Anyone remember a sappy yet touching Disney cartoon called "Susie, the Little Blue Coupe"? The story begins when Susie is spotted in a showroom window and purchased on the spot. We watch the nimble subcompact chug home from the dealership, presumably guided by the hands of the adoring new owner (whom we never see behind the car's beaming front fascia). As the miles pile up, though, Susie's enthusiasm for life wanes as she falls into disrepair (whether this is due to owner neglect or the natural automotive aging process, we're never sure). Death appears imminent for the tired blue heap, until a young car shopper spies Susie in a junkyard and decides to give her a new lease on life complete with performance mods. The last time we see Susie she's racing around town — top down and more radiant than ever.
In the three years since the Mini Cooper's introduction, the spunky hatchback has hardly had enough time to grow old and tired. Minis spend the least amount of time sitting on dealer lots of any brand of vehicle sold in the U.S. — and their eventual owners don't appear the least bit inclined to neglect their cars. Nevertheless, a select group of Coopers have opted for cosmetic surgery in 2005, trading in the confinement of a fixed roof for the freedom of a retractable soft top. And as we learned on a late summer morning, these convertible Minis are just as easy to love.
The creation of a topless Mini has always been in the plans, company officials noted, pointing to the hatchback's perfectly horizontal beltline. The convertible's soft top follows the roof lines of the hatchback, preserving the characteristic, boxy Cooper profile. In spite of the effort that went into the design of the canvas top, Mini officials insist that owners should make every effort to avoid driving with the top up. All Cooper convertibles will be delivered with their tops down, and new owners will be asked to sign a "contract" in which they agree to leave the top down 90 percent of the time. It's all a marketing strategy, of course, but really, what's the point of buying a convertible if you're going to remain hidden away under the top on mild sunny days?
The top, by the way, is completely power-operated (with no latches to fumble with) regardless of whether you choose the regular Cooper or the speedier Cooper S model. Should cooler weather mandate a certain amount of protection but not a fully closed-in experience, the top can retract 16 inches to provide a "sunroof" for the driver and front passenger.
Often, the driving experience suffers when convertibles are built from coupe bodies, as a significant amount of rigidity is lost when you take away the fixed top. Fortunately, Mini's parent company, BMW, has had considerable success at putting this rigidity back into its coupe-derived convertibles — the topless 3 Series is probably the most structurally rigid car in its class. So, too, is the Mini convertible. The Cooper's suspension was completely retuned for the drop top, and strut braces were fitted to help it resist cowl shake. For safety's sake, the convertible also has reinforced A-pillars and aluminum roll hoops — a less unsightly alternative to the prominent "basket handle" on convertibles like the PT Cruiser, Mini designers felt.
We spent most of the day in a regular Cooper convertible, which unlike all of the test hatchbacks we've driven, did not have the Sport Package. As such, it wore skinny 175/65R15 tires and had the standard suspension settings. A sport suspension is optional on the Cooper drop top and standard on the Cooper S version, though it's still not as stiff as the sport tuning on the hatchback now dubbed "sport plus."
The transition from hatchback to convertible also caused a 175-pound weight gain. That doesn't sound like much, but bear in mind that the standard Cooper doesn't have a lot of power to spare. Its 1.6-liter four-cylinder makes just 115 horsepower and 111 pound-feet of torque, putting it behind most economy cars. Engineers did shorten up the transmission gearing for both the base car's five-speed manual and the S version's six-speed this year to improve midrange acceleration.
Although eager to take the wheel of this Cooper painted "Hot Orange" (an exclusive convertible color, along with "Cool Blue") with black rally stripes, we had our doubts about its entertainment value. Turns out we needn't have worried. The non-sport Cooper has a surprisingly firm ride and can find its way down a twisty road with all the gumption of a Cooper S. Naturally, we'd be inclined to put on a larger set of tires with shorter sidewalls to sharpen up its reflexes. But as it is, the base Cooper drop top is a responsive handler with good steering feel, easily modulated brakes and almost no cowl shake. Add warm, sunny weather and sparsely traveled roads to this open-air scenario, and you can see why this will go down as one of our all-time favorite days.
We definitely wouldn't mind a little extra power in the regular-strength Cooper convertible, though. Low-end torque is meager and, with the manual transmission, it takes some work to drive even just around town. Of course, when you're ready to drive the car hard, the manual gearbox is the only way to go. The 1.6-liter likes to rev and provided you don't mind frequent shifting, you can keep it in its power band when coming out of corners. Ideal pedal spacing and a mostly precise shifter make downshifts fun to execute just before diving into a tight turn. Through it all, the sounds coming from under the hood aren't exactly melodic, but acceleration is adequate overall. Mini claims a 0-to-60-mph time of 8.9 seconds for the Cooper convertible.
As is the case with the hatchback, most convertible buyers will prefer the extra-strength Cooper S rated for 168 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque. There's still not a lot to work with off the line, but the payoff is a lot bigger when you wind out the supercharged 1.6-liter. Not only is there more power waiting for you above 4,000 rpm, you never get tired of listening to the supercharger spool up. The company claims a 0-60 time of 7 seconds flat for the topless Cooper S.
The "Cool Blue" S drop top we drove wore the standard 16-inch wheels and 195/55R16 all-season run-flat tires. Although the handling was noticeably tighter in the corners, the ride quality was still comfortable — well, at least it was until we encountered a couple of two-lane roads ravaged by Minnesota winters.
Both of the Coopers we drove were fitted with a wind blocker (a dealer-installed option), and with the windows down, this made for a delightful open-air experience — just enough breeze but not too much. Roll up the windows and you can hardly tell you're in a convertible, which is fine for winter driving but stifling on an 80-degree day. Unfortunately, the only time we experienced what it would be like without the wind blocker was when our co-driver put it down for a few seconds as we motored along at 80 mph under a cool morning fog — it was turbulent to say the least. We do expect that owners will get along fine without the blocker at lower speeds and in warmer temperatures, a good thing because no one can sit in the backseat when it's installed. We'll wait until we conduct a full test of a Cooper convertible before delivering a verdict.
Visibility is not a particularly strong point of Mini's convertible. You expect to be able to see easily in all directions when a convertible's top is down, but the Cooper's rear head restraints and roll hoops come up high in back. The soft top then folds back over the rear deck, closing up the space in between them. The result is a fine view out the front but a partially obstructed view out back. When the top is up, there's a small viewing space out the rear glass, but the corner blind spots are significant and the side mirrors are no larger than those of the hatchback. It's nothing you can't get used to, but first-time drivers should use extra care when changing lanes.
Driving a convertible usually means that you forfeit most usable cargo space (making it tough to take off on spontaneous road trips), but Mini designers took a creative approach to this dilemma. The rear hatch now opens down like a tailgate (rather than up as on the PT Cruiser convertible), providing better access to items stowed in back. Additionally, there's a secondary gate around the base of the soft top that can be propped open (like a clamshell) to allow the loading of larger items. The main cargo area measures just 4.2 cubic feet (5.8 when the top is up), though we could see that it was large enough to accommodate our rollerboard carry-on bag. Fold down the 50/50-split rear seats and you've got over 21 cubic feet of space to fill up.
Inside the cockpit, all the familiar Mini elements are in place, including the pie plate-sized speedometer, tiny center stack controls and funky manual seat adjustments. There is, however, a new three-spoke steering wheel with faux aluminum trim on each of its spokes. Although this wheel is sportier in appearance than the two-spoke design in the hatchbacks, the optional steering wheel buttons for cruise and audio functions are smaller and harder to use.
Seat comfort ranges from "comfortable for most" in the front to "best for kids" in the back. Adults will be fine in the backseat for short distances, though as in other convertibles, it's apt to feel a bit claustrophobic with the top up. We didn't get to try it out for ourselves, though, so we'll have to get back to you on this one.
With a base price of $21,500 for the regular Cooper and $24,950 for the S version, buying a drop-top Mini is still an economical proposition if you keep the options in check. Company officials say that they expect the convertible to account for 30 percent of all Cooper sales. That translates to about 10,000 to 14,000 annually. We could encourage you to make your way to the nearest Mini dealer to take a test-drive, but something tells us that most of you are already on the waiting list.