MF Review: 2009 MINI Convertible Cooper S

Okay so this should be pretty easy right? The R57 is the convertible version of the R56. So I can copy and paste any one of our many review of the R56, do a find and replace here and there and I’m done.

Wow that was easy. Now I can go back out and drive the thing. I’ve got one day left with the new 2009 version of the MINI Cooper S Convertible and I’m dying to get outside and put the top down. The sun is out, the temps are hovering near 60F, it’s Chicago in March and the lakefront beckons.

Yes the 2009 MCS Convertible (MCSc or R57 for short) is a chop top R56. But the culmination of this is much more than simply a roofless coupe. This new convertible truly has its own identity. For one the R56 platform just feel so much more right for this car than the previous iteration. The power delivery, the exhaust note and the more supple ride all just feel right in this car. Forget arguments about hard edge handling and raw edge performance. The R57 feels like a bigger leap over the previous drop-top than the R56 over the R50/R53 Cooper and Cooper S hardtops built from 2001-2006.

Like the previous generation convertible, the R57 is built on a dedicated convertible platform with added structural bracing and new key components throughout the chassis. However it’s clear that the improvements to the R56 chassis design (carried over from the hardtop) and the new structural additions have increased torsional rigidity. Almost entirely gone is the wiggling rear view mirror for instance. And while the stiffness will never match the coupe, the R57 has a reassuring solidity to it. You will still feel a little extra body motion when pushed mind you.

Quite a lot has been written about the design of the R56 and how the belt-line was raised to comply increased pedestrian crash standards. On the convertible it seems less of an issue. With the convertible top up or down the car just looks right from bumper to bumper. The redesigned roll-bars feature a roll-over detection system that allows for them to lower in the car rather than on-top. This gives the R57 a much more open feel with the top down than the previous version.

The interior does deviate slightly from the stock R56 design. Front and center is the new marketing driven gauge known as the openometer. This indicator tells the driver how many minutes and hours the top has been down. It’s an answer to a question that no one asked. While it’s a fun way to remind yourself to put the top down, it gives nothing of value to the driver from the enthusiasts point of view. I kept thinking to myself how useful a temperature gauge would be or even a boost gauge. Apparently MINI feels the same way and has made these gauges (along with a couple more) dealer installed options on all MINIs.

I’ve always found the chrome-line interior to be an essential part of most MINI interiors no matter how they’re specced. However one annoying part of the R57’s chrome additions is that the passenger side seat belt anchor (finished in chrome with this package) is always in the corner of your right eye. I constantly found myself looking over there thinking that there was something just out of eye-sight. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker but it was rather distracting to say the least.

The top doesn’t look to be any different than the previous MINI convertible it is a revised design. The unique sunroof function is still there and can be used up to 70 mph. And the time it takes to open the top fully has dropped to only 15 seconds. This makes the idea of opening and closing the top at red lights a reality. Oh and that top can be open or close at speeds up to 18 mph – hugely beneficial if you run into any March showers like I did.

MINI also added larger side and rear windows to help and elevate the always troubling issues of seeing out the back with the top up. For anyone who’s driven the R52, this seemingly simple act can be a nightmare. Along with the lower roll-bar and (now) optional park distance control, the R57 has become a much easier car to maneuver in parking lots and in other tight spaces. That said backing out of a parking space still requires a level of faith I’m not entirely comfortable with.

The top fabric looks to be slightly different from the previous version and I’ve heard that MINI has worked with supplier Webasto to eliminate the crease marks that often marred the R52’s fabric top. Time and owner reports will be the ultimate judge however.

Structurally the car has also changed from it’s predecessor. There is more stiffness with reinforced A-pillars, reinforced rocker sills, redesigned floor structure and of course the active rollover protection mentioned previously. All this adds up to the car performing better in crash tests due to this more optimized structure. Despite all of this, the R57 is actually lighter than the previous generation convertible by about 20lbs (like 2nd generation coupe).

Part of the beauty (yes I’m being sarcastic here) of testing a convertible in March in Chicago is that you get all kinds of weather to experience. In fact I put about 150 miles on the car in a driving rain storm. To say a convertible wasn’t made for the rain is an understatement. The level of noise from the top and decreased visibility out of the rear window was something I reluctantly got used to.

Speaking of in-climate weather, I found the top down and the windows up (with heated seats on and heat blasting out of the vents) to be tolerable in temps down to 40F with light gloves and a coat. However the OEM wind-deflector is a must if you plan on doing any serious stints of top down motoring.

Space has always been at a premium in the MINI and the convertible is the worst offender. Yet at the very least you can say that there is no less space (as compared to the R52) in the rear seats or the boot thanks to the new roll-over protection system that pops-up at the first hint trouble. And with the rear seats folded down there’s a surprising amount of versatility in the R57. As with the old car the boot has a mechanism that allows for the top to be folded back slightly for a greater load angle. Otherwise even putting groceries in the back requires a few unique techniques.

All of this doesn’t come cheap. The Cooper and Cooper S versions list at $24,550 and $27,450 respectively. The JCW convertible (on sale in the US in April) retails for a staggering $34,950. Yes that’s about $1,000 from a BMW 135i coupe and not far from the BMW 128i convertible. While the MINI convertible offers a unique value proposition, it’s hard to ignore the black and white of the numbers compared to other convertibles in the class.

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Our test car came equipped with the premium, sport and cold weather packages. Along with that MINI added the optional park distance control and the $500 cross-spoke wheels (a shame since the standard sport black sport wheels are one of the best designs we’ve seen from MINI). The total price (including metallic paint) came to $33,200.

The new R57 is as much of a delight to live with as it is to drive. Where the R52 could be temperamental with it’s ride and questionable rigidity, the new car feels more solid and (yes) refined. It can be a dangerous word in some MINI enthusiast circles but the refinement we saw in the R56 just feels right in a convertible form factor. There are still the usual issues almost all convertibles have but there are no deal breakers. The R57 has greater versatility than almost any convertible on the market. It’s efficient in any model form, and it’s as fun to drive as almost anything out there. In short it’s truly a MINI and I can’t think of a better compliment.

  • JonPD

    Another great review Gabe!

    Glad to hear they addressed the rigidity of the body, only have driven a R52 a couple times and was not super happy with that. Think this is a very solid car, but I do agree that BMW/MINI has a tough price point issue going on between them.

  • greg

    Gotta give Mini some credit when due. I agree the R56 design seems to work better in the convertible than the coupe. Perhaps with the roof up it doesn’t seem as “tall” as the coupe.

    I love the openometer even though it has been met with some derision. And the black web spokes? AWESOME! I wish those were available for $500 when I got my ’08 convertible!

    I’m trying to get my girl out of her MCSC lease a year early into one of these, however, the $1000 Mini is knocking off coupes is pretty atractive.

    Anyway, nice work Mini!

  • indimini

    Nice review, but I’m still inclined to hold on to my 05 MCSC for a few more years. I was intrigued by the comment of how the retracting rollbar increased your feeling of openness. Do you mean that it looks more open? I have a hard time believing that the R52 rollbar really impacts your sense of openness from the driver’s seat.

    I’m also a bit disappointed in the loss of some nice visual touches like the external boot hinges. Otherwise, I think they did a nice job on the second generation.

  • JonPD

    I also have to say that the external hinges worked for me with the R52.

  • C4

    The minute you remove the hardtop and the shorter windows the car comes to life.

    Nice review. I’ll have to test drive one myself.

  • Michael

    Gabe, I don’t think your heart is in this review, like it was in the review of the MCSC R52. I put a a strut brace on my R52, and it is tight enough for me – AND, it still has that “Nice” engine whine and burble exhaust. I will test drive a new convertible later in the year, but don’t think it will give me as much satisfaction.

  • bee1000

    Chrome-line interior a “must” in any Mini? Blech. I guess that’s why it’s an option!

    I’m trying to talk my dad into getting one these, but I’m pretty sure that price is going to prevent that from happening. (As well it should.)

  • It is very interesting to read your comment about noise with the top up. Even in my recent switch from R52 MCSc to R55 MCS I have hardly noticed the change. I really thought the top kept the noise out extremely well and hearing the road and exhaust that much more was a bit of an incentive. Y’all do have actual rain though – in California the sky just sort of pisses a bit every couple of years – so who knows; may be a to each their own thing. So glad to hear the rigidity is up from the R52 because I too felt the strut brace a must though did not feel the added effect as hoped. Also odd to hear about the wind noise – I never had the OEM and when the wind did get bad I just put the windows up and things were good. Could be the old exposed roll hoops in conjunction with the roof and airflow created a pseudo roof – the same thing happens to trucks when you actually leave the tailgate up (thank you Mythbusters). Finally, I miss the tailgate hinges and also agree the R57’s overall profile really works. I think both R57 and R52 took shape very smartly.

  • Very nice, to remplace my cooper cab’05 ?

  • drew

    Still waiting on what BMW has to say about the ‘openometer’ on UK cars, blocking the air vent!