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Go West young MINI!
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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
November 19, 2004

Topless, but Not Toothless

TESTED: 2005 Mini Cooper S convertible

WHAT IS IT? A drop-top version of BMW's stylish and sporty small car.

HOW MUCH? $24,950; as tested, $28,170.

WHAT'S UNDER THE HOOD? Supercharged 1.6-liter in-line 4.

HOW THIRSTY? E.P.A. rating: 25 m.p.g town, 32 highway; 24.5 m.p.g. observed.

WHAT ELSE IS THIS MUCH FUN? Honda S2000, Lotus Elise, Mazda Miata.

EVERY once in a while, I encounter a car so fun to drive that it demands I do stupid things, as if the remote clicker unlocks not only the doors, but also my inner adolescent. Before my rational side can intervene, I am throwing the car around corners, traveling at illegal speeds and shirking responsibilities to take impromptu drives.

If you think this sounds more like ad copy than criticism, I would agree - but the convertible Mini Cooper S is really that good. Blasting around in this little rocketship, with its exceptionally firm suspension, immediate steering and lack of rooftop encumbrance is in the same category of fun as piloting a Mazda Miata or a Lotus Elise, two of the most exceptional sports cars on the market.

BMW also offers a drop-top version of the standard Mini Cooper, which sells for $3,450 less but lacks the punch of the S's supercharged 168-horsepower engine. Still, the less gutsy convertible is an acceptable performer and its softer suspension is more comfortable on rough pavement. (And, unlike the S, it offers an automatic transmission.)

In a clever bit of engineering, the front of the power convertible top can be retracted like a conventional sunroof. Top up, the profile is almost identical to the coupe's. Though the convertible extracts no discernible penalty in driving dynamics or interior accouterments, it suffered some in the de-roofing process.

An awkward roll bar with integrated headrests for the rear passengers sticks up as high as the windshield, compromising the convertible's low-sill look. Worse than the roll bar's aesthetics is its effect on rear vision. You can see almost nothing out the tiny rear window, which is why BMW made parking-distance sensors standard on Mini convertibles.

Cargo capacity has also been sacrificed, with the Mini coupe's hatchback replaced by a tailgate that drops to reveal a tiny trunk. Cargo space shrinks more when the top is down, though folding rear seatbacks mitigate the lack of room somewhat - and nifty levers let you raise the folded top a bit to create a larger trunk opening.

I tested a Cooper S in late October, and immediately became one of those idiots who drive around on a cold day with the top down. Indeed, every Mini convertible comes with a contract suggesting that the owner keep the top open 90 percent of the time, yet another irreverent (and undeniably clever) marketing concept from the current masters of such.

But this is not why I acceded to shiver; driving with the top down is the best way to hear the car's exhaust. While the sound is no V-8 rumble, the Cooper S's twin center-mounted exhaust pipes burble like a motorcycle when you lift off the gas pedal. While probably bothersome to others, my wind-stung ears heard it as harmony to my rowing of the easy-shifting, six-speed manual transmission.

This is the essence of why the Mini is a great car: It offers a more involved driving experience than most other vehicles today. The convertible models now raise the bar by putting the driver out in the open air, even closer, in spirit, to the road.
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