It’s been a minute since I’ve been in a manual Cooper S. Years of 306 hp JCW Clubman, Countryman and the GP have warped me a bit. Yes I’ve been spending some time recently in a Oxford Cooper (review forthcoming) but there’s been a manual Cooper S sized whole in the MF garage for awhile.
Enter the 2021 MINI Cooper S Convertible (manual). We recently had a week with a loaded Zesty yellow F57 and fell right back into loving the combination of immediacy, engagement and lack of size.
Or MINI Cooper S Convertible test car was moderately loaded with an MSRP of $41,750 and only lacking adaptive cruise plus a few other luxuries. One thing it did have was the brightest color in recent MINI history – Zesty Yellow. We have to admit living with the color for a week changed our opinions. On paper and in photos it looks great. In person it looks great. Living with it and being seen in it is a bit different. You are noticed, everywhere.
Inside our test car came with the wonderful MINI Yours black lounge leather seats and the buttery MINI Yours steering wheel. It’s a classic combination and one that works well in a car with a loud exterior color.
Interior and Infotainment
MINI’s revised infotainment system is a bit of a mixed bag however. The change from an app based layout on the Home Screen (albeit a circular one) to one based on widgets is bizarre to us. I get the concept of widgets which can show some truncated data without opening the app, but the layout makes it more difficult to navigate and creates a steeper learning curve. Once in each app things get better as MINI has followed the typical app interface interaction patterns they’ve developed for years. But why they decided to create an entirely new interface with no equivalent in our digital lives is beyond us. It’s simply put a step backwards. Luckily wireless CarPlay is here and in full widescreen has it has been for the past few years.
The exterior styling has been revised rather successfully in our eyes with simpler lines and less cheap plastic. While we like the gloss plastic that has replaced much of the textured stuff, it will be interesting to see how it looks after a few years.
As part of the refresh MINI has eliminated the fog lights and instead integrated what they call bad weather lights inside the LED headlight module. While we couldn’t test their effectiveness in fog it’s a great concept of it works as it cleans up the front and allows (for the first time) JCW models to have additional lights.
Driving The 2021 MINI Cooper S Convertible
It is fantastic to be back in a manual MINI. Those were our first thoughts as we engaged first and drove off. There’s something so immediately rewarding to rowing your own gears and interacting with a car in this way. While we are looking forward to more electric MINIs, this experience will be seriously missed.
Having driven a number of very high performance cars recently, I couldn’t help but judge the MINI’s manual with a slightly different perspective. It’s not perfect by any means but the action of the clutch and the transmission suit the character of the car. It’s got a positive yet rubbery feel to it with a very forgivable clutch. While it may not be the manual perfection you might find in a Porsche GT3, it’s exceptionally engineered for everything from daily driving to track duty.
But things aren’t perfect. Like the R54 and R57 convertibles before it, the revised F57 has noticeable cowl shake over rough roads. As much as MINI has tried to reinforce the structure there’s simply no way to replace the rigidity that the top on a car like the MINI provides. That said it’s clearly a more stiff car than the previous two generations and isn’t noticeable on good roads.
Speaking of the top there’s a reason MINI hasn’t deviated from the general design is 15 years – it’s perfect for this car. The ability to have a targa like open top without opening up completely is compelling as is the speed of which it can operate. Add to it the fact that it can be operated at speeds up to around 20 mph and it makes this car much more versatile than you’d expect.
That versatility continues inside where the rear seats can be folded down offering a pass-through to the small boot. It’s a little trick that makes the MINI Convertible much more livable as a daily driver.
Revised and Simplified Adaptive Suspension
For 2021 MINI has eliminated the electronic adaptive dampers and replaced with what they call Intelligent Adaptive Suspension. It’s a simplified approach to providing the best of both worlds that initially reads a bit like cost cutting on paper. We know it works with a passive frequency selective set-up that opens a valve in each damper 50 milliseconds at a time to change damping by up to 50% during the largest wheel impacts. But there isn’t a lot of information beyond that data point out there. So we went directly to MINI to better understand the system.
In short the system attempts to give drivers both comfort and sport in one system without the need to change settings. The result is that the new adaptive suspension system (only available in the F55. F56 and F57) reduces wheel hop which allows for better traction and generally more compliancy. It can get softer than the previous comfort setting and more stiff than the previous sport. And as you’d expect on JCW models it’s tuned to be a bit more aggressive still.
In our tests there’s a touch more compliance over bumps but without the downsides of a more soft spring suspension around corners. While it’s not a night and day difference it would seem to be a good step in the right direction for 99% of owners and needs. Crucially the added comfort over bumps doesn’t impact performance and was always predictable in a hyperactive way that MINIs can be. In some ways it reminded more of us of classic Minis which had body roll designed into the cone suspension that never detracted from outright performance.
The revised 2022 MINI Convertible Cooper S feels well honed almost ten years into its platform’s life cycle. While the infotainment interface feels a bit baffling and the blind-posts are biblical, there’s little to fault a car that can deliver so much in such a small package. And it’s also an incredibly unique package with almost no competitors on the market beyond the Mazda MX-5.
The sheer joy of driving a MINI is amplified in the Convertible Cooper S without the top. Closer to the experience of driving and the environment around you, it reminds you why these cars have such a die-hard fan base. Simply put it’s joy on four wheels.