The principal appeal of convertibles has always been the prospect of swanning along the seaside with the top down to catch the sun – and the eye of bystanders. No vehicle available today performs that function as well as the new Mini Cooper convertible, but to demonstrate the polyvalence of the car, the world press launch was organized in the dead of winter in the snowbound Austrian Alps. True to the brand’s contrarian, fun-and-funky marketing spirit, the motto for the car and the launch was “Always Open.” Journalists were exhorted to drive with the top down, and all of the test cars were fitted with a new standard feature, the Openmeter, which serves as a life-of-the-car recorder of hours spent driving with the top fully retracted.
That unique device is only one of more than 200 options and accessories, enough to assure that tens of thousands of one-off cars can be made on the Oxford, England, Mini production line. The Munich-based Mini design team, forty-some strong, has done excellent work on the convertible project, particularly with respect to color and trim. There are at least a dozen standard interior/exterior color combinations ranging from the conservative and traditional (British racing green exterior, tan leather inside) to the expressive, intended solely for the convertible (interchange yellow with yellow-stitched carbon black cosmos cloth). To go along with the usual black, there are two new colors for the folding top: hot chocolate (a warm dark brown) and denim blue (see Levi Strauss & Co. for a reliable reference, even including the orange stitching). There are more than a dozen interior trim choices; two seat designs, standard and sport; and even the choice of two- or three-spoke steering wheels.
Flexibility is a key word for the Mini Cooper S convertible. The engine is extremely (and agreeably) flexible, with its infinitely variable valve timing and twin-scroll turbocharger. Unfortunately, the body structure is flexible, too, although to so slight a degree that there can be no question that the engineers who created the car were guided by the German, not British, automotive engineering tradition. The dreaded cowl shake present in several generations of small British roadsters is gone – only a constantly vibrating center rearview mirror and an occasional clank from the side windows on severe bumps give away the game. And the ride comfort level is far beyond anything ever experienced in MGs, Triumphs, or Singers of old, despite the Mini’s firmer than necessary suspension settings, which make for a bit of a wild ride on lumpy, bumpy, snow-covered Austrian byways.
The Mini brand, too, has had a wild ride under BMW ownership. The fifty-year-old British icon has been transformed from a 37-hp, 850-cc economy car conceived for austerity in fuel-short hard times into a luxury lifestyle object much coveted by trend leaders in many nations. There is still talk of fuel shortages and coming hard times, but a direct-injected, sixteen-valve, 172-hp, 1598-cc turbocharged engine is not a typical economy-car solution. Not many economy cars can boast a 138-mph top speed and a 7.0-second 0-to-60-mph acceleration time, either, but those are the figures that Mini claims. Thanks to its aluminum engine and a careful redesign of its body structure, the new Cooper S convertible weighs about 20 pounds less than the previous model. Although it’s not exactly porky, a car that weighs 2712 pounds clearly does not meet any common definition of the word “mini.”
As though the Mini PR staff had a direct line to the weather gods, a substantial amount of snow fell the night before our first day’s drive and continued to fall as we drove on some quite difficult roads, constantly gaining altitude as temperatures fell to 26 degrees. On one particularly sharp and slippery climb, we were getting wheel spin even in third gear at low revs as the stability control kicked in and out. It was during these tough conditions that we most suffered from the Mini’s ridiculously overblown torque steer, a problem we also noted with our recently departed Four Seasons Mini Cooper S hardtop. Such a well-made, well-designed, and utterly amusing car really ought to be better in this regard.
A bright, sunny, 30-degree day greeted us for our next drive, with a mix of clear, dry main roads and patchy snow on wooded mountain lanes. The Mini’s top went down with no more effort than a push-and-hold gesture on the header-mounted toggle switch. The top first rolls back about sixteen inches over the front seats, with its upper side rails firmly latched to the top of the windshield. Release the toggle any time, and the process, which can be engaged at speeds of up to about 20 mph, stops. The whole sequence, including dropping and raising the side glass, takes only fifteen seconds. With the mesh wind blocker in place, the cockpit is really comfortable for two, although rear-seat passengers would likely suffer. There are seat heaters, but they were too efficient to leave on for more than three or four minutes, even on their lowest setting. Drive to the Arctic Circle with the top down? Why not?
If it ain’t broke . . .
Head of exterior design Marcus Syring says that Mini designers have the same problem as Porsche‘s design team: advancing an iconic, decades-old shape cherished by owners. It’s especially tough in light of legislation and fresh expectations. The first BMW-designed Mini in 2001 was a major break, with huge jumps in size and weight, but what comes next? “The current car has many elements from our first version, but if we do not make major changes, why do new tooling?” Syring says. “It’s like a stew. You can’t boil the same ingredients too many times.”