Great Drives: 2009 Mini Cooper Convertible

Jim Fets

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.

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