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2005 Mini Cooper S Convertible Review


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2005 Mini Cooper S Convertible

When it was introduced here three years ago, there were questions as to the Mini's possibility of success in the American automotive marketplace. Small cars have rarely proven popular here, and ``premium subcompact'' as a viable American automotive category was a fine example of the mathematical concept of a null set.

Sure, there was an entertainingly cheeky marketing campaign aimed at young, relatively affluent potential buyers, but those were the people most difficult to fool. As it happened, the Mini was a resounding success.

Why? It wasn't nostalgia - most buyers weren't even born when the last of the original Austin/Morris Minis were sold here in the late 1960s. And the number of original Minis sold on this side of the pond was, excuse me, miniscule anyway.

The new Mini succeeded because it was fun. It was fun to look at, it was fun to be seen in, and most importantly, it was fun to drive.

My take on it after first driving both the regular Mini Cooper and supercharged Mini Cooper S versions? The most fun to be had for the least money on four wheels.

And how can you top that? By removing the top. Which is just what Mini has done with the 2005 Mini Cooper Convertible. If you've had any experience with British sports cars from the 1950s and 1960s, the words ``British'' and ``convertible'' together set off warnings. The convertible tops of some of those cars were, to put it as pleasantly as possible, not miracles of engineering.

The Mini convertible is different. Not only is its top fully automatic - without need of manual latching - it also can partially slide open, while the car is in motion, to form a sunroof. That's merely one example of the Mini's premium feature set.

Parent BMW has made nearly all of the comfort, convenience, and luxury features found in its cars available or standard in the Mini. A Mini is economical, and it's a box, but it's most definitely not an econobox.

Besides the convertible, there are other significant upgrades to the Mini line. All models have gotten a minor facelift, and all equipped with manual transmissions have revised gear ratios for quicker acceleration.

There are a wide variety of new option packages. And the supercharged Cooper S hardtops and convertibles now have more horsepower, at 168, for even better performance. I've been driving a Mini Cooper S convertible for the past week, in weather that varied from fine early-summer warmth to a freak rainstorm that must have been specially imported from England.

The Mini was snug and comfortable with the top up, and just as functional as the hardtop. Just the right amount of wind gets in with the top down, and the sunroof mode is an extra-special bonus. The Mini convertible is a pricey $4500 more than an equivalent hardtop, but there is nothing else like it.

APPEARANCE: The new Mini stays true to Alec Issigonis's original 1959 design - one box for four passengers and luggage, and a smaller box in front for the transversely-mounted engine, with the wheels pushed as far to the corners as possible for maximum space utilization. Today's 12 foot-long Mini is larger than the 10-foot original, but still tiny by contemporary standards. Its exhibits more styling than its utilitarian ancestor, with rounded edges and corners and headlights faired under plastic covers. The headlights, taillights, and grille have been subtly changed this year, but the British bulldog look remains. The convertible has nearly the same profile as the hardtop with the top up, and a distinctive, whimsical ``bathtub'' look with it down. It draws smiles wherever it goes.

COMFORT: While there isn't really more inside than outside with a Mini, there is more inside than one might expect. Four adults do fit, better than in many externally larger cars, and while rear-seat access may be tricky in the hardtop or convertible top-up, it's easy with the top down. The top goes down or up at the touch of a button, with no manual latching. It can also be put down remotely via the key fob, or up by inserting the key in the door lock. On the way down, it first stops with the front portion rolled back as a sunroof. This can be done in motion, although the car must be stopped to put the top completely down. For extra carrying capacity, the rear seat folds 50/50, and the rear of the top can be unlatched and moved up a bit to allow long items to protrude, making up for the lack of the hardtop's hatch. Like the original Mini, the convertible's trunk lid is hinged at the bottom. Tailgate party, anyone? Back up front, find best-in-class seats and retro-modern style. In standard trim, the speedometer is mounted in the center of the dash, where it was in the original Mini, with the tach on the steering column. Don't like that? The ``Chrono Pack'' moves the speedometer to the steering column with the tach, and replaces it with chronometer-styled multifunction gauge. With the DVD navigation system, the LCD screen is placed in the original speedometer's location. Decisions, decisions.... But even in box-stock trim, the Mini is set up for driving, with good control placement. With its thicker ``C-pillars'', the top does reduce rear visibility a bit when up, but the mirrors are useful.

SAFETY: Safety first, and the Mini convertible has F.I.R.S.T., Fully Integrated Road Safety Technology, a combination of safety features including intelligent front airbags, head and thorax side airbags, and a structure designed for crash protection, including rollovers with a reinforced windshield frame and rear roll bars. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution and cornering brake control are standard, with Dynamic Stability Control available.

RIDE AND HANDLING: To make up for removal of its top structure, the Mini Convertible gets reinforcement to its floorpan and side sills. Although there is some noticeable cowl flex, the Mini's go-kart-like handling is unaffected. The Cooper S comes with the sport suspension, which is firm but not uncomfortably so. Despite the short wheelbase, the Mini is comfortable and stable on the highway, and its point-and-shoot character and the grip from the 205/45 VR17 tires make it just about the most entertaining four-wheeled transportation possible on more interesting roads. Its short length and reasonably tight turning circle make it one of the best urban cars, too. Parking is not a problem, not that you'll want to stay parked long.

PERFORMANCE: Since it's only 165 lbs. heavier than its hardtop counterpart, the Convertible is very nearly as quick, with a 0-60 time of around seven seconds for the Cooper S. With the top down, it feels even quicker. Like the hardtop, power is from a supercharged and intercooled version of the 1.6-liter 16-valve twincam four-cylinder Mini engine. Supercharger modifications and a less-restrictive exhaust increase horsepower to 168 (from 163) at 6000 rpm, with maximum torque up to 162 (from 155) lb-ft at 4000 rpm. Lower ratios to the six-speed gearbox's lower gears further improve acceleration. If it feels a little weak at low revs, that's only because it's so strong from about 3500 on. Quick, smooth linkage to the six-speed manual gearbox is conducive to serious driving. If you must have an automatic, regular Coopers are available with a continuously-variable transmission (CVT) and Cooper S models can be outfitted with a six-speed automatic with ``Steptronic'' manual-shift mode via steering column-mounted paddles, both very unusual choices for a small car. But then, a Mini is a very unusual small car.

CONCLUSIONS: The only way to top a Mini Cooper is to remove the top.

SPECIFICATIONS

2005 Mini Cooper S Convertible

Base Price $ 24,900
Price As Tested $ 27,400
Engine Type dual overhead cam 16-valve supercharged and intercooled inline four-cylinder
Engine Size 1.6 liters / 97 cu. in.
Horsepower 168 @ 6000 rpm
Torque(lb-ft) 162 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length 97.1 in. / 143.9 in.
Curb Weight 2844 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 16.9
Fuel Capacity 13.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement 91 octane premium unleaded gasoline
Tires 205/45 VR17 Dunlop SP Sport run-flat
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS, EBD, CBC standard
Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multi-link
Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 25 / 32 / 26 0 to 60 mph 7.0 sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
17-inch alloy wheels with performance run-flat tires $ 600
Limited-slip differential $ 500
White bonnet stripes $ 100
Chrome line interior $ 200
Harmon-Kardon sound system $ 550
Destination charge $ 550