By Andrew Ganz
Friday, Mar 20th, 2009 @ 2:59 pm
 
Almost overnight, the first-generation, BMW-built Mini Cooper Convertible became the ultimate fashion accessory for beach-goers along sunny oceanfront strips of Southern California and Florida. Not surprisingly, Mini didn't choose to alter its successful formula when it came time to redesign the drop-top version of its Mini Cooper for 2010.

Don't rush out and buy a Mini Cooper Convertible if you're the kind who wants everyone to know you've purchased a new car. Sure, it'll attract lots of attention, especially in the wide variety of new colors (we're partial to yellow, especially with the new dark-finish wheels that are exclusive to the Convertible), but nobody will realize it's new. That said, this is still about the most flamboyant driving device you'll come across, so introverts need not apply.

Keen-eyed observers will spot the headlamps, tail lamps and interior revisions that mark the R56, as it is known to Mini nuts. A few inches longer than its predecessor, the Cooper Convertible still has the footprint of a mouse, not a giant.

Inside, the digs are again identical to the hardtop. Material and assembly quality is up dramatically over the last-generation car, though you'll find few controls logically arranged - and that's just the way Mini wants it. The droptop offers some unique shades inside and out, mostly notable for their brightness. Wear your shades. And a hat. Maybe some sunscreen.

You'll want the sunscreen if you're competitive, like we are. The Mini's quaint Openometer (see the first photo in the gallery), an accessory-style gauge planted right in front of the driver, measures exactly how long the top has been down with the motor running. Mini hopes owners will regularly visit a specially-created social media site to log their top-down hours as part of a competition. There's no prize other than glory, but maybe Mini will eventually pitch in a t-shirt or something. Maybe some sunglasses.

The folding cloth top is all-power and, if you so choose, only the front portion can be slid back, creating a rather ingenious sunroof. The new top is thicker than the old one, making the car a bit quieter on the highway. It's also available in some new colors - our favorite of which is denim - shaded, not surprisingly, like a brand new pair of Levi's jeans. It's even stitched together with a twine close Levi's trademark orange. For some, it might bring back rough memories of the Levi's Jeep CJ-7, but if you remember (and owned) that AMC product, you're probably out of Mini's target audience, anyway.

A new automatically-deploying rollbar system replaces a pair of permanently fixed hoops, adding both passive safety and clearing the line of sight out the still-small rear porthole - er, window.

You won't find exposed hinges on the new convertible trunk - a change we lament. They added some additional character to the rear end. On the bright side, the trunk is quite roomy for a little car and, with folding rear seats, it has plenty of room for beach towels, umbrellas and the like.

Mechanically, the topless Cooper is pretty much identical to its all-season brother, which means you'll find a pair of 1.6-liter four-cylinders under the hood in 118-horse (base) and turbocharged 172-horse (S) configurations, either hooked up to a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. The engines, developed by BMW and PSA (Peugeot-Citroen), slowly sip their recommended premium fuel to the tune of 36 mpg on the highway for the base row-it-yourself and 34 for the similarly equipped turbo S.


Let's go for a ride, ja
We had the opportunity to sample the Mini Convertible in both S (manual) and base (automatic) forms in suny San Diego. Aside from a bit more scuttle shake than we'd like to see, the Convertible is much the same zippy go-kart that its short-wheelbase brother is.

That means you'll find a choppy ride on California's deceivingly sloppy highways, but you'll also relish every corner you can find. Mini's electric power steering truly sets the industry standard for feel and response. Not too quick, but still realistic, it provides all of the benefits of electric assist without the video game feel we've seen in pretty much every other car so equipped.

Both engines are smooth and flexible, providing decent low-end torque. Naturally, the S zips off the line with more tenacity and it doesn't struggle to pass on the highway. The base feels a bit like it is towing an anchor, compared to the S, but the power-to-weight ratio is still acceptable given the car's 2,855 lb. curb weight.

With the turobcharged S model, there's little turbo lag, but there's quite a bit of torque steer, a byproduct of the front wheels receiving the marching orders.

The six-speed manual is a joy to row through the gears and its clutch straddles the line between comfortably easy but still engaging for those who still enjoy doing things themselves. The six-speed automatic on our base test car slowed things down a bit, but when we put it into sport mode (which alters the shift points and the throttle response), it almost became a snorting little beast, firing off snappy, firm shifts with a raspy exhaust note. Too aggressive for a Sunday drive, yes, but delightful nonetheless.

In fact, it was the slushbox base model we enjoyed the most. The droptop Cooper is about cruising when the weather is perfect, not track days or canyon roads; we can't help but think that the extra power of the Cooper S is wasted here. Then again, maybe we'll hold off full judgment of the powertrain lineup until the rocket-like, albeit pricey ($34,950) 208-horse John Cooper Works package makes it to the Mini Convertible later this year.

2009 Mini Cooper Convertible base price, $24,500.
2009 Mini Cooper Convertible S base price, $27,450.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.