The first of four Mini Cooper convertibles to roll onto the catwalk at March's Geneva auto show, when the car made its world debut, contained two hip young guys in the front seats and a huge, slobbering sheepdog-age and gender indeterminate-perched in the rear. The other three cars, in varying colors and trims, also were piloted not by stern-faced German auto executives but by stylishly clad representatives of Gen Y, male and female, all bobbing their heads to a techno beat, smiles flashing, manes glistening, hands waving to imaginary friends in the throng of middle-aged journalists. This ninety-second charade, although far more entertaining than the usual somnambulistic BMW auto show speeches, left us with the distinct impression that while the hardtop Mini is a serious, if lighthearted, driving machine, the ragtop version was intended to be nothing more than a sun-drenched lifestyle statement, Mini's answer to the Volkswagen New Beetle Cabrio.
Imagine our surprise, then, when we recently headed into the mountains east of Marseille, France, in the Mini convertible and realized that, like the hardtop, it is a car as much for drivers as for poseurs. The sprightly front-wheel-drive chassis, the quick cornering, the chunky and feelsome steering, and the muscular brakes are still on hand, just blanketed by a fabric roof rather than a flag-decaled metal one. No fixed roof means less body rigidity, but that inevitable loss is substantially negated by floorpan stiffeners, thicker steel for the side sills, and additional rear crossmembers. The result: only an occasional whimper, rather than frequent cries, of protest from the cowl and the body over rough pavement.
It's unheard of, at this price point, to find a standard fully automatic, power-operated top, but that's exactly what we found in the new Mini. No manicured-fingernail-cracking, twist-and-push handle here, just a demure button mounted on the windshield header. Push it, and the fabric top folds back as much as sixteen inches to create a sunroof, while the roof's side rails stay clamped to the tops of the
A-pillars. Keep pushing, and the rails release as the entire contraption folds neatly into a Z shape atop the trunk. Unlike most sunroofs, which are directly overhead, this one is slightly in front of you, so front-seat passengers actually can see the sky while their heads remain shaded. Trs, trs civilized and clever.
The bright ideas in packaging continue at the rear of the car. The trunk lid drops downward, just like the original Mini's, to reveal a space that, while not large, offers versatility and a two-position cargo shelf. The rear section of the roof lifts at a 35-degree angle to widen the trunk aperture for loading long items through the fold-down rear seats. There's no rear bulkhead, but a fixed roll bar spans the car, adding stiffness in addition to rollover protection while also providing mounting points for headrests. The only real miscue is the design of the exterior-mounted trunk-lid hinges, which BMW claims evoke those of the first Mini. That was then, this is now, and these are disproportionate afterthoughts. The original car's were the size of a watchband; these are from a steamer trunk.
On sale in September as both the base Mini Cooper and the supercharged Mini Cooper S for a $5000 premium over comparable hardtop models, the convertible merits its catwalk stroll.