- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

Cute just got cuter.

The Mini Cooper, a tiny two-door box on wheels that is not only the shortest car on the market but one of the hottest-selling and value-retaining cars available, now has a sibling: a convertible.

The Mini, which first appeared in the United States in 2002, is owned and designed by Germany’s BMW, but is built in Great Britain, where the original Mini was conceived back in the 1960s.

Like the existing hardtop cars, the new Mini Convertible comes in two models: the Cooper, with a 115-horsepower, 1.6-liter engine, and the Cooper S, with the same engine but with supercharging that boosts the horsepower to 168.

That is a switch from the original, when the Mini was the base car and the Cooper version the more powerful. It had sporting pretensions - at least as many as you could get in a 10-foot-long car with 10-inch wheels.

Though the first Mini achieved its cult-like popularity as an economy car that rivaled the Volkswagen Bug and Renault Dauphine, especially in Europe, BMW is marketing the new version as a “premium small car.”

The prices start out reasonably low, but the Mini folks have come to understand that many of their buyers are people who like to personalize their cars, much like the owners of Porsches and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

As a result, the Mini comes with a long list of factory options that can boost the price substantially. For example, the Cooper S convertible starts at $24,950, but with options comes in just shy of $30,000.

The tested Cooper Convertible, with a fair list of standard equipment, had a base price of $21,800. The addition of sport seats (cloth with leather trim at $800), cruise control, stability control, fog lights, 16-inch alloy wheels and performance run-flat tires, brought the bottom-line sticker price to $24,820.

Taking a cue from its parent, BMW, and other German luxury cars, the Mini also tacks on $420 for a metallic paint job. The convertible top, with a heated glass rear window, is a multi-function affair. A touch of a button automatically drops the windows and releases the top, which folds down behind the rear headrests (both equipped with roll bars) and forms its own tonneau cover - all in a matter of about 15 seconds.

The power top also can be opened part way, as if it were a sunroof, even when the car is moving. Doing that results in some wind buffeting, which can be minimized somewhat by partially opening the rear windows. With the top down, there’s an optional wind blocker that can be installed to minimize buffeting.

Out back, there’s a small trunk that is accessible through a lid that is hinged at the top and opens downward like the tailgate on a station wagon. By itself, the trunk can hold four to six cubic feet of goods, depending on whether the top is up or down.

But the rear parcel shelf also can be removed and the rear seatbacks folded down to enlarge the cargo area to more than 21 cubic feet - or about as much as in a Lincoln Town Car. In addition, the raised convertible top can be propped up slightly so that the cargo area can

accommodate larger items.

On the road, the Mini Convertible is a good long-distance cruiser, despite its tidy dimensions.

In true BMW fashion, handling is tight and true, with steady highway tracking and only small movements of the steering wheel required to produce a quick response.

Yet despite the tautly snubbed suspension system, the ride is surprisingly pliant. Combined with the cloth/leather combination sport seats, as on the test car, the Mini convertible can be driven for hours without discomfort.

There’s a back seat that can hold two adults. But they don’t get any knee or foot room unless the two front seats are moved forward.

With 115 horsepower, the Cooper was adequate to most tasks, though it felt challenged on long uphill grades, where downshifting was required to maintain speed.

Its zero-to-60 acceleration time, according to the manufacturer, is just under nine seconds, so it won’t win some races in the urban block-to-block sprints. If you need more, the S model, with its supercharged 168-horsepower motor, can run the zero-to-60 in a flat seven seconds.

Those times are with the manual transmission. It is a five-speed on the Cooper and a six-speed on the Cooper S. Both have positive and easy-shifting linkages, though the five-speed has a better feel. Clutch action with either transmission is light and progressive.

The only automatic available is a CVT (for continuously variable transmission), and it comes only on the base Cooper model. It is the slowest, taking more than 10 seconds to reach 60.

In the end, the main thing about a Mini is open-air fun.

The company even produces a tongue-in-cheek “Encyclopedia of Open Motoring,” along with a “contract” for owners to sign in which they promise to keep the top down except in certain circumstances, such as “after hair plug surgery” and “when within earshot of an outdoor banjo and/or kazoo concert.”

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