A hot car for hot weather: the 2017 MINI John Cooper Works Convertible

During ten days of hot weather, I had to decide whether to shield myself from the sun or enjoy windy open-top motoring in the 2017 MINI John Cooper Works (JCW) convertible.

Lesson learned: if you buy this car, stock up on sunscreen. If you don’t, stock up on moisturizing cream to heal the burns you’ll gladly endure.

First impressions

Larger MINIs of this modern generation look great, but this John Cooper Works convertible is the one you want if your idea of a good time is having people ask whether you’re about to pull off a heist or if the car is loaded with gold.

The first things I looked at on the Midnight Black Metallic vehicle I drove were the wheels at the corners. Such minimal overhang suggests (rightly) go-kart-like handling.

Big, bug-like eyes and a curvaceous body all round beg for attention. Round grill-mounted fog lamps jut out front, adding an extra “set of eyes” to the car. (Note: these fog lamps are one of many options on my tester to be mentioned throughout this review. I’ll mention both standard features and options without distinguishing between the two.)

Other options like metallic paint, the 18” JCW cup spoke wheels, the red John Cooper Works bonnet (hood) stripes and exterior mirror caps in Chili Red caused my tester to turn many heads.

All this charm hits onlookers even before the automatic soft top comes down. When that happens, this car can satisfy even the biggest narcissist’s need for attention. Or, as MINI’s press materials say, this car has “extrovert charisma.” Given my experience, that’s not just a marketing line. It’s the truth.

Interior

Open the door and the MINI logo shines on the ground at your feet. The John Cooper Works logo embedded in the door sill glows. MINI scattered this logo around the car, though this is the only instance where it glows.

The Dinamica/leather combination Carbon Black seats proved firm and comfortable. Thankfully the MINI isn’t so mini that I can’t fit my frame into the front seat. Even with the top up, I quickly worked the manual seat adjustments to get comfortable. Front seats borrow thigh extensions from BMW, MINI’s corporate cousin. Headrests are integrated into the front seats, which means they don’t move up or down. Only the extremely tall need harbour whiplash worries.

image courtesy MINI

Floor mats sport a stylized checkered flag pattern. Stainless steel pedals almost gleam forth from the driver’s footwell.

image courtesy MINI

The outer edge of the big “dial” in the middle of the dash sports John Cooper Works “timer” graphics. More on that dial later.

The chunky leather steering wheel contains the requisite buttons for infotainment and cruise control options, plus paddle shifters for optional manual gear selection. The subtle, oval, grey and black Union Jack at the base of the third spoke is a nice touch. That would have otherwise been one JCW logo too many.

image courtesy MINI

Grey metal levers sit above the windshield and below the climate control buttons. These give the impression of a real “cockpit” that won’t be lost on sports-minded drivers. The one red lever in the bunch is the Start-Stop engine switch. MINI helpfully rings this lever with a red light to indicate it’s the first one you need to use when you step into the car.

Back seats are an afterthought unless your passengers have legs the diameter of hockey sticks. Amusingly, floor mats boasting the same pattern as those in front also sit in the rear. You might not see those unless you look for them under the front seats. You will see the round headrests, through, and they look great. MINI entertains the illusion of back seat practicality by including ISOFIX child seat mountings.

My tester included a wind deflector that easily fits over the back seats to keep wind from buffeting front-seat passengers.

In-cabin storage space is at a premium. A tiny centre storage cubby, smallish glove compartment, door shelves and two cupholders are about all one gets. (Of course, there’s the back seat.)

The soft top includes a moonroof. Hold the switch for a few seconds and you partially uncover the cabin. Let the switch go, hold it again, and the roof comes all the way down. It sits on top of the boot/trunk like an oversized soft spoiler.

Hockey bag test

This MINI flatly fails the hockey bag test. For proof, see the image below.


This trunk does accommodate smaller bags.

image courtesy MINI

With the top up, you can use the MINI’s Easy Load feature to swing the trunk’s soft “ceiling” up. This adds to the room you get when you lower the 50/50 split-folding read seats. But the hockey bag still more than fills the space. And don’t bother trying to lower the top with the bag jammed in there like this. (The sticks would still need to ride in the cabin.)

The bag, a newer, narrower model I recently bought, does slide easily into the back seat. Sticks traveled in the front passenger seat. Conclusions: for large objects, the back seat is the trunk, and the trunk opening is the roof.

In-cabin technology

Minis from decades ago featured oversized speedometers in the centre of the dash. Today’s Mini keeps the circular dial but it now contains more modern features. Don’t worry – the tachometer, speedometer and fuel gauge are where you’d expect to find them.

The rim of this dial lights up depending on choices made by the driver. For instance, change the volume, and it lights up starting from 8 o’clock on the dial. Half-volume is 12 o’clock. Choose a different drive mode, and the lights flash. This “ring light” is the peppiest part of the MINI’s ambient lighting system.

An 8.8” screen centred inside that dial shows menus that cold have been lifted from a BMW and reskinned to fit the MINI’s personality. Those menus lead to all the modern conveniences – phone integration, radio, navigation and various settings.

The MINI features the MINI Touch Controller, borrowed from the command interface in its BMW cousins. It consists of seven buttons surrounding a disc that acts as a combination of: dial; button; joystick; and touchpad. This system is excellent in BMWs. It works equally well in the MINI but it isn’t ergonomically placed. This is a minor quibble, but even with the armrest out of the way, one still must bend the wrist to access this cluster of controls. (This might be the gripe of somebody with long arms.)

Unlike its BMW cousins, the MINI’s heads-up display rises from the dash at the touch of a lever. (Seriously, I can’t get enough of these levers!) Unfortunately, the HUD seems out of place here. Sunshine, which floods the car when the top is down, washes out the display. Also, the HUD is so close to the instruments, which sit high on the dash, that unless you use a feature the instruments don’t show, using the HUD seems pointless. The only time it looks great is at night.

The Harmon Kardon sound system could use a feature specific to convertibles. Certain sound systems automatically adjust volume based on the vehicle’s speed, assuming road noise would otherwise interfere with the music. Convertibles like this MINI could use a similar system that adjusts volume based on whether the top is up or down, perhaps adjusting itself according to ambient wind noise. That would make a different during highway rides.

Driving

Hit the Engine Start switch and the MINI growls satisfyingly to life. This aggressive sound sets up the driver for what is to come and keeps your ears company throughout the drive.

If that growl isn’t sonorous enough, MINI has the aftermarket accessory for you. Here it is sitting on top of the manual package:

The first part of this video shows how this thing is activated:

The 2.0L 4-cylinder engine, boosted by MINI TwinPower Turbo Technology, can produce 231 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. This is enough to press occupants’ backs into their seats. MINI claims a 0-100 km/h of 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 240 km/h.

Take turns at higher speeds than you would normally, and the MINI rides as if on rails. Suspension, chassis, electronic driving aids, everything seems set up to make sure the MINI grips the road at every corner. Brembo brakes quickly scrub any excess speed when called upon to do so.

Power reaches the front wheels via a six-speed transmission you can control using the shift knob or paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel. MINI also offers a manual transmission in the JCW.

Drivers can pick “Sport” or “Green” driving modes as well as the “Normal” mode the Mini defaults to at startup. The rotary selection switch (no, it’s not a lever) is at the base of the shift lever. An indicator in the instrument cluster tells you what mode you’re using. Passengers may giggle at the graphics that appear on the centre screen with captions like “Let’s MINImalize,” “Let’s Motor!” and “Let’s Motor Hard!”

The soft top sits high atop the tiny trunk, obscuring much of what the driver sees from the rear view mirror. That makes the rear-view camera mandatory during open-air backing up. For that matter, it also helps when the top is up. Blind spots to the rear plague this car, unfortunately.

Fuel economy

The John Cooper Works skews immodestly towards performance, so it may sip more fuel than its modest size would suggest. Press materials claim average fuel consumption of 6.5 litres/100 kilometres if your MINI sports a manual transmission. That number drops to 5.9 L/100km with the optional 6-speed Steptronic sport transmission.

I say: not likely, given how MINI insists you step on it a little more than you need to from (ahem) time to time. I appreciate how the engine stops when the car does, much like hybrid cars do. Also, with the Steptronic transmission you can use the coasting function. The drivetrain is decoupled at speeds between 50 and 160 km/h as soon as you remove your foot from the accelerator pedal.

The MINI takes 44 litres of AKI 89 fuel, though it would appreciate 91 much more (or so says the car’s documentation).

Pricing

The MINI Cooper Convertible starts at $28,490 MSRP. The John Cooper Works trim level starts at $40,240. As tested, with accessories, my tester’s MSRP is $51,480.

Conclusions

The original MINIs may have been economical cars that drew attention from racing enthusiasts, Today’s MINI is enthusiast-ready off the showroom floor, though MINI is happy to offer souped-up versions like the John Cooper Works.

And if speed isn’t necessarily your thing, consider the MINI’s rating on the “look at me” scale.

If my experience is anything to go by, it breaks that scale. This classic has exuded simple fun with a hint of devilishness for decades, and I suspect it will continue to do so for decades to come.

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