There aren't too many inanimate objects as cute and endearing as a Mini Cooper. Certainly none that have as great an effect on normally unfriendly, big-city drivers. Pilot this little bug-eyed bulldog around even such egocentric places as L.A. and other drivers will actually smile and let you merge into traffic. And that's just a side benefit of the Cooper. Above that, the car is a blast to drive, as we discovered during our year-long experience with a Mini Cooper S hatchback.
Now, with the debut of the 2005 Mini Cooper convertible, the folks at Mini have jacked up this car's already high fun factor by dropping the top. As with the coupe body style, the ragtop is available in two flavors: the mild 115-horsepower base car and the spicy 168-horsepower Cooper S that features a supercharged engine and a sportier suspension and tire package. We sampled both.
Call the Fashion Police!
We received the base Mini Cooper convertible a few days before the S version rolled in. And my, what a sight it was! We know Mini wants to be different and all, but orange paint with a navy blue top and interior? It was like the automotive version of What Not to Wear. Maybe the lads in the color department had a few pints too many before they specified this getup . When the Mini Cooper S convertible arrived, it was dressed in a blue-on-blue ensemble that was a lot easier on our eyes.
In addition to the debut of a convertible body style, changes for the 2005 Mini Cooper include slightly revised front and rear fascias and a trio of updates for the supercharged S model: the availability of a six-speed automatic transmission, the option of a limited-slip differential (manual transmission only) and increased output (up 5 horsepower and 7 pound-feet) from the supercharged engine. Those who need more horses under the hood can spring for the John Cooper Works kit, which also pumps out more power this year — 207 hp and 180 lb-ft.
Although similar to that of our long-term Mini Cooper S, the interiors of these test cars appeared a bit more upscale thanks to a sporty three-spoke steering wheel (added for 2004) and color-keyed instrument panel and door trim. Our non-S tester had the newly optional Cockpit Chrono Pack that puts the speedo in front of the steering wheel (next to the tach) and fills the big circular void left in the dash's center with four gauges, including a pair for oil pressure and oil temperature. Optional chrome detailing inside and out added a final chic touch.
On a practical level, the Mini convertible's small bottom-hinged hatch offers storage for maybe a half-dozen grocery bags. If you need more capacity, fold down the rear seat and a generous 21 cubic feet becomes available.
Packaging an insulated and power-controlled convertible top into a Mini Cooper must have been a daunting task, what with the serious space constraints and all. But those Mini designers did a jolly good job. Should you just want the feel of a sunroof, simply press the "top down" button once and the top slides back and stops, providing a generous opening. Want full exposure? Hit it again and the top goes down without any more effort on your part — no latches to undo or covers to snap on.
While cruising on the highway with the top down and windows up, a couple of us thought the wind slapping the tops of our noggins was a bit too much. In fairness to Mini, the company does offer a very effective windblocker that, although absent on both test cars, was experienced earlier on a first drive event. But in spite of the buffeting, it was still possible for the front occupants to carry on a conversation at 75 mph without shouting.
As impressive as the soft top's operation and versatility are, so too is the retention of the Mini Cooper coupe's solid-as-a-block-of-steel rigidity. After Southern California's recent spate of heavy rains, potholes popped up on the streets like dandelions on a neglected lawn. Although we subjected both Coopers to the asphalt craters, there was nary a shudder to be seen or felt.
Caffeinated or Decaf?
As with the coupes, the big difference between the standard Mini Cooper convertible and the Cooper S convertible is what resides under the bonnet. We drove manual transmission versions of each. The base Cooper's 115-hp engine is paired with a five-speed, while the 168-horse S gives you six gears to pick from.
Before we jumped behind the wheel, we were prepared to declare the base car a slug. After all, even a base Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla has more power than the Mini Cooper. But it turned out that there was enough zip on tap to satisfy most of our staff. Further, the refinement of the little four meant that taking it up to 6,000 rpm didn't make you feel like you were beating on the car. The hard numbers aren't going to impress your buddies — the 0-60 sprint takes 9.8 seconds and the quarter takes 17.14 ticks — but keep the revs up and there's enough scoot to deal with heavy city traffic and open freeways alike.
Spend the extra $3,450 for the supercharged Mini Cooper S and you'll be rewarded with substantially improved gusto. A 7.7-second 0-60 time and a 15.69-second quarter mean this Mini has no problem scurrying away from SUVs and minivans that threaten to trap it in traffic. As with the standard Cooper, power down low is a bit soft. The engine hits its stride once the tach's needle is swinging past 3,500 rpm.
In either Mini convertible, gear changes are a delight thanks to light, precise throws teamed with a smooth, progressive clutch. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes, aided by electronic brains that distribute the braking force wherever it will be most effective, haul 'er down in short order. Both Minis took only 117 feet to stop from 60 mph. Having brakes this strong is a comfort in a world of unpredictable, spastic drivers.
Catch Me If You Can
OK, enough of that boring, straight-line stuff. Ripping through corners is what the Mini Cooper is all about. The chubby steering wheel hints at the car's nimble personality — steering feel and feedback are top-notch. The fully independent suspension features a multilink rear setup (typically seen only on rear-drive performance cars) and anti-sway bars front and rear, all of which keep the car responsive, predictable and stable while driving aggressively. Impressive structural integrity, which feels virtually equal to the hardtop's, is achieved through beefed-up side sills and A- and B-pillars.
Whether you're slicing through traffic or tearing up a twisty road, there's not much that can stay with this little bugger if the curves are plentiful and open straightaways are few. Backing up this impression is the base car's fast 64-mph run through our slalom course, which puts it wheel-to-wheel through the cones with full-on sports cars like the Nissan 350Z and Mazda RX-8. Yes, this Mini Cooper convertible had the optional Sport package, which gave it the same sticky tires (195/55VR16 Dunlop SP Sport 3000s) as the Cooper S convertible, but there's no denying its giant-killer potential.
Able to attack the slalom with even more vigor, the Mini Cooper S convertible whipped through the cones at nearly 67 mph, a most impressive feat. As both Coopers had identical suspension calibrations, the increased speed is obviously due to the S' greater power that provides more pull from cone to cone. To put this stellar performance into proper perspective, consider this: We're talking a bigger number here than those achieved by the C6 Chevy Corvette and Porsche 911.
With pricing ranging from around $22,000 for a base 2005 Mini Cooper convertible to the mid-$30Ks for a loaded S, there's a Mini convertible within reach of most working stiffs. Whether you're a commuter looking for a fun daily driver or an enthusiast who takes delight in leaving sports cars in the dust on your favorite crooked road, you can't go wrong making a Mini Cooper drop top your ride.
System Score: 9.0
Components: The optional Harman Kardon system features eight speakers. You'll find a tweeter and a full-range speaker in each door, along with a similar setup in each rear-quarter trim panel. A 320-watt amplifier provides enough power to relive your concert-going days and the system also boasts a built-in Digital Sound Processing (DSP) unit, speed-sensitive equalization and a really cool feature called "driver acoustic setting." The latter, at the press of a button, optimizes the sound for the driving position. The built-in equalizer offers four preset modes, including "Spatial Effect" and "Instrumental," for customization of the sound.
The controls are, like the car, small but simple. Should you have big hands, however, operating the stubby pencil-eraserlike volume knob can be frustrating at times. And there is no separate tuning knob to allow quick access and setting of preferred stations, one must use the annoyingly slow method of the "seek" up/down buttons.
Performance: Just like the Mini itself, the stereo delivers big performance. Tonal separation is excellent, the highs are crisp without sounding tinny and the bass is tight and punchy. Whether your tastes run toward Mozart or Metallica, you should have no complaints about the sound reproduction. Equally impressive is that there is no discernable distortion when you take it to the max. We should know, we had it cranked up all the way on several occasions while cruising around with the top down.
Best Feature: Driver acoustic setting that focuses the sound on the driver.
Worst Feature: Lack of a tuning knob.
Conclusion: In spite of a few ergonomic downfalls, this Harman Kardon setup is one for the ages. We highly recommend checking off option 674 for this kickin' little ground-pounder. — John DiPietro
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
I owned a 2002 Mini Cooper for almost three years, which makes my opinion either highly suspect or highly useful, depending on your point of view. The top-down version adds a healthy dose of fun without compromising the car's core values. It's still one of the best-handling vehicles you can buy (at any price), it still imparts a sense of quality rarely seen in sub-$30,000 cars, and it still forces even the most stoic of fellow motorists to stop, take notice and even smile. Additionally, cargo capacity drops from minimal to minuscule, and horsepower is merely adequate — even on the Cooper S.
I found the "sunroof" setting to be a welcome option for non-committal sun worshippers (such as myself), but if you keep the side windows up you'll get a strong blast of air directly on your eyes. Lower any window, even a little, and the airflow changes to a far more placid pattern. I like that you can now get a paddle-shift automatic with the Cooper S, and I like the body-colored interior plastics that look more interesting, and more upscale, than the simple silver/gray they used to all be.
As with the coupe, I consider the convertible version to be one of the best buys in its given segment, assuming you keep the option-checking in check. And for those who care, I can verify that, yes, these cars do indeed hold their resale value.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
The Cooper was already great so the removable top only adds to the fun, and cool factor. Thankfully, Mini did not just put a soft top on and call it a day, the fully automatic feature adds to the car's "mini-luxury" feel. Plus, the sliding "sunroof" feature adds an extra measure of originality to the car. But then I wouldn't expect anything less from a car like the Cooper.
Of course the supercharged S is really fast and more fun to drive, but I am pleased with the rev-happy performance of the stock Cooper's non-supercharged engine. It feels lively enough for sprints up the coast, but is still refined enough to make commuting pleasant.
The convertible retains the coupe's fun and functional interior so there's really nothing new there. However, I think it bears mentioning that the Mini's optional Harman Kardon stereo is one of the best factory-installed systems out there regardless of price.
Overall, it's a really great car that simultaneously delivers fun, usability and the feeling that you're driving something truly special. I'd rather have the Mini convertible than a 350Z or any number of other sportier cars.
Production Editor Caroline Pardilla says:
I am unabashedly biased with regard to the Mini Cooper. You see, I've been working toward getting a Mini ever since I first bonded with our long-term Cooper S back in 2002 and knew that a drop-top version couldn't be too far behind. So I test-drove the convertible Coop and S not with the mindset of an auto journalist but with the scrutiny of a potential buyer.
I first considered "settling" on the base convertible equipped with its five-speed manual transmission to keep costs down and to enjoy the go-kartlike spunkiness. But when I drove both the base and the S back-to-back, the regular Coop with its 115-horsepower engine just wasn't as fun as its more powerful (168 horses) and sporty twin. The S can tear around corners with nary a slip and launch at a green light, leaving others, not privy to its supercharged naughtiness, in the dust.
But the standard power-folding soft top could be the equalizer of fun for the two models as it offers a unique third option. For those not willing to say good-bye to the sky just yet after dusk, the top can fold back a good 15 inches allowing you to prolong your enjoyment of the stars without freezing to death.
The only glitch with the Mini convertibles, and it's a big one, is the major blind spots created with the top up and down. Top up, the large swathes of fabric in the C-pillar area conspire with the small glass rear window and the rear-seat roll bars to make backing up and switching lanes tricky maneuvers. Top down, the stowed roof sits too high, obstructing your view of what's behind the car.
At a price range of $22-$25K, the Mini Convertible is among the most affordable drop tops occupying the same lower price tier as the PT Cruiser, VW New Beetle and Mazda Miata. But when considered as an economical alternative to a 3 Series convertible, where you get BMW-like luxury and athleticism in a far cuter package, all one can say is, "What other convertibles?"
"I got my Mini convertible in Oct. 2004. It is great to drive and draws stares wherever I go. It is very responsive and has quick pickup when needed. I highly recommend a Mini to anyone who loves to drive. My only complaint is the alarm system wasn't in when I got the Mini and after 2 months it is still not in. Apparently there was some problem on the alarm system for the convertibles and there is a delay in getting them to the dealerships for installation. It would be nice if the base model had higher horsepower. I don't think I would need the 168 hp of the S, but wish I had more than the base model." — yellekk, Dec. 29, 2004
"I drive a 2003 M3. Takes a lot to impress me when it comes to driving and handling in cars. After driving my M3, everything else is just transportation, until I drove a Mini S convertible. What a great driving and handling little 'pocket rocket.' It handles like a BMW and has enough power to let you know it has it if you need it. It gives the impression of a lot more guts than the normal 3 Series and while driving it doesn't feel small or restricted. I bought it for my wife but I must admit it's a blast to drive! I really enjoy the half-down convertible top, sharp handling and the back pressure bursts from exhaust! Improvements? Maybe produce an 'M' version with 250 hp or so with an SMG transmission and a little more beefy suspension. WRX who?" — bman1221, Nov. 26, 2004
"I had a 2003 Mini Cooper S and decided to trade up for a cabrio S model. The 2005 is a vastly better car. Mini has really worked on improving their build quality. If you owned a hardtop Mini, you will feel the extra weight of the cabrio when cornering, but it isn't too objectionable. Nits — Rearward visibility, top up or down isn't too good and the new cupholder on the center stack squeaks. Don't charge extra for metallic paint; the leather interior is way too expensive considering the so-so quality of the leather; and the 3-spoke multifunction steering wheel is, in terms of functionality, a step backward compared to the previous 2-spoke version. Picks — Convertible top. Absolutely awesome. Very well built and very versatile. Revised shift linkage/gear ratios are spot-on. Resale value — you won't find ANY car in this price range that holds its value as well as Mini. Some of my other fave features are the radio that now plays MP3s, improved sport suspension compliance and the self-leveling xenon headlights." — vx49268, Oct. 23, 2004