- Punchy performance
- Great interior
- Handles nearly as well as hard-top
- Rear seats rendered useless by wind deflector
- Lack of rear leg room
The Mini John Cooper Works Convertible is the fastest and most powerful four-seater convertible of its size, but is it any good? Ben Griffin headed to a wet and miserable Oxford to find out.
Did you know the original Mini became popular because fuel was being rationed in the 1960s and small cars were more economical? Perhaps not, but you will certainly recognise the bug-eyed classic as a British icon that was immensely fun to drive.
These days the Mini is much bigger, not to mention a tad German, but it is still the sort of car you buy because you value driving enjoyment. And providing said fun should be easiest to achieve with big horsepower and a convertible roof.
But would we consider paying £27,000 and upwards for the privilege and is it worth going for over its hard-top sibling?
The Mini JCW Convertible (as it shall henceforth be known for the sake of brevity) is based on the latest Cooper S but borrows the fabric roof of the Mini Convertible, which means you can raise and lower it at up to speeds of 18mph in 18 seconds.
Compared with the standard Mini, the JCW Convertible has more muscular bumpers, fancier alloy wheels, an optional Union Jack design for the roof, which is actually woven in and not painted or stuck on, and a twin-exit exhaust in the centre of the rear bumper.
The roof mechanism has been designed to sit lower than ever when closed, which means rear visibility is better although still sub-par. Luckily the standard rear-view camera makes reversing manoeuvres easier.
As for the interior, it's just a touch more special in the John Cooper Works edition thanks to JCW seats, a two-tone dash and JCW branding in addition to the standard plethora of pretty circular dials and stylish buttons. As cars adopt increasingly non-descript interiors, it is nice to see Mini still cares.
You could argue the Mini JCW Convertible and its Hatch sibling have a bit much going on, but then the sort of buyer who wants the sportiest Mini will find its more aggressive exterior on the mark.
Mini likes to bang on about the fact it's the only four-seater convertible of its size and this is true. But really it's a 2+2 at best and a two-seater with somewhere to sling some golf clubs at worst. Rear leg room is comically bad, particularly behind a driver who is six-foot, despite an extra 36mm of knee room.
Honestly though, you are better off putting shopping bags on the rear seats and passengers in the boot as at least they will be able to feel their legs after a drive – and doing so would stop the impending argument over who gets to use the one and only medium-sized cup holder in the back.
At least headroom is good throughout the car and those lucky enough to 'shotgun' the front seats will enjoy seats that seem to care more about support than comfort, but can still cope with a long journey.
Suffice to say, the Mini Convertible can carry four people but it's likely two will have to be children, very short adults or contortionists. But unlike its competitors, you always have the option and that is a good thing.
As for the boot, it is 25 per cent bigger, at 215 litres, so it can handle a short trip or monthly shop, but that drops to 160 litres with the roof down. Not exactly plentiful, then, but it has the Mazda MX-5 beat by 30 litres.
An 'Easy Load' system that increases the opening makes it easier to load said boot and there are 50:50 split-folding rear seats in case you want to transport longer iterms. Meanwhile someone up to 80kg can use the rear boot hatch as a seat when, say, camping.
Performance & handling
A new turbocharger and redesigned pistons help the Mini JCW Convertible output 231bhp, an extra 39bhp over the Cooper S. Torque is also increased, with all 320Nm available from a mere 1,250rpm so it's got plenty of grunt.
0-62mph takes 6.6 seconds with the six-speed manual or 6.5 seconds with the automatic and it has a top speed of 149 or 150mph, respectively. The convertible car is 100kg heavier than the coupe, hence it's a few tenths faster, but both pull satisfyingly.
This is especially true when in second, which can get the front wheels spinning healthily before the traction control reins in the fun. Even sixth has some go, making it capable of lazy overtakes.
Like all new Minis, especially the latest model, the go-kart feel is very much present so it can be a pleasure to chuck through the corners on smooth roads, although the firm ride – potentially made worse by the addition of run-flat tyres on our test car – can knock the car off its course in a corner.
The Cooper S was harsh enough and in the JCW Convertible the suspension setup only highlights how bad UK roads have become, which can dampen the fun. More supple Minis make less of a meal of potholes and undulations and are, therefore, more pleasing more of the time.
Chuck it into the Sport mode and the car feels eager to please and the accelerator pedal becomes more twitchy, but only in the wet does it feel unruly. For such a whack of horsepower, it feels lazier than the hard-top, particularly with the less satisfying and involving auto gearbox in tow.
Then there's the fact the extra weight of the convertible means it is slightly less unforgiving if you midjudge your corner entry speed, with understeer coming sooner.
The automatic gearbox makes the JCW Convertible faster on paper, but in the real world it somehow manages to dull the sensation of speed. At least with the smooth six-speed manual, you can smile as you slam it into gear.
Though it may feel less sporty, the sound of the roof-less JCW tries its best to convince you otherwise. Exhaust bangs are so frequent they start to lose their appeal and the engine noise is hardly lovable, but the added sensation of the wind in your hair does give it a more visceral, involving driving experience.
Economy & efficiency
The 2.0-litre may chuck out a hefty level of horsepower but BMW claims it can churn out just 138g/km of CO2 with the automatic and 152g/km with the manual while managing up to 47.9mpg (43.5mpg in the auto).
Our test drive was too short to really judge exactly how accurate the fuel economy claim really is, but a mixture of the eco mode that softens the throttle to help encourage smoother driving and the fact it can gain speed without much effort means it may surprise in this department.
Equipment & value
Go for the lovely manual gearbox ─ a wise decision for a car that wants to be more involving in the first place ─ and you have already saved a couple of thousand, but it is still very easy to make the Mini JCW Convertible cost way over its starting price of £26,630.
Our car was fitted with the £1,400 Media Pack, which adds the enhanced navigation system, enhanced Bluetooth and Mini Connected XL for a slightly more techy cabin.
It also had the £2,400 Chili Pack, which adds 18-inch, two-tone alloys, extended storage pack, automatic air-conditioning, automatic headlights, automatic wipers, extended interior light package for a bit of extra cabin lighting and the Excitement Pack.
Factor in heating for the front seats (£215), the capable Harman Kardon sound system (£590) and the very useful head-up display (£450) and you end up with a £32,000 Mini.
Given that even a diesel Mini is actually a lot of fun to drive, especially with such a healthy dollop of torque on offer and softer suspension, not to mention more practical on UK roads and far cheaper, the JCW starts to look overpriced.
Not only that, an Mazda MX-5 is more rewarding if you are happy with two seats and the more spacious and more powerful BMW 228i M Sports Convertible can be had for £32,890 if you keep the extras to a minimum – and that is a much nicer car to drive.
Convertibles obviously lack a hard roof and that means your fleshy bits can be more exposed. Luckily the Mini has rollover bars that deploy in such rapid fashion you are protected when going upside down.
There are other safety features to further increase your chances of getting home in one piece, including airbags specific for the head. As for the Euro NCAP test, the Hatch was awarded five stars so we expect the Convertible to be about as safe.
We always come away feeling impressed having driven a Mini, but it is hard to ignore the fact the cheaper versions and their less firm suspension setups play better with UK roads. With the JCW version, you will thank the road gods for bump-free stretches of tarmac, which are few and far between.
The Mini JCW Convertible is a 231bhp car that can make the summer more fun and there's nothing of its size that is roof-less and has four seats so it is a unique proposition. It's just the Hatch is the better car and £3,580 cheaper, while the Cooper S can be had from £18,840.
There's fun to be had from the JCW Convertible, make no mistake, but you really pay for the lack of a roof and the sportier aesthetic. Whether you are willing to do so depends on how much you love the John Cooper Works badge. Personally speaking, the Cooper and Cooper S are enough for us.
- 2.0-litre TwinPower Turbo petrol
- 0-62mph in 6.6 seconds (6.5 with auto)
- 152g/km (138g/km)
- 47.9mpg (43.5mpg)
- From £26,630 (£32,390 tested)