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Mini Cooper S convertible
The Mini's boxy, bulldog style and sporty performance make it one of the most fun-to-drive cars ever sold. And the convertible version just makes it more so, albeit at a $4,500 premium over an equivalent hardtop. However, that top is power operated and has a sunroof that partially opens. Premium and subcompact may seem contradictory terms, but not here. Not only do you get Mini's trademark style, which has been subtly freshened this year, but parent company BMW has made nearly all the advanced electronic systems offered in its own cars standard or available in Minis. Rain-sensor wipers, park distance control, a trip computer, a DVD-based navigation system, Sirius satellite radio, and a Harman Kardon DSP stereo can all be had. Other options include iPod compatibility, which unfortunately rules out a CD changer, and a 1/8-inch auxiliary jack, which lets you hook any MP3 player to the stereo system.
The main attraction of the Mini is its performance and handling, and the supercharged and intercooled S models get more power in this model year, to 168 horsepower, as well as revised gear ratios for quicker acceleration. At a base price of $24,900, plus a $550 destination charge and $1,950 worth of options for a total of $27,400, our Mini Cooper S convertible was far from the priciest Mini that could be specified--but hardly inexpensive. However, other small hatchbacks don't begin to compare to a Mini, nor do other small convertibles.
Convert and go
The Mini's interior pays homage to its ancestor in style, with more room than expected and a huge speedometer mounted in the center of the dash. The center mount looks good, but it's out of the driver's line of sight. Mini makes up for this with a small digital speedometer at the bottom of the steering column-mounted tach, directly in front of the driver. The seats are a cut above what's expected, even at the Mini convertible's premium price point, and although access to the rear seat is a little tricky, there is enough room for two medium-size adults to be comfortable.
Toggle switches at the bottom of the center stack have a retro, technical rack-mount look, although the plastic switches and loops in the face plate don't have a very solid feel. A cup holder hangs off the center stack, completely ruining the style of the dashboard. The optional Cockpit Chrono Pack, which we didn't have in our test car, places smaller tach and speedometer gauges on the steering column and exchanges the standard speedometer for a chronometer-style multifunction gauge. If the navigation system is specified, an LCD screen replaces the standard speedometer.
The convertible top on the Mini Cooper features a sunroof mode, where just the front portion rolls back.
The convertible top takes the starring role here, going far beyond expectations. It is completely power operated, with no manual latching necessary, and has a two-stage operation. The front portion may be rolled back to form a sunroof at speeds less than 75mph. The top can be lowered remotely by use of the key fob or raised by inserting the key in the driver-side door and holding it. The convertible's trunk lid is hinged at the bottom, as on the original Mini, and can hold up to 175 pounds for a tailgate party. The rear seats fold down 50/50, allowing the Mini to work as a small hauler. The top does have some adverse effect on rear visibility, but that can be overcome through judicious use of the mirrors.
The slot in the Cooper S's hood does more than look sporty. It feeds fresh air into the 1,600cc twin-cam, 16-valve, supercharged engine's intercooler. That power plant produces 168 horsepower at 6,000rpm, with 162 pound-feet of torque at 4,000rpm. Gear ratios in the six-speed box have been changed from the previous model year to improve acceleration, and the car lives up to its flying-shoebox heritage with performance that drivers of the original could only dream about.
The center stack includes techno-looking but cheap-feeling toggle switches, as well as an ugly, optional cup holder.
The engine is a little weak at the bottom, but power builds quickly, with plenty available at the top. Precise linkage makes for quick shifting, and the car's short wheelbase, wide track, and relatively huge tires make for a kartlike driving experience. The S has the sport suspension as standard equipment; it's firm, but not overly so. The suspension, the quick steering, and the low-profile tires ensure good turn-in and precise handling, and all that rubber grips the road tenaciously. Torque steer is minimal, and fuel economy is solid, especially considering its 25mpg city and 32mpg highway EPA rating.
Mini calls its safety system FIRST, which stands for Fully Integrated Road Safety Technology. Its rigid unibody structure includes reinforced floor and side panels and high-strength door beams. The windshield frame is also reinforced and works with the plastic-covered aluminum rollover hoops behind the rear seats to protect occupants in the event of a rollover. Both front and front-seat side air bags are standard.
Brakes are discs all around, with standard antilock, electronic brake-force distribution, and all-season traction control. Cornering brake control improves stability in cornering, while the dynamic stability control system is available as an option. Run-flat tires are standard on the Mini Cooper S convertible and can last for 90 miles at up to 50mph with no air pressure. A tire-pressure monitoring system alerts the driver to any pressure loss. Rear park distance control alerts the driver to unseen objects when backing.