Automotives: First MINI Cooper convertible has unique top, same boxy design

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- The term "mini" has been used to designate all things small, but as a stand-alone term, it has now become the possession of the Mini, which is the modern version of a small, squarish, British car that was born back in the la...

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- The term "mini" has been used to designate all things small, but as a stand-alone term, it has now become the possession of the Mini, which is the modern version of a small, squarish, British car that was born back in the late 1960s.

The people who now immediately connect the word Mini with the little square four-seater are of a new generation, and they are referring to the all-new versions of the Mini Cooper, courtesy of BMW, the German company that brought the Mini back to life two years ago. At first, telling someone you were buying, or driving, a Mini might have met with a quizzical look or a blank stare.

But now, two years after its reintroduction, the Mini Cooper is strong enough that it's time for an entirely new model. In Year 3, the 2005 model year, Mini is making a bold expansion with its first convertible models. If the normal Mini coupe is both cute and macho, the MINI Cooper convertible is more severe doses of the cute and macho genes.

On the week before Labor Day, BMW chose to introduce the new MINI Cooper convertible, and Minneapolis was chosen as the city for the introduction, which was a first. Car makers strive to dazzle the media with far-flung trips to the California coast or some other exotic resort. The MINI crew chose Minneapolis for various reasons, the main one being that it might be the most sprawling, bustling city in Minnesota, but it is far from the huge metropolitan cities and well-known travel destinations, but it is comparatively unknown to the continent-hopping auto industry.

Perfect. For a city that used to boast about being the "Mini-apple" to New York's "Big Apple," and as the cultural hub of the a state widely nicknamed "Minny," Minneapolis was just right. Company officials stress that buyers should keep the top down 90 percent of the time, and even insist on delivering the car in top-down mode, and asking owners to sign the triplicate contract saying you'll try to keep the down up as much as possible.


Turning on the heaters is OK, and while shutting the windows with the top down is allowed, closing the windows with the top down is for the meek. If it's too cold to have the top down, it does have an amazing feature. Push the button and the top unlatches and slided back, but stops at 16 inches, leaving an enormous sunroof. Another push of the button, and the top goes the rest of the way. They may have been unaware, but in, say, January, the warmth of a secure-fitting top would be a bigger benefit than letting in a blast of sub-zero air.

"Mini-apolis -- the City of Mini," said Gert Hildebrand, the MINI Cooper convertible's designer. He insists he followed the basic principles that always have governed the Mini's boxy design, from a form-follows-function concept, to an emotional sculpture, leaving the boxy exterior, the surprisingly spacious interior built around four occupants, and the spunk and stance from having all four wheels stretched out to the extremities.

"The Mini always was built to be a convertible, since it started as the Austin Mini in 1959, and its authenticity lasted until the replacement was designed in 2000," said Hildebrand. "We still followed the five basic senses -- seeing, which is your first impression; feeling, where you can tell the quality; hearing, the sound of the engine's power; smelling, the classic leather interior; and taste, which does not mean we've built a chocolate car, but it is one that lets you eat up the road."

The car generates favorable responses from everybody who sees one. Imagine the thumbs-up signals when a 25-convertible stream of MINI Coopers paraded by in an unofficial 25-car caravan from Le Meridien Hotel in Downtown Minneapolis, then east on Interstate 94 before cruising down the St. Croix River on the Minnesota side, and back up on the Wisconsin side, crossing again at Taylors Falls, where we had lunch and a little close-order driving in a competitive gymkhana at the Wild Mountain ski area.


The original Mini was fitted with a race engine from the John Cooper Works race shop, also in England, and the car became the Mini Cooper. It quickly became popular among enthusiasts and autocross racers because of its light weight, compact size and potent engine. After the British automobile industry seemed to get caught up in its own eccentricities of production, BMW moved in, and the new Mini Cooper was targeted for 20,000 U.S. sales, and instead sold 32,000.

Last year, its second, saw the Mini Cooper hit 36,000 sales. After two years in the launch mode, Mini is launching convertibles in both the Cooper and Cooper S models. The Mini Cooper convertible, starting at $21,500, has a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, with dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, and 115 horsepower with 111 foot-pounds of torque. That's enough to pull the front-wheel-drive, 2,700-pound box from zero to 60 in 8.9 seconds. If you choose to replace the five-speed stick with a four-speed automatic, the zero to 60 run is 10.2 seconds.

If that car is aimed at the normal market, where people seek commuter-friendly vehicles with adequate power and impressive fuel economy, the MINI Cooper S model is for enthusiasts. It takes the same four-cylinder engine, jointly built by BMW and Chrysler in Brazil, and supercharges it, boosting power to 168 horses and torque to 162 foot-pounds. The zero to 60 run takes only seven seconds that way, with a six-speed manual.


But enough about the performance, which is snappy, and the handling, which turns on a dime and stops instantaneously. The special thing about a convertible is that the top comes off. This one is different. Push a button, and the leading edge of the convertible starts sliding back, and it stops after opening 16 inches. A sunroof in a convertible -- who could have thought of such an idea?

It is a full-width sunroof, and after another push of the button, it folds the rest of the way back and down, behind the twin-hoop rollbars behind the rear seats, and where it stashes neatly.

MINI executives figure that convertibles might ultimately account for 30 percent of sales, which would thrust it right up there with the New Beetle Cabrio, and beyond, into territory reserved for the Chrysler Sebring, Ford Mustang or Thunderbird -- the top three convertibles in U.S. sales.

Perhaps the best feature of the MINI convertible is that it is entirely as much fun as the regular Mini. I once wrote that "it is impossible to drive the Mini Cooper without a smile on your face." That also goes for the convertible version, which still holds four occupants, even if the rear seat residents would best be short people or kids.

The interior is really slick, with a large tachometer visible through the steering wheel and a large speedometer centrally located on the dash, or the chrono option, which has both a speedometer and tach on the steering wheel column, and a large instrument resembling a chronograph watch in the center dash location.

With front-wheel drive biting for traction, razor-sharp steering and handling, and a tight 34.8-foot turning circle, the MINI carves its own path in maneuverability -- just as it has in the automotive segment. Large vehicle and SUV fanciers alike would appreciate the benefits of handling and fuel efficiency of small cars, if all small cars were as fun to drive as the MINI Cooper convertible.

John Gilbert writes weekly auto columns. He can be reached at .

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