WITH AN ECONOMICAL but powerful 1.6 litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the MINI JCW cabrio will hit the ton in less than seven seconds. That's not shabby. It also tracks through corners like it's on rails.
And it does this without emptying your wallet every time you're at the bowser. Better still, being a cabrio, you can flip its lid for wind-in-the-hair top-down motoring.
Put all those positives together - add to the mix that it's also stylish and well-built - and the MINI John Cooper Works (JCW) cabrio is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. But there is one small question mark here. Take the top off anything and the result is a little more body-flex and a 'looser' chassis.
So, for the MINI JCW cabrio, does the fun of the soft-top cancel any compromises that might come with the drive? And is it worth the extra dollars over the tin-top brick?
Originally launched last year, the 2010 John Cooper Works Cabrio retains many of the features of the 2009 model.
For 2010, there is an addition of a rather gimmicky "always open" timer, that lets you know exactly how long you've had the roof down (and the sun and wind in).
There is also the option of buying the MINI JCW 'Challenge' edition, adding $7000 of features and handling tweaks for $2500 (our test model came without this package).
What's the appeal?
Lifestyle is in; that's why we see so many manufacturers offering 'lifestyle' cars with such flexibility in how they can be personalised. This is the MINI cabrio; it adds value to living - carefree, fun, not-too-practical, and a car that invites you for a quick blast to the nearest beach.
The 'new' MINI - not really new anymore - is the retro charmer, one a few to have succeeded in re-interpreting a loved classic. Style, it's got it in spades; and the cabrio is as sweet as a nut.
It's a premium small car, but, at less than $60,000, not too pricey. In short, its pitch is to buyers who want top-down driving thrills, and uber style at a price that isn't going to break the bank.
What features does it have?
Feature-wise, the Mini JCW Cabrio offers a generous serving, including a Harmann Kardon six-disc CD system, climate control, cruise control, power windows, electric mirrors, foglamps, xenon headlights, Bluetooth connectivity, a push button starting system and an auxiliary input to plug portable music devices into.
The biggest difference between the JCW Cabrio and its sister models lies in its dual-mode cloth roof. While the roof doesn't leak like certain other soft-tops of our experience (admittedly under some duress from mother nature), it takes a long time going up and down. On the plus side, it's fully automated.
What's under the bonnet?
Under that short curving cute bonnet is a zingy 1.6 litre four-cylinder engine driving through the front wheels (natch) which also features a twin-scroll turbocharged and direct injection.
Max power output for the engine sits at 155kW, while torque is rated at 260 Nm, although an overboost function can push this figure to 280 Nm.
The Mini JCW cabrio is only available with a six-speed manual transmission, which we found to be precise and with well-spaced ratios.
Keeping things pressed to the tarmac is a multi-link rear suspension with a tried-and-tested McPherson strut front-end. It's not rocket science but it's been well-engineered in the MINI JCW to provide masses of grip and darting turn-in when cornering. Its downside is that it's a little hard and unforgiving over rougher surfaces.
How does it drive?
Put simply, the MINI JCW Cabrio is a blast. The combination of its small size and peppy engine makes you feel like you're in a go-kart - albeit an expensive and powerful one.
With the rev counter right in front of the steering wheel, the MINI offers a different experience to driving 'regular' sports cars. There's a more apparent element of fun in the MINI, rather than just its ability to perform.
With the top down you can hear the meaty burble of the turbocharged engine while the car does a surprisingly good job of keeping the wind out of your hair. One feature we liked about the convertible roof is that you can choose to open it only partially and use it as a sunroof.
While we expected the drive to be good, we were more than a little impressed by the driving experience. Despite having lost its roof, the MINI feels incredibly well planted on the road and any compromises to the chassis are all-but invisible.
Like its tin-top siblings, the handling is as sharp as a blade with brilliant grip when with cornering, braking and accelerating. If you want to, you can grab the MINI by the scruff of its neck and give it a good old fashioned belt; it is easily up to the task.
The JCW's six-speed manual transmission is also one of the smoothest we have driven and has a light clutch movement that makes for a relaxed drive, even in peak hour traffic.
The downside to this sports-tuned performance is that when you want to relax after a hard day, the suspension in the MINI could be a little softer and more comfortable - even smaller bumps are transmitted into the cabin, while the larger ones can have the soft top roof rattling and shuddering.
Another issue with the MINI is torque steer. It is not bad - especially when considering the power and torque it is delivering to the tarmac - but it can become evident if you plant your right foot a little too enthusiastically mid-corner. It won't send you into the nearest paddock, but it can require a firm hand on the wheel.
We found that visibility is also an issue when the roof is up, as the area around the C-pillars becomes difficult to monitor.
These minor issues aside though, the MINI JCW Cabrio is an impressive drive, and it doesn't hurt that it's a head turner as well.
What did our passengers think?
Anyone you take in the MINI JCW Cabrio is sure to be impressed - provided they are front-seat passengers. From the dashboard layout to the playful colours throughout the interior, and the snug comfortable sports seating, the MINI is designed to solicit reactions.
Unfortunately, most of the time you'll only have one passenger. While there is a back seat in the MINI, the legroom and headroom is laughable: you won't be transporting any regular-sized adults in there if you want them to remain on speaking terms with you.
There is also another issue to consider. While the front seats are comfortable - even for long rides - the hard suspension may end up being the cause of more than one spilled drink.
Interior quality and Feel
As you'd expect from a car built by BMW (Mini's owners), the MINI JCW Cabrio is a quality piece of equipment. The dashboard and centre console look solid and well thought-out.
You won't find any cheap plastic in the cabin, an abundance of piano-black trim ensures that, and even the gearstick has a pleasing feel and quality appearance.
Because it's such a small car, the interior can feel a bit cramped, but putting the roof down or even opening it halfway alleviates this problem.
Luggage space is seriously limited in the MINI Cabrio, with just 125 litres available in the boot with the rear seats up.
A much more practical figure can be achieved by lowering the rear seats, or using them as cargo space. You might as well; they can't really seat adults comfortably anyway.
With the rear seats down you can wring out over 650 litres of storage. And if you put the roof down, you can carry some quite bulky items behind the front seats.
How safe is it?
The MINI JCW Cabrio features the usual gamut of safety features and systems seen on modern luxury cars, including ABS, EBD, stability control, traction control and four airbags.
A tyre pressure monitor lets you know if a tyre is deflating or has deflated, and, with runflat tyres as standard, you can still drive at up to 80km/h even with a flat.
Perhaps the most important safety feature for the MINI cabrio is its pop-up rollover bars. They spend their time hidden away behind the rear seats but automatically shoot up in the event of a rollover - a 'must have' for any convertible.
The standard MINI hatchback garnered a 5-Star safety rating in both EuroNCAP and ANCAP crash tests, although the relatively new cabrio model has yet to be tested.
Fuel Consumption and Green Rating
Small and efficient, but not lacking in power, the MINI JCW Cabrio is surprisingly quite economical, using just 7.1 l/100km in the combined cycle and emitting just 169g/km of CO2.
Of course, during more spirited driving you may see these fuel consumption figures rise, but we found it fairly easy to attain less than 8.0 l/100km if we were a bit restrained with the right foot.
The Government's Green Vehicle Guide awards the slightly more economical MINI Cooper S Cabrio four and a half stars. While there isn't a rating for the Mini JCW Cabrio, expect it to be slightly worse than this.
How does it compare?
If you're looking for a small car with top-down appeal, there are a number of other options on the market.
BMW's 1-Series convertibles are a good alternative with similar build quality, but they can't quite match the 'cool' factor of the MINI and are more expensive. That said, there are some excellent engines available in the 1-Series and, if you must have rear-wheel-drive, this is a good choice.
Ultimately, it is the MINI's style that pips the competition. At the wheel it is also hard to beat, and resale value will stay high.
Is it expensive to maintain?
The MINI JCW Cabrio is a premium offering, and servicing and parts from official dealers tend to be on the more expensive side.
The three MINI dealers we queried all suggested a cost of $470 for the initial 20,000km service, a slightly higher price for the 40,000km and 60,000km services, and approximately $1,200 for the major service at 80,000km.
MINI offers a three year/unlimited kilometre vehicle warranty, and a six-year warranty against body rust.
One of the appeals of the MINI is its ability to be personalised. Aside from the exterior colours, there are a number of options such as soft tops and bonnet stripes.
External paint offerings in matte paint are Pepper White, Chilli Red and Interchange Yellow. Metallic paint colours are Midnight Black, British Racing Green, Horizon Blue, Pure Silver, Sparkling Silver, Dark Silver and Laser Blue.
Due to the immense range offered, we suggest using MINI's website 'car configurator' to explore the colour ranges.
Pricing for the MINI JCW Cabrio starts at $56,900, but considering the long list of features you can option, most buyers won’t get away with a retail price of less than $60,000.
If you're looking for a stylish, small convertible that is also a driver's car, then MINI has a lot of the answers packaged up into the JCW Cabrio.
It has its flaws - its suspension is not tuned for typical Aussie secondary roads and it is barely a four seater - but the MINI JCW Cabrio is one of the funnest cars you'll drive. Its small size makes it both easy to live with around town as well as keeping fuel costs low.
While its competitors may undercut it in price, the MINI nevertheless emerges as the better buy in terms of resale value, quality and sheer charm.