18-inch tires on the test vehicle were of the all-season type, so after a visit to the local tire shop, grip limits can be much higher. Ride is very firm but manageable, as is expected in a vehicle of this performance level.
Packing the punch under the hood of the MINI John Cooper Works Convertible is a 2.0-litre turbocharged inline four cylinder engine. With a single twin-scroll turbo, spool is almost immediate, with throttle response very close to that of naturally aspirated engine. With 228 horsepower at 5,200RPM and a very flat 236 lb-ft of torque between 1,250 to 4,800RPM, it’s possible to have fun at just about any point of the rev range. Even with all this fun in the powertrain, the JCW Convertible manages to maintain decent fuel economy. City consumption is rated at 9.4L/100KM, and highway consumption comes in at 7.2L/100KM. Observed economy at the end of the test was 8.2 L/100KM in mixed driving. Premium fuel is required, and tank capacity is 44 litres.
The test car was paired to a six-speed automatic transmission, and while most enthusiasts might think that this setup kills a lot of the fun, the slushbox was tuned incredibly well. Without looking at a specification sheet, based on the performance, most might assume that it’s a dual clutch transmission (DCT). The automatic seems to possess the best of both worlds – low speed city driving is nice and smooth, and the torque converter does a better at launching the car around town compared to the bucking and surging commonly associated with a DCT. Shift response when using the manual shift mode, be it through the shifter or the steering wheel mounted paddles, was immediate and gave shifts that were lighting fast.
When equipped with the John Cooper Works Pro exhaust system, the MINI gets a wireless remote controller that enables a Track Mode. This mode is technically not street legal, and MINI warns you that this exhaust mode should not be used on public roads. With a quick double tap of the remote, a control valve in the exhaust stream opens up and the MINI immediately becomes considerably louder, with a throaty exhaust note that encourages the creation of even more noise.
There’s also a giggle-inducing amount of popping from the exhaust when upshifting, and also on the overrun when decelerating. While the remote controller gimmick is neat, it’s a wonder this integration couldn’t have been included as built-in with the car. The remote can easily be lost, it takes up one cupholder position, and there’s also a battery to contend with as the car ages.
Being a convertible, the MINI doubles as a fantastic summer cruiser under the sun. With the fabric top up, the interior stays fairly quiet, and operation is seamless and quick, needing just eighteen seconds to open or close. When on the go, the roof can be operated at speeds at up to 29 kilometres per hour – perfect for when a sudden rainfall hits while you’re putting around town. Thankfully, as long as the rain isn’t a torrential downpour, the open cabin can stay more or less dry when at highway speeds.
Rearward visibility is still reasonably good regardless of top position, the glass rear window includes a defroster, and the top can also be partially opened to act like a panoramic sunroof. There’s also an Always Open Timer function, which is basically an odometer for how long the top has been open. After about ten hours of driving during the JCW Convertible’s week on test, the Always Open Timer showed a reading of just over nine hours!
With the sun shining down into the open-roofed interior of the JCW Convertible, it becomes quickly evident that MINI elected to use many circular elements in their interior design. Just about every dial, gauge, vent, and handle is a circle, which plays well with the MINI logo itself. The red inserts on the sporty yet comfortable seats were able to offset the interior’s grey-black monotone very well, and the checkered flag John Cooper Works floor mats also created a nice element of depth. A head-up display projects speed and tachometer information to allow drivers to focus more on the road, and the row of toggle switches at the bottom of the dashboard are a neat touch.
For intotainment, parent company BMW has lent to MINI its wonderful iDrive system. The interface is slick and fast, with a snickety control dial. Although some settings are buried deep inside several menus on the 8.8-inch touch screen, the system is nice to use and fills the giant circular bezel well. The LEDs in the bezel also light up to show the tachometer or volume control position. The optional Harman Kardon audio is ridiculously clear and packs a very powerful punch, allowing drivers and passengers to blast the tunes when they’re not listening to the JCW Pro exhaust doing its thing. Bluetooth pairing and call quality is clear and easy to do, but no Apple CarPlay function is available just yet. Other MINI products are starting to get this gold standard of smartphone integration, so expect it to trickle down to the three-door Mini in the near future.
Overall, the 2017 MINI John Cooper Works Convertible is extremely fun, making for a potent punch when combining its turbocharged engine and handling competence. The six-speed automatic transmission, contrary to most car enthusiasts’ beliefs, is far from a letdown, and does its job very well. The features and accessories do drive the price up, and may hurt the MINI’s competitiveness against the likes of the two-seater Mazda MX-5 and Fiat 124 (reviewed here) twins. For those considering the MINI, skimping on some of the options and accessories brings the price down enough for the cheerful and competent convertible to be a more reasonable bang for the buck. It’s an addictive car that leaves drivers always wanting to get behind the wheel, and with a well-performing convertible top, it can be enjoyed rain or shine.