Mini Cooper convertible — always in the sunshine

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

It’s a tale of two cities. 

In Goldsboro (NC) four dreary days filled with off-and-on rain and cool temperatures had us longing for some sunshine and warmth. Perhaps it was just coincidence that an all-new yellow 2009 Mini Cooper S convertible showed up just before the sun broke free of the clouds and the temperature started an upward climb into the mid-70s.

Later in Los Angeles (CA) balmy mid-70’s seemed to be the norm. But as soon as that yellow Mini showed up the weather took a turn – up – to the sizzling mid-90s.

And then again maybe it wasn’t coincidence. Maybe a conspiracy of a higher order?

Either way, if there was ever a car capable of transforming a sour mood into euphoria, bringing sunshine to a cloudy day and coloring grey skies blue or bringing a searing state to blissful fun it’s the Mini convertible.

The little Mini drop top – they call it a cabriole –  is a happy car. It transfers its light- hearted nature to its inhabitants. And perhaps that’s the ticket in our current doom and gloom world, sunshine aside.

We never tired of heading for the little yellow puppy dog of a car, hitting the power roof and enjoying wind in the hair (okay, so not so much hair) on a beautiful springtime afternoon.

The Mini convertible gives us reason for hope that all the fun won’t be completely wrung out of driving as we rampage ahead to save the planet through the reduction of tailpipe emissions, accomplished generally by greatly reducing gas consumption.

The happy little Mini obliges providing both enjoyment and green- agenda frugality offering between 23 and 28 mpg in city driving and between 32 and 37 mpg highway depending on engine and transmission choice.

Our choice for a week on both coasts — or the choice the manufacturer left us with — was the Cooper S with the 172-horsepower turbocharged 1.6-liter 4- cylinder engine mated to an easy-to-shift six-speed manual transmission. That combination is rated at 26 city/34 highway.

Standard fare is a 1.6-liter developing 118 horsepower. Both engines can be mated to an optional six-speed automatic.

The engines are all-new, built at BMW’s engine plant in Great Britain.
The second-generation Mini convertible is also all new and began arriving in showrooms around April 1. The first generation hit the streets in 2004 as a 2005 model, about three years after BMW sold its first Mini hardtop in the U.S.

The newest convertible is based on the completely reworked hardtop, which came to market in 2007. And this one really works well. But as Mini let’s us know in a series of amusing and mystifying commercials, the top should always be down!

The Mini’s playful nature gets delivered with the new convertible. For instance, it comes with an “openmeter” gauge to the left of the tachometer. It counts the number of hours you keep the top open. Our test car also came with an optional climate control that maintains the same temperature whether the top is open or closed.

And the Mini folks wanted to make sure that when the urge to go topless hits, you won’t have to wait long. The power top opens in 15 seconds and it can be opened or closed at speeds up to 20 miles per hour. If you want some fresh air, but don’t want the top down, the front part of the roof can be rolled back about 16 inches for a sunroof effect.

The changes between the first and second generation convertibles are pretty much unseen, but Mini has reworked the car adding two inches in length while retaining the diminutive 97.1-inch wheelbase.

The benefit of the slightly increased size can be found in the trunk, which opens via a fold-down tailgate. Luggage capacity has been increased two cubic feet to nearly six, and the rear seatbacks can be folded down and locked into position to allow for 23 cubic feet of storage.

We have loved the quirkiness of the Mini since it arrived on our shores, highlighted by the dinner plate speedometer in the middle of the dash and unusual toggle-switch controls. The toggles may not win an ergonomic prize, but they are cool and really not that hard to become familiar with.

The interior has been reworked with new gauges and controls, but thankfully, only a Mini owner who has sat behind the wheel for a few years would be able to point out the differences. We say thankfully because the first generation Mini's cockpit was just right.
The convertible can be fun for four, but in reality comfortable fun is limited to two adults. The back seats are indeed there, ready for use, but leg room ranges from extremely tight to non-existent. Young folks will probably think it’s cool to cram four people into the Mini.

And young folks are not excluded from the price of entry, which is an affordable $24,550 for the 118-horsepower model and $27,450 for the turbocharged version.

You don’t need more than what the base price buys because the convertible comes with such standard equipment as full power, six- speaker audio system with CD player, leatherette upholstery, 16-inch wheels, run-flat tires, traction and stability control, four-wheel antilock brakes, side-mounted airbags and tilt and telescoping steering wheel.
Also standard is an electromechanically operated rollover bar situated behind the rear seats, activated when a rollover is detected. The innovative safety bar allows for optimum visibility to the rear and sides of the car.

But be warned — the options list is anything but mini. It’s incredibly long.

You might be enticed by such things as navigation, full-leather, a cold-weather package and a sport package that includes such things as stripes, 17-inch black bullet alloy wheels, xenon high intensity discharge headlights, and Dynamic Traction Control. Rear distance park control adds another handful of dollars – like 500 of them. Many buyers will opt for the six-speed automatic transmission. That will add $1,250 to the bottom line.

Our turbocharged S-model test car, for instance, came with several options bringing the bottom line to $32,700.

So, will you be satisfied with the normally aspired 1.6-liter engine? 

We think so. It has comfortable performance measured by BMW at 8.9 seconds from 0-to-60 with the manual transmission and 10.2 seconds with the automatic. Gas mileage is superb rated at 28 mpg city and 37 on the highway with the manual transmission and 25/34 with the automatic.

Performance is part of the turbocharged package. BMW says the 172- horsepower engine can rocket from 0-to-60 in 7 seconds with the manual and 7.2 with the automatic. Not only can you go fast, you can go fast through the twists and turns thanks in part to a reworked suspension that includes MacPherson struts up front. Mini says the body has been stiffened for a more solid feel and weight has actually been reduced 22 pounds.

One more caveat — premium fuel is recommended for the turbocharged engine.

The Mini offered us each a week of top-down fun. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough days in those weeks.

And the day the guys came to pick up our fun-mobiles, the clouds rolled back in and the skies threatened again in Goldsboro. In LA it got hotter.

Was that just coincidence?

Base price: $24,550; as driven, $32,700
Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged inline four
Horsepower: 172 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 177 foot-pounds @ 1,600 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 97.1 inches
Length: 146.2 inches
Curb weight: 2,855 pounds
Turning circle: 35.1 feet
Luggage capacity: 6 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 23 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 34 mpg highway, 26 mpg city
0-60: 7 seconds (manufacturer)
Also consider: BMW 1-Series, Honda S2000, Mazda MX-5 Miata

The Good
• Great fuel economy in all models
• Puts fun into the driving experience
• Head-turning styling

The Bad
• Diminutive back seat

The Ugly
• Controls are ergonomically unfriendly