by name, Max
by appeal. The MINI
line-up just keeps on
growing. And riding
high in the popularity
polls is the charismatic
THE BULK OF THE MINI RANGE is now in its second generation although the popular MINI Convertible models will remain 'first generation' for another 18 months or so. They retain the looks of the first MINI from BMW, and they use the original 1.6-litre normally aspirated and supercharged petrol engines as opposed to the latest units from the BMW/PSA Peugeot Citroen partnership.
The new Hams Hall (Birmingham) petrol engines were introduced with the second generation MINI Cooper and Cooper S last November (2006). The MINI One received its 'upgrade' in April of this year. At the same time, a MINI Cooper D diesel model was added to the line-up.
MINI suggests a new Convertible based on the second-generation models is about 18 months away. Before that, we get the new MINI Clubman, an estate-type with twin rear doors, which is due this autumn with engine options mirroring the latest MINI hatchbacks.
To briefly recap on the history of Mini and MINI the original Mini was launched in 1959 as a cheap family car and used lowercase letters for the model name. Over 5.3 million were sold until it ceased production in 2000, having been in BMW ownership since 1994.
Under BMW's continuing ownership, the new MINI brand name (using uppercase letters) was re-born in July 2001 as a 'premium' range in keeping with the parent company's BMW branding. Since that time it has become a huge sales success worldwide.
The British-built MINI is now sold in 80 countries around the world and next year, following the latest investment by BMW Group at Plant Cowley in Oxford, annual production is scheduled to reach 240,000 units.
The UK and USA more or less tie as the largest MINI markets in the world, with each country attracting in the region of 45,000 annual sales. Germany is the third largest market, with 30,000 customers each year. Almost 80 per cent of MINIs, which are built to individual customer orders, are currently produced for export.
In the UK, the MINI Convertible attracts around 9,000 buyers each year and, like all MINIs, their residual values are extremely strong.
The British obsession with coupé-cabriolets and convertibles continues to grow, and one in four MINIs sold in the UK is a Convertible. Just over ten years ago, UK sales of such cars equated to less than one per cent of the new car market. In 2006, over 100,000 such models were sold with the MINI Convertible being the top seller with a nine per cent share of this upcoming market
Currently the MINI Convertible range is priced as follows: MINI One Convertible at £13,615, Cooper Convertible at £14,945 and the Cooper S Convertible at £17,980. But from April this year the range doubled with special edition Sidewalk models. The MINI One Sidewalk is priced at £16,926, Cooper Sidewalk at £17,975 and the Cooper S Sidewalk at £20,250. Virtually all MINIs are sold with one or other of the popular option packs SALT, PEPPER and CHILI depending on whether the model is a One, Cooper or Cooper S. These 'pack' prices range from £300 to £1,850.
The MINI Convertible range has three 1.6-litre petrol engine options. MINI One Convertible has a 90bhp unit, Cooper Convertible a 115bhp version and the Cooper S has a 170bhp supercharged powerplant. As a reminder, these are not the new BMW/PSA engines used in the second generation MINI Hatchbacks.
MINI says there is no such thing as a 'typical' MINI owner. I suspect the bias is towards female drivers, but the age range is 17 to 90 years and they do not have a common type of job, family unit or income bracket. Lots of people love the MINI and lots of people desire to own one. The MINI can be somebody's only car, a second or even the 'fun' third car.
The original BMW version of the MINI was good, but the latest second generation models are so much better. Although the looks are very similar a clever move so the model does not date they are slightly larger in size, better equipped, of better quality, better handling, with lower fuel consumption and emissions and much improved engine performance all, commendably, at only modest price increases. For the record, the MINI Hatchback range starts at £11,610.
So why buy the Convertible, which is based on the first generation? My honest answer is: I wouldn't. I would wait until the new model comes along in 2009 and if I really wanted to have a MINI Convertible today, I'd buy a used one. Understandably, 2009 is a fair way off and many MINI buyers won't want to wait that long, don't want a car someone else has been driving and so will buy a new current Convertible now and chop it in for another new one in 2009. Nice work if you can get it!
Refreshing the Convertible range with Sidewalk models is a smart move by MINI to keep customers knocking at dealer's showroom doors, but the core product is not quite as polished as the latest Hatchback models: the new engines are more powerful, more refined, have lower emissions, better performance and better fuel economy.
But to get to the road test... The new Sidewalk versions of the MINI Cabriolet add between £2,270 to just over £3,000 to the price of their standard-specified counterparts. Sidewalk kit includes the option of four exclusive paintwork colours, malt brown leather upholstery, very snazzy 17-inch alloy wheels, bi-colour leather steering wheel and gear knob and bespoke Sidewalk interior trim that consists of floor mats, badging and door inserts.
My test car, a MINI Cooper S Convertible Sidewalk, weighed-in on price at a very hefty £20,265, which puts it in the larger coupé-convertible sector dominated by the VW Eos, Ford Focus CC and Vauxhall Astra Twin-Top models.
In addition to the special Sidewalk goodies, the 'donor' Cooper S model has, as standard, the electrically-operated canvas folding roof, air conditioning, four electric windows and power door mirrors, driver and front passenger seat height adjustment, driver and passenger airbags along with head-thorax side airbags, height and reach adjustable steering wheel, cruise control, automatic drive-away central locking (locks at 10mph), auto-dipping rear view mirror, on-board computer, Recaro sports seats, front fog lights, integral rear head restraints in roll-over bar, and ASC+T stability and traction control.
The overriding reason to own a MINI Convertible is, of course, the retractable roof, which incorporates a panoramic glass panel sunroof. It is fully automatic, and it operates in two stages. Push the button once and the roof slides back to create an open sunroof this function can be used at speeds up to 75mph. Push the button again and the roof fully retracts, folding into an area behind the rear seats in only 15 seconds. This function has to be done with the car stationary.
Having the roof storage area behind the rear seats does limit the amount of space available for rear passengers. The roof itself is well insulated although it does not suppress noise intrusion quite as well as the folding metal roofs that are currently all the rage. Boot space varies from very small (120 litres) to as much as 605 litres if you fold the split rear seatbacks.
All MINI Convertibles need, and are fitted with, rear parking sensors the pram-style hood and small windows restrict both rear and rear side visibility.
The 1.6-litre supercharged Cooper S engine is well known. It produces a pokey 170bhp and 162lb ft of torque at 4,000rpm, a top speed of 134mph and accelerates from zero to 62mph in 7.4 seconds. For comparative purposes, the new turboed Cooper S hatch gets 175bhp and 177lb ft and covers the 0-62mph sprint in 7.1 seconds. Fuel consumption figures are 25, 34 and 42.8mpg respectively for town, combined and extra-urban driving. CO2 emissions of 199g/km means the annual road tax fee for MINI Convertible owners is £205.
Although outperformed in every way by the new generation 1.6-litre turbocharged MINI engine, the older supercharged unit still gives a pretty good account of itself. Performance is lively, the engine sounds a shade gruffer and a little less refined but it still gives the driver more than enough point-and-squirt ability. The chassis allows for fun driving although the suspension does give a firm ride.
Owning the top of the range MINI Convertible comes with a price premium and, as mentioned, it's not as up-to-date technically as the very latest MINI Hatchbacks. Poor rear visibility is addressed by reversing sensors and the fact that it's a compact size. Compact size also means a very small boot and compact rear seats. And, let's be honest, anyone in the UK who buys a convertible car of any kind isn't going to put the 'British weather' down in their 'against' list.
On the 'plus' side you have MINI's desirable cult status, impeccable build quality, high residual values, the brilliant and low-cost MINI tlc five-year service pack and the fact that it's built in Britain. No doubt, then, that the MINI Convertible is still highly desirable in its current form and continues to offer FUN driving.
Future Convertible models will offer better and more modern engines as well as other all-round improvements and will assuredly be worth waiting for. But if I were you, I wouldn't be making it a New Year's resolution. Because you probably won't be able to wait! David Miles
MINI Cooper S Convertible Sidewalk | £20,265
Maximum speed: 134mph | 0-62mph: 7.4 seconds
Overall test MPG: 34mpg | Power: 170bhp | Torque: 162lb ft
CO2 199g/km | VED Band F £205 | Insurance group 17
Visit MINI's website