July 5, 2009
We've found that not only is the Mini cute and cuddly, but also that its owners will come back carried on their shields defending the coupe made by BMW.
And now, having tested the 2009 convertible version, the soft top is even cuter and cuddlier than the hardtop, though still a tad snug. Just don't tell that to those who own them because there's nothing mini about their rancor. We tested the Cooper S convertible, the higher-performance version with a 1.6-liter, 172-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder; the regular version has a 1.6-liter, 118-h.p. 4, hold the turbo.
The Cooper S is a blast, especially with the top down. And when down it lays along the deck lid behind the rear seat -- and the roll bars that deploy automatically when needed -- and doesn't fill the surprisingly ample trunk.
Taking in the sights with the top down is so much fun, BMW includes an "openometer" gauge in the dash at no extra charge to record the amount of minutes and hours spent with the wind in your hair -- and whether it's time to add more sunscreen.
The top is novel in that the front portion is a traditional power sunroof. For full exposure, hold the button and the whole thing retracts quickly -- 15 seconds, according to BMW, though our unscientific timepiece suggested a second or two faster. Open-air noise levels are more than tolerable, and there's no slapping or flapping when the top's up.
The openometer is part of the fun BMW promotes with the convertible, which its Web site insists should be left down unless "passengers have frostbite" or when "motoring through locust swarms of Biblical proportions."
No mention of rain or snow.
Top up or down, Mini packs a punch with the turbo 4 and its 7.2-second zero-to-60 run and a top speed of 132 m.p.h. Though small, it likes to lead the pack. The test vehicle came with a 6-speed manual, which helped coax every horse out of the engine. And though operating to the max, it boasts 26 m.p.g. city/34 highway. Nice combo.
Stability control is standard. Traction control should be but is part of the $1,500 sport package.
The convertible is not without fault. Last time we tested a Mini and noted the cabin fits like a corset, owners insisted that all card-carrying members of the Mini club fit with room to spare. Better not hold a meeting in the rear seat, however, since the backs of the front seats rest against the fronts of the back seats. Perhaps you can lower one seat and slip legs into the trunk.
And while the Cooper S maneuvers in, around or through any corner or curve in the road or pylon in the parking lot with go-kart agility, tightness and sports-car swiftness, the ride is not as smooth as we would hope.
Besides that, the wraparound soft top blocks vision along the side, not good when leaving the driveway but most annoying when leaving a parking space between two cars -- both bigger, naturally -- and trying to avoid getting tagged by a vehicle passing from either side.
If involved in a collision, however, crash sensors unlock the doors and shut off the fuel. Nice. But the soft top leaves no room for side-curtain air bags.
Noteworthy features include that trunk room, which can be expanded by lowering the rear seat backs. That's easier said than done, however, considering the release button is hidden under the shoulder belt atop the seat.
And if you need to slip something long inside you can press a couple levers and the top lifts a few inches in back so you can rest them against the closed trunk lid.
Run-flat tires let you go 80 miles at up to 50 m.p.h. before having to stop for a change.
The Cooper S tested starts at $26,800, but it doesn't take much to top $30,000, as the test car did.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Rides. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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