In an island as crowded as Manhattan, motorists and pedestrians battle for territory. When you attempt to drive through teeming Midtown, great rivers of people spill out from the sidewalks, overflow the crosswalks, and brush past your fenders. You can feel their enmity. That is, unless you're driving a Mini Cooper convertible.
Open-topped, cheery red, and chromed-faced, our Mini could only have been more disarming if its back seats were filled with puppies and we tossed free ice cream to passersby. Its affect probably has nothing to do with the fact that the Mini convertible is new for 2009. Actually, the convertible has finally caught up with the redesign that was visited on the coupe two years ago. And, frankly, for a car sporting all-new sheetmetal, the new Mini looks very much like its predecessor.
Its relative social acceptance is one reason you might choose a Mini convertible to drive in Manhattan. Another, of course, is the uninterrupted overhead view, which takes on greater import in a place where so much of the scenery is vertical. (As before, the new Mini, alone among convertibles, offers the additional option of sliding back the front part of the roof to create an oversize sunroof.) Naturally, the Mini's diminutive size immeasurably aids one's ability to squeeze past fellow road users when they've gone immobile, a common occurrence in the city where the term "gridlock" was coined. Given New York's traffic, you might even spec out your Mini like our test car: forgoing the more powerful S in favor of the base model and giving your left leg a rest by choosing the optional automatic.
The former, we can see - the latter, not so much. The base Mini isn't such a bad choice, as the dedicated city driver might appreciate its greater economy (25/34 mpg versus 23/32 mpg) more than the turbocharged S model's extra 54 hp. The mellower suspension tuning takes some of the edge off the city's haphazardly patched pavement and sharp-edged manhole covers. But even in crowded urban environs, we'd take the standard manual over the new six-speed automatic (which replaces a continuously variable transmission as the Mini's two-pedal option). Even with the automatic's shift paddles - which follow BMW's odd logic of push forward for downshift, pull back for upshift - the manual is more fun to use, which is critical when you want to keep the 1.6-liter four near its peak-torque sweet spot of 4250 rpm.
But however well-suited the Mini Cooper convertible might be to New York City driving, there comes a time when you'll want to escape - to go where the corners aren't all 90-degree turns, where the vistas are nature-made rather than man-made, where you can get the transmission past second gear.
Surprisingly, given the size and density of New York City, getting away from it can be relatively quick and easy. Maybe not during Friday evening rush hour, but plot a morning departure and you're onto some very nice driving roads in relatively short order - even before you cross the city line.
The credit for that situation belongs largely to one man, Robert Moses, who built many of the New York area's parkways, bridges, and expressways, opening up destinations outside the city to anyone with an automobile. To escape from New York and head north, you would probably avail yourself of the Henry Hudson Parkway. One of Moses's most contentious projects, it was built as part of Riverside Park atop the New York Central railroad tracks on the western edge of Manhattan. Prioritizing motorists' views over those of park users, the road then slices through Upper Manhattan's Fort Tyron Park and Inwood Hill Park (at the time, the island's last true wilderness) before leaping across the high bluffs on either side of the Harlem River, via the Henry Hudson Bridge. Despite the road's devastating effects on several parks and neighborhoods, when it opened in 1937 the press was rapturous, describing it as a "masterpiece," "intoxicating," and "the most beautiful drive in the world."
By all means, you'll want to have the top down for it, as the Henry Hudson offers spectacular views of the river, the George Washington Bridge, and the Palisades beyond. The Mini convertible's standard Openometer tracks your total top-down driving time.
In the Bronx, the highway wends through the neighborhoods of Spuyten Duyvil and Riverdale, its lanes narrow, and it sometimes curves abruptly. Of course, that's no sweat for a car like the Mini, with its small scale and quick steering. Finally, the parkway swerves east, into Van Cortlandt Park (where it hooks up with another Moses creation, the Moshulu Parkway) before meeting up with the Saw Mill River Parkway at the city line.
The Saw Mill carries you into leafy Westchester County, which earns its descriptor immediately even though you're traveling through its gritty southernmost city, Yonkers. That's because the Saw Mill, like most Moses parkways, was designed not merely as a highway but as a "ribbon park," with landscaped rights-of-way and arched bridges - each one subtly different in design - that were faced with native stone so as to blend in with the landscape.
Besides the appeal of the surroundings, what makes travel on these parkways pleasant is the absence of truck traffic - no minor factor when you're in an open car, particularly one as small as the Mini Cooper. The Saw Mill eventually angles to the northeast; for a northwest heading, switch over to the Taconic State Parkway. The Taconic was the pet project of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, back when he was the head of the Taconic State Park Commission, before his ascension to governor and, later, president. The Taconic goes almost all the way to Albany; down in Westchester, it has been widened and "improved" to the point where it's much like any other highway. Speeds are higher on the Taconic, and the Mini, despite having only 118 hp on tap, has no problem keeping up, although steep grades will tax the full measure of its reserves.
Exit the Taconic at Route 134 (west) to give the Mini a different sort of challenge. Dive off to the right onto tiny Spring Valley Road and feel the full transformation from New York's concrete caverns to bucolic northern Westchester. Climbing sudden rocky hills and peeking around blind corners, the narrow lane is like something out of the Mini's native England. Under a canopy of arching overhead branches, you ride past stone walls, still ponds, and hundred-year-old homes.
You also pass the Teatown Lake Reservation, which offers a further immersion with its nature center and extensive hiking trails. Continue west onto Teatown Road, to its end at Quaker Ridge Road. Make a right, then a quick left, and you come upon a century-old, one-lane steel bridge over the Croton River.
Cross it, make your next right, and then right again onto Route 129, and you quickly reach Croton Gorge Park. It's an ideal spot for a picnic, even with the roar of the Croton Dam spillway in the background. The dam and the reservoir behind it are part of New York City's water supply system. The Mini convertible's flip-down trunk lid makes a reasonable platform for tailgating, but with plenty of picnic tables available, there's no need to use it. Its drop-down action - unlike the coupe's hatchback - mirrors that of the original Mini and is undoubtedly the best solution for the convertible, but it still constricts access to the small (6.0 cubic foot) trunk. There is, however, pass-through access from the folding rear seatbacks.
Backtrack on Route 129 west into the village of Croton-on-Hudson to catch Route 9 north. Past Peekskill, switch to U.S. 202 west, heading toward the Bear Mountain Bridge. Here the Mini is in its element as the road follows the river in a series of S-curves along steep cliffs, a scene that recalls California's Highway 1. The intrepid can hike one of several trails up the rocky hills to get a panoramic view of the Hudson Highlands.
Continue past the bridge into the hamlet of Garrison, or the town of Cold Spring beyond, for several dining and lodging options. Directly across the bridge, however, Bear Mountain State Park beckons. Together with the adjacent Harriman State Park, it offers every kind of state park recreation.
To get a perspective on how far you've come, take the park's Perkins Memorial Drive, which climbs upward through the cool shade to a height of 1305 feet. At its end, a stone lookout tower offers expansive views. But you really don't even need to leave your Mini to see, off in the hazy distance, the tall buildings of Manhattan. The city is only about fifty miles away, but it feels a lot farther.
The Specs: 2009 Mini Cooper Convertible
On sale: Now
Price: $24,550/$27,800 (base/as tested)
Engine: 1.6L I-4, 118 hp, 114 lb-ft
Price: $24,550/$27,800 (base/as tested)
Engine: 1.6L I-4, 118 hp, 114 lb-ft