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Car reviews - Mini - Convertible - S

Our Opinion

We like
Versatile convertible with most of the Mini’s advantages
Room for improvement
Terrible rear vision, extra heft blunts S’ urge

Mini logo15 Jul 2005

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

WHAT'S your favourite position?

Some enjoy doing it alfresco as The Great Maker intended. Just peel it right back and let it all rip.

Others are more coy, electing to pull just a bit back yet enough for people approaching to peer down without any fuss. That's a nice way.

However, a combination of the two may be the best. Top up but with it pulled half back, and with absolutely no sides. You get the rush with unruffled protection this way.

Of course we're referring to the Mini Cooper Cabriolet, a curiously 21st Century take on a retro theme, and its clever part-folding sunroof-style fabric roof that also fully folds away electrically at a second press of a button.

Now the original ADO15 Mini did come in many shapes and sizes, including a Traveller wagon, panel van, longer-nose Clubman and the Wild Goose Camper Van conversion.

And then there was the larger ADO16 1100 (the best selling car in Britain in the Swinging '60s), an SUV before the term was even invented (Moke), and even an aftermarket short-roof coupe called the Monaco by Sydney businessman Bill Buckle.

But a full convertible was beyond the first model's abilities for most of its 41-year life. The "brick", as it was known, simply relied too much on its roof for structural support - until the Rover Group finally found a way in 1993.

That model wasn't really very good (it looked like an oversized pram since there was nowhere to stow the fiddly roof mechanism) and consequently had very limited appeal. It was never sold here.

So a convertible wasn't really expected of the number one British industrial icon. Except it actually probably was because we live in days of such absurdities (Peugeot 206CC, anyone?).

Today's Cabrio's retro styling both enhances and hinders the convertible experience.

On the positive side the upright windscreen and seating position really opens up the Mini as a convertible around town, ushering excellent peripheral vision with the top down as ably as it lets the wind envelop you.

This makes urban speeds a pleasant experience for ragtop lovers.

Having the choice of a sunroof-style half-open scenario (operable to 120km/h) with the roof-frame intact really does define this Mini as a Cabrio as well as a convertible.

Plus the electric roof operation itself is fairly fast (15 seconds), easy and convenient.

But on the open road - from about 90km/h upwards - the roof-down buffeting is quite unbearable even with the side windows up.

More seriously, it's just too cold unless the temperature outside is hot.

In a 15-degree evening dash down to the coast the chill was palpable everywhere in the car.

Not helped by having no heated seats and a heater that is feeble feeding enough hot air - particularly to exposed hands on the steering wheel (despite appearances of the big dash vents that suggest otherwise) - is disappointing in a drop-top.

By the way, rear vision is pretty bad no matter where the roof may be thanks to the high resting position of the folding roof.

It makes reversing a scary affair fraught with fear and retribution, and it's also enough to put many off this otherwise wonderful little ragtop. And that's in spite of the standard parking radar.

Try before you buy.

Other than that one serious flaw (the tiny 165-litre boot can be excused because the very-retro exterior hinges that flip the lid down as per the original Mini forgive it anyway folding rear seat rests balloon the boot's figure to a handy 605 litres), the Cabrio is pretty much as per your usual Cooper S - with one exception.

It weighs 100kg more due to the extra chassis bracing and stiffening resulting from the decapitation. And that affects the performance, although it also virtually eliminates scuttle shake on rougher roads.

As in the regular Cooper S, a belt-driven supercharger and intercooler bolted onto the 1.6-litre single-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine provides extra urge as well as a reason for the letterbox-like bonnet slot.

But while it boosts power from the regular hardtop's 85kW to 125kW at 6000rpm and torque 150Nm to 220Nm at 4000rpm respectively, the 1240kg means the Cabrio is merely quick, not frenetic. The official 0-100km/h-sprint time is 7.4 seconds, 0.2 seconds shy of the hardtop.

There's still plenty of forward thrust available in every gear and through every turn though, for a handy shot of point-to-point squirt-ability.

And it's accompanied by an even louder and seductive old-school-Mini-gearbox-like supercharger whine when you charge hard, complete with an off-throttle splat and splutter that's totally seductive.

A downside of the Mini's eager prod-the-pedal-to-the-metal nature is relatively high fuel consumption, exacerbated by its hefty weight. Expect around 9.5L/100km average.

The firm and slightly springy six-speed manual gearbox also remains, but the standard Cooper hardtop suspension is in place of the firmer S hardtop's set-up.

Thankfully the Mini's magnificent chassis, with its now-renowned steering, handling and roadholding abilities, also survive the beheading.

As usual, just aim and squirt and you're there. It's fantastic fun and hugely addictive. And the ride doesn't suffer for it, either. Except on Weetbix-like surfaces.

BMW has also fitted the usual high standard of active and passive safety gear, including strong and effective anti-lock brakes, traction and stability controls, four airbags and two tacky fixed rollover hoops incorporating head restraints for the unfortunate adults sitting bolt upright with cramped legs out back.

Having said that it's way-better than what the 206CC can muster.

Other than that the Cabrio is basically your run-of-the-mill Mini inside.

That means BMW levels of quality, an ace driving position, confidence-inducing front and side vision and lots of shoulder and leg space for you and your mate up front.

Also remaining are the retro instrumentation pods, eyeball vents, toggle switches, acres of sheeny metal-look plastic and original Mini-echoing exposed door skins.

And with the quality roof up it's almost as tight and cosy as the hardtop.

So how the Mini Cooper S Cabrio rates depends on your position.

If you're a Mini hardtop addict, the convertible detracts from its performance, practicality and space abilities, and is thus a backward step - even though those roof-down permutations make for a very intriguing alternative anyway.

For everybody else in the market for an inexpensive four-seat drop-top runabout the Cabrio is absolutely and positively leagues ahead of the Peugeot 206 and 307 CC, Renault Megane CC, Holden Astra Convertible and VW Beetle Cabrio in the dynamics and desirability stakes.

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