Review: MINI Cooper S

I’ve driven a convertible before. It was fun, but I knew it was always going to be a slightly blunted version of its original hard-top, given the engineering demands that come with removing a car’s roof. So when I was offered a few days to review the facelifted MINI Cooper S convertible, I wanted to find out if the iconic carmaker would fare any better with this outing.

But before I even arrived at MINI Habitat to pick up the car, I was asked to download the MINI Connected app onto my iPhone. So much emphasis was placed on the app for my review of the MINI that the staff personally ensured my phone was paired to the car before I drove off.

Once the virtual handshake was complete, I could monitor the amount of fuel and estimated mileage in the MINI from the app. The party tricks didn’t end there. I could also check whether the car was locked (a feature that’s handy for absent-minded drivers, or if a friend or family member is helping you retrieve something from the car without the physical remote key), activate the car’s ventilation system in advance to cool it a little before I get in on a warm day, and send the location of my destination from the app wirelessly to the car’s built-in navigation system. I could also sync my phone’s calendar to the app – doing so allows it to suggest when I should depart for my next appointment, together with the ideal route based on its Real TIme Traffic Information feature.

This was put to good use when I was rushing to my dinner reservation at Cheek Bistro at Boon Tat Street, which isn’t the easiest to navigate at the best of times, let alone during peak hour traffic on a work day. Unsurprisingly, all the street-side parking spaces were already occupied, but MINI Connected saved me the indignity of circling around the block like a hungry vulture by suggesting parking options in the vicinity. It only needed a few quick taps on my iPhone while we were stationary at the traffic light; in a couple of minutes, I’d parked the car and was on my way to the restaurant.

That’s a lot more technology than what most MINI owners here would probably be accustomed to in their cars, but it’s a set of features that have become part of the standard offer across the MINI range in Singapore since March this year (Real-Time Traffic Information is only available for the MINI Cooper S, John Cooper Works, and MINI Cooper Countryman though). In the past, MINIs were lauded for their handling and good looks while their infotainment systems remained fairly basic. With the polished smartphone connectivity experience, the MINI feels more modernised and less one-dimensional.

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But for all the joie de vivre touted about driving a MINI, living with one has always demanded certain compromises, particularly when it came to the three-door models. With recent generations of the BMW-era MINI hatchbacks, space in the rear of the cabin has grown slightly, although it’ll still test the strength of your friendship if you got your buddy to sit in the back on a long journey.

The catering to modern demands has also meant that the ride is more forgiving across the brand’s roster now, being firm yet absorbing plenty of surface imperfections on our local roads. Compared to my Hyundai i30 N, the ride quality was luxurious. Speaking of luxury, I appreciated the comfortable soft-touch materials in the MINI in places where it mattered; the toggle switches and indicator stalks had an assured decisiveness in their operation. Visually, the cabin has continued to stay true to its circular cues while unabashedly milking its British heritage.

It’s no longer a workout to steer the front wheels either, particularly in the case of the facelifted Cooper S convertible. The steering seemed a little lighter than the hard-top I reviewed two years ago, although it’s still more involving than many cars today. That makes the MINI less of a handful when tackling quick directional changes along S-curved roads, which it continues to do with aplomb.

Its short wheelbase and wheel-at-each-corner layout gave me the confidence to take the MINI closer to the apex of some familiar winding roads than I dared with other cars in the past; I could effortlessly trace the lane markings if I wished, and the absence of body roll added to the car’s tractability. From a more practical real-world perspective, the car’s small proportions made it easy to navigate through very tight spirals and sharp turns, especially in some of Singapore’s older car parks.

The MINI Cooper S convertible zipped willingly from one corner to the next with the prod of the right pedal, its 2.0-litre turbocharged unit churning out 192 hp and 280 Nm of torque from a low 1,350 rpm. The classic engine pulse was noticeable when the car was idling. The new 7-speed dual clutch Steptronic transmission delivered seamless gearshifts under hard acceleration; at other times, it did its job discreetly, never seeking praise or validation. The note from the centrally-located twin exhausts rose in volume the harder I worked the engine, punctuated by pops on quick upshifts and overruns.

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Shouldering the additional weight of the roof mechanism, which performs quite a balletic stowing of the fabric soft top in 18 seconds, the convertible does the century sprint in 7.1 seconds. That’s four-tenths of a second slower than its hard-top sibling, but to be fixated on that detail is to miss the forest for the trees. I put the top down for my drive to breakfast one morning, passing through the quiet tree-lined roads in the Tanglin estate on my way to Loewen Road, and understood why convertibles still have their place in a perpetually warm and humid country like Singapore. I could feel the gentle morning light warm my weary soul in the still-cool air, hear the calming birdsong from the trees above, and let my worries sail by like the wind through my hair.

For all the technological upgrades that the MINIs now have with their smartphone app and in-car electronics, which helped me manage the commitments in my life over the past few days, putting down the roof of a car reminded me of the importance of slowing down, being connected to the things that are literally around me, and appreciating the little details in life we often take for granted.

There may be other convertibles on sale today that offer more space, better performance, and sharper looks, but most of them are – dare I say it – a bit too serious, and I cannot imagine any of them being a better embodiment of carpe diem than a MINI. The smiles on my friends’ faces when they approached the car was telling, and driving it gave me a sense of freedom I hadn’t felt in a long time.

Special thanks to Eurokars Habitat and MINI Asia for this opportunity.

The original version of this article first appeared on Eat.Fly.Drive.

GEEK REVIEW SCORE

Summary

You could go fast in this car, but it’s more rewarding to slow down, put the roof away, and enjoy the world around you when you find a quiet stretch of road.

Overall
7.7/10
7.7/10
  • Handling - 9/10
    9/10
  • Performance - 8/10
    8/10
  • Design - 9/10
    9/10
  • Comfort - 7/10
    7/10
  • Practicality - 6/10
    6/10
  • Value - 7/10
    7/10
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