Mini sparkles with new, fresh top down approach

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

MINNEAPOLIS — It’s been on the road for more than two years. But it will still turn your head. It seems we just have to stare and admire.

Just the other day while we were cruising down a stretch of four-lane highway, we noticed a Mini Cooper closing in. We turned, almost involuntarily, to observe the diminutive car pass us on the left. We gawked like it was something just off the floor of the Detroit Auto Show, a car we had never seen before.

Few cars, especially cars that have been in the public domain for more than two years, can distract us that way. There’s just something about the new Mini, maybe it’s a cute and cuddly quality.

The Mini, which has become a big part of British automotive history since its invention by Alec Issigonis in 1958, has been re-designed, re-engineered and revived by corporate parent BMW to rave reviews. But without Issigonis’ incredible design nearly 50 years ago, the current resurrection would not have been possible.

Issigonis’ goal was to maximize space efficiency with enough room for four adults and luggage in the smallest package possible. He used a transversely mounted engine and front-wheel drive, a rarity in automobiles in the ‘50s, to achieve a tiny but workable car.

In 1961, racecar builder John Cooper envisioned the Mini as a racer. He increased the engine’s size and added front disc brakes. The Mini Cooper became a track legend, winning the Monte Carlo Rally three times in the ‘60s and the SCCA C-Sedan championship in 1966.

More than 10,000 Minis were sold in the United States from 1960 through 1967. But the Mini was discontinued in the U.S. in 1967 after collapsible steering wheels were mandated for the U.S. market.

Since its inception, more than 5.6 million Minis have been sold worldwide, and it’s Britain’s best-selling car ever.

BMW has taken the original Mini design and enlarged it about a third while still keeping to the original thesis, both in and out, remarkably intact to create a thoroughly modern car. Yes, a German car company is now building an English icon at a plant in Oxford, England, the site of the first Mini in 1959.

BMW purchased Mini in 1994 and launched the new Mini at the Paris Auto Show in September 2000. It began selling in the U.S. in 2002. Don’t ask but it’s just another example that we have truly become a world community.

The original box design had an extraordinary amount of space in an affordable and fun-to-drive package. The redesign retains the charm of the tiny sedan while increasing the size enough to comfortably sit four adults. The fun to drive part has become extraordinary.

More than 36,000 units were sold in the United States in 2003, and BMW is on track to do the same in 2004.

But single-style cars such as the Mini (the Volkswagen Beetle and PT Cruiser are other examples) usually loose their sales steam after the initial demand has been met. Then the manufacturer has to figure a way to keep the car, which is locked into a design theme, fresh and alive.

The first thing usually done, with varying degrees of success, is to cut off the top. That was the scenario with the Beetle and the Chrysler PT Cruiser. A drop-top has revived sales of both of those brands.

The Mini doesn’t need a sales revival, not yet anyway. It is still selling in solid numbers. But, none-the-less, it will come with a convertible version for the 2005 model year. And it is as attractive, fun to drive and endearing as the hardtop. In fact, once you’ve taken a test drive in the Mini convertible, the hardtop may no longer be a consideration.

We drove both the Mini Cooper and Mini Cooper S convertibles on interstates and winding blacktops in the farm country of eastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, with the top down, of course.

The weather was perhaps too cool for our early-morning start, ranging in the mid to upper 50s. But by late morning, the sun had warmed things up into perfect mid-70-degree top-down conditions.

The good people at Mini tell us there’s very little weather that is too cold or too wet for the new little cabriolet. They’ve even developed a “Convertible Contract” for their customers to sign.

It states that the “Mini owner recognizes the following conditions that are the only acceptable reasons, under contract, for having the top in the closed position: (1) when motoring in rain under 25 miles per hour; (2) when motoring through a car wash; (3) when parked outside for an unexpected extended time period; (4) when the  temperature drops below freezing; (5) after hair plug surgery; (6) when  within earshot of an outdoor banjo and/or kazoo concert; (7) when  driving through a biblical-size swarm of locusts; and (8) to avoid riotous teen-aged groupies.

It’s all tongue-in-check, of course. But you get the picture; this little convertible is a blast especially with the top down. And we didn’t need any convincing from the Mini team to keep the top down for our day among the corn and bean fields.

The drop-top is as stylish inside and out as the hardtop and loses none of its livability. It doesn’t lose any of its drivability either. The ride is firm but comfortable. The car has great balance, like the hardtop, and the steering possess’ point and shoot accuracy.

Both engine options can be fun and it’s easy to toss the little gem around when mated to slick-shifting manual transmissions.

We had fun starting out with the standard 1.6-liter 115-horsepower engine. And we had even more of a blast when we later got behind the wheel of the Cooper S with its supercharged 168-horsepower engine. Of course we liked the bigger engine better.

But we feel that there is plenty of fun and enough power to stay safely out of harm’s way with the smaller engine when mated to either a continuously variable transmission or a 5-speed manual. Opt for the supercharged engine, and your transmission choice is a 6-speed manual only. Your work quotient goes up as well.

For measurement, the smaller engine can climb from 0 to 60 in about 9.5 seconds and the supercharged engine can accomplish the same feat in about 7 seconds according to tests by a major automobile publication.

Either way you can scream through the corners, feel the wind in your hair and elevate your spirits to unbelievable levels. And in the Mini your hair may actually stay reasonably combed because the bulk of the folded top in back and the tall, rather upright windshield in front help keep out the wind.

The BMW engineers assigned to Mini have designed an innovative soft top. The top will not only power down in a rather dramatic 15 seconds, but it can also be slid back nearly 16 inches to give the effect of a sunroof on those days when fully open-air motoring is not an option.

Also with the top in the up position the rear portion of the top can be raised up increasing the size of the trunk opening for easier loading of large suitcases or other big objects that can be stored inside with the rear seatbacks folded forward. It sounds awkward and a bit strange but the engineering geniuses at Mini make it work.

Additionally the entire top down and top up operation is completed by the touch of a button. That alone is amazing in a car in this price range.

Mini officials admitted that like most convertibles, the small rear window limits vision via the rearview mirror, so all Mini Coopers are outfitted with park-distance control sensors.

The real kicker here is the price. How can something this well done with all its love-at-first-sight features be so inexpensive?

The standard Mini convertible starts at $21,500 including destination charge and the Cooper S starts at $24,950. Lest you think the base car is a stripper here is a list of standard equipment: 15-inch wheels; leatherette upholstery; tilt steering wheel; air conditioning with micron filtration; six-speaker stereo with CD player; power windows and mirrors; four-wheel antilock disc brakes with Brakeforce Distribution and Cornering Brake Control; tire monitoring system; side airbags and rear heated window.

Of course it can be optioned out with a variety of extras including an upgraded Harmon Kardon audio system, Xenon headlights, automatic climate control and even a navigation system.

Anyway you look at the Mini convertible you’ll find it is fresh, fun and well, just a little fantastic.