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Mini Cooper joins the convertible crowd

OPEN ROAD -

July 22, 2005|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

You know the world has become a vastly different place when an icon of British econo-car understatement turns into a wind-in-your-hair funmobile.

Yet, that's exactly what has happened to this bold little car that makes a corner seem like a straight line.

The Mini has been a much-in-demand transportation device since its 1959 inception. It became the car to drive, primarily for Brits seeking an inexpensive alternative to bicycles, motorcycles and public transportation. The car also became a fashion statement for upper-class trendies to drive around swinging London.

After more than 40 years with only minimal changes, the old-style Mini was replaced with a larger and technically superior Mini Cooper in 2002 that keeps faith with the past while providing a modern platform and drivetrain.

At the time, BMW, the German automaker responsible for exporting Minis throughout the world, hinted at additional spin-offs based on the car's revitalized design. Now we have the first tangible proof in the form of the Mini Cooper convertible.

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A soft-top Mini is a first for this brand, but a design wholly in keeping with BMW's fun philosophy for its English-constructed offshoot. It also has a mildly practical side since it can carry up to four people, two more than similarly sized roadsters such as the Mazda Miata.

With the standard power-operated top down and neatly folded behind the rear seat, a process that consumes a mere 15 seconds of sun-tanning time, the Mini Cooper is transformed in more ways than one. With the lid removed, the car actually looks longer and wider. It also becomes apparent that, with a full load of funseekers, there's precious little room for toting much else. At least no one will complain about a lack of headroom. They'll also appreciate the Mini Cooper's snazzy interior that features form-hugging seats and large, round gauges surrounded by metal-like trim.

As with the roofed model, the convertible is available in two strengths. Base cars run with a 115-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder connected to a five-speed manual transmission or optional continuously variable (no gears) unit. Pick the livelier Mini Cooper S and the wick is turned up to the tune of 168 horsepower, thanks to the addition of a supercharger. Mini gazers already know how to tell the difference since the S model displays an intake slot directly just above the grille, not to mention special "center-out" dual exhaust tips.

The S also features a six-speed manual gearbox, while a five-speed automatic transmission with a shift-for-yourself feature is an extra-cost option.

Despite its small size, the12-foot-long Mini ragtop turns out to be a pretty safe place to be. Among the extensive list of safety features are front and side-impact air bags, anti-lock brakes, roll bars in back of the rear seats and a tire-pressure monitoring system. Traction and stability control can also be ordered.

Buyers can option their convertibles with plenty of extra gear, from larger and fancier wheels to rain-sensing wipers and a sport suspension. This is a car that begs for the personalized touch and Mini dealers will be only too happy to oblige.

Whether you like yours plain or fancy, the Mini Cooper convertible is built to do what any sporty fresh-air machine is supposed to accomplish, which is to have fun while turning bystanders green with envy.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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