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We test Mini's soft top Cooper S

2009-07-17 10:36

Hailey Philander

Cape Town in winter is hardly the best time to be sashaying about in a cabriolet.

It rains incessantly, the wind howls and all around is GREY GREY GREY as cold front after cold front rolls in.

However, the weather gods must have taken a liking to the Wheels24 team when the Mini Cooper S convertible minced into town, because, for a few days, we were gifted with warm, sunshiney, almost summery weather. It’s a good thing, then, that the Mini convertible is designed for beautiful weather.

Top up, or down, it’s a little firebrand and almost instantly reminded why I was so smitten with the latest S hatchback when I first drove it. The turbocharged 1.6-litre mill is a treat, providing hours of entertainment given the right conditions.

A six-speed manual gearbox is standard and adds to the Mini driving experience with its short ratios and assured shifting. It's a perfect match for the 128-kW 1.6-litre turbocharged unit, and with the engine being as tractable as it is, does not require any frantic shifting between the gears to keep the car moving forward.

When allowed room to play, this Mini car does not suffer fools gladly. It's extremely busy, engaging on so many levels while making the driver work quite a bit to keep it going in the direction intended.

That's the fun part. It clobbers into dips and over bumps rather unceremoniously and on less-than-perfect road surfaces demands attention as the jostling steering wheel threatens to yank free and twirl the car into the nearest rockface.

The low speed ride quality is a shocker, though. Thanks to its relatively long wheelbase, short overhangs and wheel-at-each-corner stance, the Mini Cooper S's suspension is traditionally rather firm. But to make up for the absence of a roof, the body has been crash-optimised and further reinforced to provide extra rigidity to the body.

Even if this convertible's overall weight it down by 10 kg, its body is significantly stiffer than before. This makes for a truly choppy riding experience.

However, the temptation to drive this car with the canvas top down, or even just the leading roof panel retracted, is overwhelming.

Cute as a button. Oversized dials and toggle switches add to the Mini cabin's quirks.

Mini says its convertible's roof can be raised and lowered at speeds up to 30 km/h, but keeping the boot locked long enough to actually operate the roof was bad enough.

The test unit seemed to have a defective boot mechanism which would unhinge at will. This required quick footwork. After repeated attempts to close the boot and eventually getting it to stick, I would then have to dive into the cabin to lock the doors before they would demonically unlock again.

Infuriating is an understatement, although I'm sure it provided much entertainment to numerous informal car park guards.

Of course, to add to the list, it didn't help that, with the roof up, the test unit's cabin creaked and squeaked to the point of distraction.

"I promise, it'll be better when you put the roof down," a friend helpfully suggested in response to my moaning on this point.

So at the first break in clouds pregnant with precipitation, that's precisely what I did - in about 15 seconds or so. 

The creaks? Gone. The squeaks? Gone, too. All that remained was the whoosh of the spooling turbo and the sounds of the old-school Whitney Houston I'd managed to unearth. Driving a cabriolet often makes one do the strangest things…

However, this did nothing to alleviate the problem of the appalling ride quality. There was a way around it, though - I simply drove a little quicker. And spent most of my time suspended in mid-air.

Of course, it doesn't mean that this is not one of the more pleasant cars to experience with the top down.

Optional Always Open Timer records how long the soft top is fully open with the engine running. Another Mini gimmick.

Despite its diminutive wind deflector (which really is just very cute), there is no blustering wind play in the cabin when moving at speed. The ability to conduct a conversation without yelling at your passenger is also rather refreshing. And in the case of travelling without human company, the amazing sound system will keep you entertained, even while doing speeds in excess of the national limit.

As with the hatchback, there are a few irritations that have sneaked across to the soft top version. The boot space remains tiny with barely enough room for a handbag, never mind an overnight bag. Dropping the seats does provide some respite, but not much. Mini still says its luggage space is bigger than before, but it's hard to spot that extra 5 l with the roof open (125 l) or closed (170 l). Chuck the seats forward, though, and luggage space balloons to an incredible 660 l.

The test unit was fitted with the optional timer signaling the time spent with the roof open, but quite honestly, after the first cursory glance, I barely gave the thing another look.

Of course, just because this is a happy, sunshiney car, does not in any way mean that Mini has shirked its safety responsibilities. This little sunseeker has a brace of safety kit ranging from the regulation ABS and EBD to the stability control and start off assist. Electro-hydraulic roll hoops are deployed in a split second when a tumble is detected. This also means that, since the roll hoops are stowed for the most part, rearward visibility is wonderful.

On that point, all round visibility is not too bad either, although the cloth expanse where you’d traditionally find the C-pillar throws up a monstrous blind spot.

Sans roof, the signature Mini profile remains intact.

As an extension to the existing Mini range, the design is not groundbreaking or anything new, but the stowing of the fabric roof takes some getting used to.

Perhaps too accustomed to metal roof structures that fold neatly into hidden recesses, the Mini's bunched-up roof over the boot is not its prettiest feature, however, if you're in the car you're unlikely to be to concerned about it.

The interior is oddball with its changing light panel, toggle switches and iDrive-like joystick for navigation entertainment and vehicle setup purposes. It's quirky, yes, but lends to the overall Mini experience.

Never mind the bone-crushing suspension and the teeny-tiny body, driving the Mini Cooper S convertible is an absolute thrill. 

After all my gushing, it may be bizarre for me to reveal that I am not a big fan of the Mini Cooper S convertible. The plain old, naturally aspirated Cooper - although I haven't driven it yet - seems to make a lot more sense. Strictly for those who want (or need) to be seen, and on whom the mechanical marvels of the Cooper S's mill would likely be lost.
However, those who typically shell out for the Cooper S are more likely to be people who enjoy driving just for the heck of it. And for any enthusiast, driving a car with a roof (in this case the hatchback) makes infinitely more sense.

If you'd really like to own a Mini Cooper S, the convertible is not the one you should be settling on. The convertible is fun, no doubt, but at R327 500 remains a bit dear. For less that that (R321 000 to be precise), you could own a manic 155-kW JCW hatchback. Now that would be fun. You'd miss out on the wind-in-the-hair experience, but the money you save could go towards ordering a glass sunroof with a sliding function.

But having said that, the immediacy of driving a drop-top convertible with the verve of the Mini Cooper S is thoroughly infectious. If you're someone who'd just like to have a pile of fun whenever you're out driving, the Mini Cooper S convertible may just be the little toy for you then.
It offers, arguably, some of the best fun you'll have with your clothes on in a front wheel drive car. Given it’s “premium” price tag (R 327 500), I’d almost feel cheated if it didn’t.


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