Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Tale of Two MINIs

What could be better than time with a sporty, fuel efficient MINI? A week with two MINIs! I recently tested the new-for-2009 Cooper Convertible and revisited the Cooper Hardtop as well.

The first new MINI convertible debuted for 2005 and sold 179,000 copies before the 2009 model arrived. In the interim, the Hardtop was redone for 2007, and although it looked similar, much was changed inside and out. A new engine found its way under the stubby hood. The Clubman extended-wheelbase model debuted for 2008.

For 2009, the Convertible finally joins the Coupe and Clubman on the revised platform. That means it gets the more upright nose, with additional crush space for pedestrian safety—a nod to European laws. The taillamps are wider, too. Significantly, the new droptop now has the updated interior, with the eight-inch-wide speedometer at dash center, the overstuffed-looking controls, and more substantial look.

While the previous generation featured permanently fixed roll bars behind the seats, the new version hides a one-piece roll bar below. It pops up only if sensors detect the car’s about to tip over. This is unlikely—the MINI Convertible gets five stars in the U.S. Government Rollover test. The hidden roll bar makes for a cleaner profile, a more expansive view, and opens up additional storage space.

The rear seats fold individually, permitting more cargo carrying capacity than before. Granted, it’s a lot less than the Hardtop, but you can put small suitcases and your grocery items in there without a problem when you drop the tiny tailgate.

MINIs use a French 1.6-liter inline four. With dual overhead camshafts and full variable valve management, in standard trim it puts out 118 horsepower, good for 0 – 60 acceleration of 9.8 seconds in the Convertible. The S model, with twin-scroll turbocharger and direct fuel injection, drops that time to 7.4 seconds. The John Cooper Works versions are even quicker.

Fuel economy isn’t usually associated with sports cars, but the MINI Convertible is rated at 25 City and 34 Highway. I averaged 26.8 mpg. The EPA Green Vehicle Guide gives the car an Air Pollution score of 7 and Greenhouse Gas score of 8—fine numbers.

The Convertible is easy to open. The electrohydraulic mechanism raises or lowers the durable cloth top in just 15 seconds with the touch of a button. You can do it at up to 20 miles per hour, too. The front section pulls back electrically like a sunroof, offering a unique opportunity for semi-open-air motoring.

Typical of MINI’s sense of humor, left of the column-mounted tachometer is the “openometer,” which measures the time that the roof is open. This amusing gadget records up to seven hours of it with its needle and lights.

My Horizon Blue Metallic Convertible, with Hot Chocolate brown top, is a perfect example of how you can upgrade a MINI to suit your tastes. Starting at a base price of $23,900, the grand total, with destination charges, came to $32,050. The Leather Lounge Hot Chocolate interior added $2,000. The Cold Weather Package ($500) heated the seats and the mirrors and washer jets too. The Premium Package ($1,250) chromed the interior and exterior trim, upgraded to full climate control, and more.

The STEPTRONIC automatic transmission ($1,250) provided paddles on the wheel for quick shifts. It’s certainly a fun way to have the convenience of an automatic with the control of a manual.

Further options, at $500 apiece, included Dynamic Traction Control, which uses the car’s computer system to keep you safely on the road, and Park Distance Control, which protects your car while backing up. It’s handy because the folded top blocks the lower part of your rear view.

In contrast, the Nightfire Red MINI Hardtop I drove later in the week was close to the basic, sweet car. Its few options included $500 for the metallic paint, $750 for an upgrade to 16-inch alloy wheels, and a few more bucks for heated sport seats, a multi-function steering wheel, and black bonnet stripes.

Thanks to lighter weight than the convertible and a six-speed manual, the Hardtop earned a stellar 32.1 mpg. I had loads of fun driving it and used the greater carrying capacity. The price, including everything, came to $21,550, $10,500 less than the Convertible. MINIs start at $18,550.

MINI recently commemorated two milestones. The first was a celebration of 50 years since the brand debuted on May 8, 1959. 5.3 million original, tiny Minis were sold and enjoyed worldwide.The second event occurred a month later, when a Chili Red 2009 MINI Clubman rolled off the Oxford assembly line, marking 1.5 million new MINIs since production began in 2001. That same plant produced the original Mini in 1959.

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