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by Paul Williams
Marseille, France – While waiting at a stoplight, a beautiful woman standing on the sidewalk let go of her boyfriend’s hand, and approached my car.
“Quelle voiture!” she beamed. “C’est magnifique! C’est une belle auto!”
If you don’t speak French, that roughly translates as, “I think you’re very handsome. Would you like to go out with me tonight?”
Unfortunately for her, I was road testing the new Mini Convertible at the time, and too busy for such diversions.
“C’est dommage,” I thought fluently, as I released the clutch and headed into the Riviera sunset. Perhaps I would return some day.
As you may know, the Mini has become the “little car that could” of automotive long shots. All doubts about whether a revived, or more accurately, a re-invented Mini would appeal to a new generation of buyers have been forgotten. Parent company BMW was right all along, and has manufactured not only a successful and fun car, but also an entire “Mini Culture” to accompany it.
A lot of people just love the car. They come right up and tell you.
After selling nearly 400,000 Mini hardtops worldwide since its introduction in 2002, we now see the first variant.
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The 2005 Mini Convertible arrives this summer with a particularly clever roof, which you can order in a choice of black, blue or green. Raised, the roof follows the lines of the hardtop, maintaining the Mini’s distinctive profile.
Pricing hasn’t been announced, but we can expect the convertible to add about $6,000 to the price of the 2004 Mini Cooper ($25,550) and Mini Cooper S ($29,950).
The top is fully automatic (no latches hidden behind the sun visors) that retracts in two stages. Stage one sees the roof slide back for the first 40-centimetres from the top of the windshield, effectively becoming a sunroof. Stage two causes latches to disengage from the A-pillars, and the roof fully retracts, stowing neatly behind the rear seats. It takes 15 seconds to raise or lower the roof.
The sunroof function can be operated at a standstill, or at speeds up to 120 km/h. The roof can be raised and the windows opened remotely from a distance of 15 metres.
Making a coupe into a convertible is more than simply removing the roof and adding a fabric top. In order to prevent body flex when travelling on uneven road surfaces, the entire body structure has to be reinforced. In the Mini Convertible, this includes making the side sills thicker, and integrating stiffening and reinforcement plates into the floor. Crossbars have been added in the area of the B-pillar and at the rear, and thicker panels are used at all critical points.
This reinforcement adds 100 kg to the car, and results in a notably rigid structure. Indeed, the Mini Convertible feels like it’s machined out of a solid block of metal, such is its stiffness when driving on bumpy or broken road surfaces. The car feels tight and solid even when traversing railway tracks.
It’s also extremely nimble, just like the hardtop, and a thoroughly entertaining car to drive. The 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, 115-horsepower Mini Cooper works best with the five-speed manual, as opposed to the CVT automatic, and can be quite peppy if you work the gears (the 163 hp Mini Cooper S will be released here at the same time as the Cooper). On corners, it obediently goes where you point it.
On the highway, it motors along at 140 km/h without fuss. You can have a conversation or listen to music with the top down even at that speed. A separate wind deflector is available, but I don’t see why you’d need it.
Drop the top and the twin roll bars located behind the rear seat become apparent. These aluminum tubes (optionally chromed with the Chrome Line Exterior Package) with integrated headrests combine with the reinforced A-pillars to provide protection in the event of a rollover.
Unfortunately, even though they’re functional and look good, the roll bars severely block rearward vision, especially when parking. Perhaps for this reason, the Mini Convertible comes standard with Park Distance Control, which provides audio alerts when backing up.
The rear of the Mini Convertible is, of course, no longer a hatchback. The drop-down trunk lid, with its exterior-mounted hinges, is a nod to the past as this is the arrangement used on the original Mini. The trunk lid can be used as a loading platform, being designed to hold up to 80 kg, and the trunk interior features a shelf that can be positioned in two locations to maximize space, depending on whether the top is raised or lowered.
For even more space, the rear seats can be folded down creating 605-litres of luggage room.
Passengers will find the rear seats large and comfortable, with plenty of hip room. But if they have feet, the front seats will have to be moved forward quite a bit to accommodate them. Once comfortably seated back there, you kind of hang your outside elbow over the edge (at least, when the car is stationary) and enjoy the rays.
Drop off the passengers and front occupants can move their seats rearward as required, providing plenty of legroom and support in the sporty seats. The buttons for opening the roof and closing the rear windows are up by the rear-view mirror, and otherwise the instrument panel is the same as the coupe (ours was equipped with the optional Cockpit Chrono package, which demotes the signature central speedometer to a less prominent spot above the steering column).
Some interiors and exteriors, however, are exclusive to the Convertible. Our Hot Orange car (Cool Blue is the other exclusive colour, along with eight other Mini colours) looked very sharp with its dark blue interior with orange accents and chromed gauge surrounds (the Chrome Line Interior Package). Dark blue and orange isn’t a combination on a car that I’ve seen since the 1972 MGB (British Leyland’s psychedelic period).
Come to think of it, the current Mini is built in the UK. I wonder if…. Nah.
Along with three interior colour choices, ten exterior colours and five different fabrics and leather options, the Mini offers an extensive range of features to personalize each car. This ordering flexiblilty is a big part of the Mini ownership experience.
The option list is very long and includes wheels, xenon lights, automatic climate control, heated windshield, wind deflector, navigation system, dynamic stability control, interior accents and much more. Each Mini is built to order, meaning that no two are alike, and the buyer gets to create his or her ideal car (within personal budget constraints, of course).
This build-to-order personalization enables the car to reflect a particular style, almost like clothes, shoes or wristwatches accessorize their owner. Mini itself offers a chic line of sportswear, luggage, sunglasses, designer watches and a slick magazine exclusive to owners. The magazine even comes with a music CD to showcase acts that are below the commercial radar, just where Mini buyers would want them, right?
The car’s not perfect. The cupholders are still too small and inconveniently positioned, things like air conditioning that you’d expect to be standard, aren’t, and the rearward vision issue might result in damaging the nice, newly designed, rear lights.
But the Mini is all substance under the cute looks, and that’s what legitimizes the whole concept. The convertible will add to its appeal.
Now, where did that beautiful woman go?