The MINI Cooper convertible arguably looks better with the top up. That makes the convertible as cute as the hardtop—although the most driving fun will occur with the top down on warm, sunny days for soft-top fans.
The BMW-produced MINI Cooper reached America as a 2002 two-door hatchback, but remains an uncommon sight in many areas of the country because there are few dealers and BMW isn't flooding the market with them. The result? Exclusivity and high resale values.
Keeping MINI Hot
Still, the hardtop model is a generally familiar sight in large urban areas, and the drop-top version is an attempt to keep the MINI Cooper and hot rod MINI Cooper S high-profile vehicles.
The convertible is expected to account for about 20 percent of sales. MINI sales rose a bit last year to 36,032 cars even without the convertible, which should increase demand.
The $1,295 MINI was a sensation outside the United States when built by the British in various body styles from 1959-2000, with a whopping 5.3 million purchased during those years because it was inexpensive, fuel-stingy, roomy for its size and a ball to drive.
The British MINI was designed to combat Europe's high gasoline prices and narrow roads while providing decent interior room. It first carried the British Austin and Morris badges, but soon was just called "MINI," with a hot rod version from British race car builder John Cooper called the "MINI Cooper."
Owners in swinging 1960s London included celebrities such as Paul McCartney and Peter Sellers (who owned 10). Fashion designer Mary Quant even named her miniskirt after the MINI.
Poor promotion and distribution in America caused the MINI to flop here in the 1960s, with less than 10,0000 sold, although car buffs including actor Steve McQueen owned one.
Larger and More Refined
Germany's BMW bought the rights to the MINI in 1995 and built a slightly larger, far more refined version.
The MINI debuted at the 2000 Paris Auto Show to rave reviews. The car retained the front-wheel drive and basic styling of the rather tiny British version. It hit America as a 2002 model after a massive publicity drive that came after BMW found that few Americans knew about the car.
Two Horsepower Levels
The MINI Cooper comes as a base 115-horsepower 2-door hatchback for $16,449 and as the new 2-door convertible for $20,950 in base form. The supercharged S has 168 horsepower—up five from last year—and costs $19,899 as a coupe and $24,400 as the S convertible.
The base MINI delivers an estimated 26-28 mpg in the city and 34-36 on highways, depending on the transmission, while the S version provides slightly fewer mpg in the city and on the open road.
There's a new 5-speed manual gearbox for the base version and a 6-speed manual for the more powerful S version, with an optional continuously variable automatic transmission for both trim levels.
Lots of Shifting
The manual gearbox calls for lots of shifting with either version of the car's 4-cylinder for the best performance because the engine is small with a 1.6 liter displacement. Moreover, while the shifters work nicely in forward speeds, engaging reverse gear calls for awkward moves and extra effort. Also, the clutch has a long throw.
But performance is lively with the regular engine and the car is very fast (0-60 mph in 6.9 seconds) with the supercharged 4-cylinder, partly because the MINI is fairly light, despite having lots of standard equipment.
Such equipment include air conditioning, an AM/FM/CD player, split-folding rear seats, anti-lock all-disc brakes, 65-series tires on 15-inch wheels and power mirrors, windows and locks with a remote keyless entry system that worked erratically with my test car.
The S trim level adds anti-skid and traction controls, sport seats, sport suspension, a rear spoiler for the hatchback and wider 55-series run-flat tires on larger 16-inch wheels. A functional hood scoop also is standard.
Options include a better sound system, power sunroof for the hatchback, cruise control with steering wheel radio controls, navigation system and leather upholstery.
Engine revs are high at cruising speeds in top gear, but the supercharged 4-cylinder in my S version didn't sound or feel strained at 75 mph.
The 2005 MINI gets new headlights and taillights, besides new bumpers. However, only MINI buffs will notice.
The MINI hatchback is small, but has standard side airbags and front and rear side-curtain head-protection airbags. The convertible's side airbags protect both the torso and head.
A short wheelbase and firm suspension provide a ride that is choppy on anything but smooth roads. That's especially the case with the S version, which has a stiffer sport suspension and wider tires, which have less sidewall area to help cushion bumps.
The ride is even less comfortable with the S version's optional 17-inch tires. BMW has given the convertible a slightly softer ride than the hatchback, but it doesn't seem to help the ride picture much.
In short, the MINI is a handy city car, but proves somewhat punishing on long drives—particularly the S version.
A Blast to Drive
On the other hand, few cars are as much fun to drive as the MINI, with its outstanding go-kart handling. Steering is quick, and braking is strong.
Front seats are very supportive for spirited driving, but the MINI's large speedometer is in the center of the dashboard where it causes a driver to divert eyes from the road. A smaller tachometer is directly in front of the drive in keeping with the old British MINI tradition.
Small retro toggle switches in the center of the stylish dashboard control the power windows and locks, and are awkward to use. Sound system and climate controls are small, and there are few cockpit storage areas.
The convertible interior is quiet with the top raised. Top-down driving doesn't result in uncomfortable wind buffeting at normal high speeds.
Clever Power Top Design
The power top has one-button, 15-second operation and a heated glass rear window. It's got high-quality fabric with a cleverly designed sliding sunroof panel that opens nearly 16 inches above the front seats while the top's side rails remain fastened to the tops of the windshield posts. Keep pushing the button and the top folds deftly into a Z-shape atop the trunk.
To keep the MINI stiff despite the lack of a fixed roof, the convertible's windshield pillars and door sills are reinforced for more rigidity and an aluminum roll bar is integrated into the rear headrests.
Limited Convertible Visibility
A convertible drawback is limited rear visibility with the top both up or down. A driver can't easily see past it when it's lowered. A small rear window and fixed rear roll hoop stifle the view directly out the back when the top is up. You thus need to use the outside rearview mirrors a lot, and they thus should be larger.
The convertible generally feels solid, with only minor cowl and steering column shake on rough roads. However, my test car's empty front passenger seat and hard-to-grasp front seat belts rattled and squeaked when not attached.
Not Very Practical
The MINI isn't very practical. It's a 4-seater, but while the front seat area is OK for tall occupants, the hatchback's rear seat is tight for adults and the rear of the convertible is virtually hopeless for anyone but small children, who are the only ones who might find it easy to squeeze into the back.
Low seats and wide doors can make it difficult for the non-athletic to get in and out of the front, especially in tight spots.
The trunk is small in the hatchback and miniscule in the convertible, so it's best to flip the rear seatbacks forward to enlarge the cargo area if there are no rear occupants. The exterior mounted trunk lid hinges are a retro MINI item, but look like afterthoughts.
The trunk lid folds down and a loading system lets one prop the rear section of the convertible top up and out of the way to enlarge the trunk opening to load larger cargo. (You're best off with soft luggage.)
Options can cause prices to escalate a lot. For instance, my test $24,400 convertible's bottom line was $27,620, although it still lacked such things as cruise control and automatic climate control.
The 2007 MINI arrives next summer. Insiders say it will be all-new but easily recognizable as a MINI. The ride, rear seat room and engines are said to be improved. But a new convertible isn't scheduled to arrive for several years, so MINI convertible lovers may as well snap up the new one.