Thursday, December 1, 2005

There’s no way anyone could watch that quartet of Mini Coopers zipping around in the 2003 film “The Italian Job” and not think to themselves: Man, I’d love to do that.

While it may not have been the greatest car chase ever filmed, it could well be the most fun. Driving them looked so easy, even grandmothers in the audience could envision themselves behind the wheel doing handbrake turns and tearing around snarls of traffic.

Like the Mazda Miata that paved the way for sporty little cars such as the New Beetle, PT Cruiser and Cooper, it comes off as an everyman’s car that anyone can have a blast driving. Credit its diminutive size, cutesy styling or even history; the Cooper is a car the public feels as comfortable with as an old Johnny Carson monolog.

BMW acquired the Mini nameplate in a deal that also included Land Rover and MG. After selling Land Rover off to Ford, it revived Mini in 2002 — not as a BMW division, but as a totally separate brand — and the Cooper was launched. Although larger than the original and reflecting advances in technology and safety, the new Cooper didn’t stray far from the British version’s mission, styling, relatively spacious cabin and bargain-basement price.

Although the original was offered strictly as a two-door hatchback, in 2005, Mini introduced a convertible as the second model in the lineup.

No entry-level buzz bomb, the Cooper rolls the best of BMW technology into a small, tidy package. Both the hatchback and the convertible come in three versions, each based on its power source. Without checking a box on the options list, the $22,000 base Cooper convertible is well equipped with antilock disc brakes, power windows/door locks/outboard mirrors, air conditioning, rear parking assist and tire-pressure monitor. The 115-horsepower output of its 1.6-liter four-cylinder is along the lines of the Toyota Echo. This is far from neck-snapping power, but somehow seems like more here than in the Echo. Moving up to the Cooper S adds $3,450 to the bottom line, but replaces the base five-speed manual transmission with a six-speed manual Getrag, adds traction control and upgrades the engine to the 163-horsepower supercharged version of the 1.6L. Sixteen-inch wheels with run-flat rubber replace the 15-inch wheels and tires found on the base model.

Capping off the model lineup is the John Cooper Works package. Until 2006, this was a dealer-added option, but can now be ordered from the factory. The $6,300 premium includes a beefed-up supercharger producing 207 horsepower, modified exhaust, limited slip differential and more powerful brakes. In reality this package will cost an additional $1,400 because the Sport Package with its 17-inch wheels, stability control and auto-leveling xenon headlamps must be included.

Thanks to suspension and steering based on the BMW 3-series, the Cooper is nimble and highly maneuverable in any of its iterations. Consequently, even in the relatively underpowered base form, it remains fun to drive. Moving up the food chain, however, to the S, brings a more highly tuned version of the suspension along with reinforced anti-roll bars. For the extra bucks required, the S is the way to go. The additional juice and firmer suspension make a dramatic difference. While it seems like a tremendous waste, a six-speed automatic transmission is available as a $1,300 option. Something akin to installing a handbrake on a roller coaster, the automatic dampens the overall Cooper driving experience. The money would be better spent on the Sport Package.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, fuel economy in the S is a very respectable 25 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. The more docile base version gets 28 and 37 respectively.

Inside, the Cooper convertible is remarkably roomy. While rear-seat legroom is tight, front-seat passengers enjoy ample space. In yet another homage to the original, the large, round speedometer anchors the center of the dashboard. The tach is mounted on the tilt steering wheel, which is fat and easy to grip. Toggle switches to operate things like the power windows and door locks are arranged in a row on the center stack below the audio system and climate controls. With the top lowered the normal 6 cubic feet of cargo room is reduced to about 4 cubic feet.Not completely automatic, the power convertible soft top folds back flush with the rear deck. Pushing the two-stage switch once slides the front panel of the top back more than a foot, creating a sunroof of sorts.

Pushing it again lowers the top all the way into its well behind the back seat. Ideally suited for urban traffic warfare, the convertible Mini Cooper provides sun-in-your-face fun, loads of standard features and terrific handling all for well under $25,000.

And just a few grand more provides some credible performance, too.

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