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2005 Car Review: MINI Cooper S Convertible

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SPECIFICATIONS MODEL: 2005 MINI Cooper (MINI Cooper S) Convertible ENGINE: 1.6-liter inline four (1.6-liter supercharged inline four HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 115 (168) hp @ 6,000 rpm/111 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 rpm (162 lb.-ft. @ 4,500 rpm) TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual (6-speed manual) WHEELBASE: 97.1 in. LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 143.1 (143.9) x 66.5 x 55.7 in. TIRES: 175/65 R15 (195/55 R16) ECONOMY: 27 (25) mpg city/35 (32) mpg highway PRICE:

For a British car design that's basically more than 40 years old, the MINI Cooper holds up well. Now built under the auspices of BMW, instead of originator BMC, the new MINI design is bigger than the original without sacrificing its core values of fun and excitement.

Since its rebirth in 2002, MINI (capitalized to distinguish it from the original Mini, which ended production in 2000) has sold more than 500,000 examples worldwide.

And as MINI people are proud to note, very few look like any other. Like that 102-year-old American icon, Harley-Davidson, every one off the assembly line is a custom version.

Now there's a MINI Cooper convertible to join the coupe, and a MINI Cooper S convertible to join the MINI Cooper S coupe. The new vehicles retain all that is MINI - the style, the panache, the fun-to-drive experience - and put in an open-top form.

The MINI Convertible still rides like a sophisticated go-kart, but it has its own unique slant on what a convertible should be. For example, the top can go up or down in just 15 seconds by pushing one button. There are no latches to unlatch, no hooks to unhook. If you're not ready for the full topless experience, MINI is the only convertible with a sunroof. You can open the top partially, creating a huge sunroof that lets in almost all the sun and air. It also lets in almost all the noise inherent in open-air motoring.

Top down, the MINI doesn't have the huge padded storage top that you'll find in competitors like the VW New Beetle Convertible. Stowed, the MINI top takes up less volume. In fact, the stowed top's volume was increased by 3 centimeters to balance out a strengthened windshield frame.

With the top up, it's possible to lower the tailgate-style trunk lid and lift the aft section of the top to create a huge hole to use to place objects into the rear of the car. Trunk volume is a mini 4.2 cubic feet, but if you fold the 50/50 rear seat flat, that leaps to 21.3 cubic feet.

From the styling standpoint, the MINI has a resemblance to one particular old BMC product, the MGB. With the top down and viewed from the rear along the side, the MINI's taillight area and side look very MGB-ish. The more modern headlight treatment also has an MGB flair to it. UN-squint your eyes, of course, and you realize you're looking at a MINI instead.

While I liked the exterior styling, I was less pleased with the interior. The seats were comfortable, especially in the S, but the dash is horrible. The two cars I drove had a speedometer and tachometer right in front of the driver, with a huge circular gauge that held the fuel gauge and oil pressure and water temperature gauges. It was out of place and took away from the simplicity of the overall design. Additionally, the odometer was almost impossible to read with the top down and the trip odometer, when reset, shifted to a digital clock, also nearly impossible to read.

There's a huge passenger cupholder that detracts from the aesthetics of the dash, even though it's practical. There are two additional cupholders at the base of the dash, but even medium-sized water bottles bump up against the switches.

The seats are comfortable and offer good side support, at least in the S version/ I also loved the steering wheel, fat, leather-covered, and with a great feel.

Performance-wise, the two cars are very different. The MINI Cooper S, with its 168 hp supercharged engine and six-speed manual transmission, is a ball to drive. You feel you can do almost anything, and on the demonstration route around Mini-apolis (sic) handling was excellent and we had great chances to appreciate the entire package.

We did note some slight "turbo" lag, but not enough to be a major problem. The exhaust note between shifts is something to be desired.

The MINI Cooper was another story. With 57 less horsepower and only a five-speed manual gearbox, the smaller car seemed like a dog at the start. But after a while, we got into the spirit of driving it more like an underpowered British sports car (I've owned enough of those), working the gearbox to find the best gear for the engine revs in order to extract maximum performance and even taking corners with more elan. I appreciated the dead pedal in the MINI, just to rest my tiring clutch pedal leg.

Both engines are transverse-mounted, which was the Mini's original claim to fame. The transverse mounting takes less away from interior space than a longitudinally mounted engine.

The four-wheel disc brakes in both models are excellent.

By the time our test ride was over, I appreciated the two vehicles' differences and actually enjoyed the MINI as much as the MINI S. In MINIapolis, of course.

Pricing for the MINI Cooper convertible starts at $20,950, with an additional $550 destination charge. The MINI Cooper S starts at $24,400, with the same $550 bogey.

The comparable VW New Beetle is priced at $24,820 for the base version, approximately $4,000 more for the Turbo S. Both are fun. Both offer a bit of nostalgia. Both will leave you smiling after you've spent a few miles in them.

2005 The Auto Page Syndicate