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MINI Cooper Convertible Mk 2

Click to view picture gallery“The New MINI Cooper Convertible:
  more gadgets, more money, less
  tax and less CO2. It
s also great to
  drive with trustworthy handling, is
  cheaper to run and brings a smile
  to your face

THE NEW MINI CONVERTIBLES, on sale from 28 March (2009), look very much the same as the first generation versions a closer inspection, however, reveals they are very different. They also feel much more 'grown-up', arguably of better quality and can justify their 'premium' brand label.

They're also longer, lighter, wider, more fuel-efficient and less taxing for CO2 emissions and road tax. In addition, a 146mph, 208bhp John Cooper Works variant joins the Mini Convertible range.

Despite the Government's recent reduction in VAT, the prices have gone up by between 5.2 and 6.4%. That doesn't sound too bad until you convert percentage points into pounds: roughly £990 to £1,025. That said, air conditioning — which used to cost an extra £665 — is now standard across the range so there's an immediate claw-back. In addition, the new MINI Convertible brings a host of other benefits to the market, not least of which is the use of the latest 1.6-litre direct injection petrol engines already serving in the latest MINI Hatch models.

With 8,000 MINI Convertibles available for UK customers this year — more next year when the MINI One version becomes available — 550 customers have already placed orders. Prices start from £15,995 for the Cooper Convertible 118bhp model, £18,995 for the Cooper S 173bhp turbocharged version and £23,470 for the John Cooper Works 208bhp variant.

As 88% of all MINI UK customers specify one of the option packs, these have been enhanced and upgraded as well: more individual options and body and hood colours are now available. Take, for instance, the £115 optional 'Openometer'. Want to know how long you keep your hood down? Well, this gadget records the time — the overall total or just journey time — the top is down. Look out for MINI club chatrooms comparing notes on whose has been down the longest… And, as it's the 50th birthday of MINI this year, no doubt owners of the new Convertibles will be comparing 'top-down' times at the MINI United celebration to be held at Silverstone Circuit on 22-24 May.

The new Convertible is a significant improvement over its predecessor. On the outside, owners will appreciate the improved, electrically-powered canvas roof design, new wheel options and new body and roof colour finishes. Inside there are new upholsteries, improved (but still not great) rear visibility, new switch clusters, marginally increased luggage capacity, a lockable glovebox and air conditioning as standard on all cars.

Under the skin, high-performance engines use 'MINImalism' fuel-saving and CO2-limiting technology but, thankfully, not at the expense of out-and-out performance. The body structure has been strengthened by 10% which has reduced scuttle shake although it is still evident. Chassis technologies, including the standard-fit Dynamic Stability Control, keep ardent drivers as safe as possible. Overall, I'm pleased to report that the MINI Convertible remains a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging car to drive.

Specific design cues differentiate the Cooper and Cooper S models. Both derivatives feature MINI's trademark hexagon radiator grille and large round headlamps with integrated indicators. The high-performance MINI Cooper S Convertible sets itself apart visually through the presence of an enhanced 'powerdome' which sits 20 millimetres proud of the Cooper's bonnet and houses a large air scoop. And whereas a hexagonal grid pattern on the radiator grille of the Cooper S is its finishing touch, the new MINI Cooper Convertible's grille boasts a chrome frame and three horizontal, chrome-plated bars. At the tail, a two-piece rear fog lamp, large twin tailpipes and a large diffuser in the rear bumper mark it out.

Exclusive to the new drop-top will be two all-new colours: Interchange Yellow and Horizon Blue. Also new for 2009 across the MINI range is Midnight Black metallic. In all, a total of twelve colour options are available for the MINI Convertible. Three contrasting roof options add visual appeal to the newcomer, and British customers will be able to choose from Black, Denim Blue and Hot Chocolate.

Available exclusively (as an option) for the Convertible Cooper and S models are very striking 17-inch rims in Black Star Bullet design.

For the first-time in a MINI Convertible, air conditioning is fitted as standard. An added benefit to owners will be the cooled lockable glovebox, ensuring its contents remain chilled while passengers enjoy basking in the sun.

The automatic canvas roof of this second-generation MINI Convertible can be fully retracted or closed in just 15 seconds. In the event of a driver being caught unexpectedly by a sudden downpour, this roof will operate at speeds of up to 20mph.

As an alternative to the complete top-down driving experience, the electric roof can also be retracted by approximately 40 centimetres to create the effect of a sunroof — and this function works at speeds of up to 75mph.

Occupants wishing to drive with the top down but in a peaceful environment can specify the optional wind deflector. Fitted behind the front seats, it moves up quickly and easily in one simple operation and will lighten your wallet or purse by £180. Driven with the hood down and the windows up, the wind and noise intrusion was very low and it was perfectly possible to hold a normal conversation at 80mph. In fact, there was more buffeting from the wind with just the sunroof section open than with the whole roof down.

Agility remains superb, as does grip — and so does driving enjoyment. The ride can be on the harsh side and there is some body shake because of the roofless design. The attributes of the Cooper, Cooper S and JCW models I have covered in the past, so there is no need to go over those again in depth. But briefly, the Cooper S is the best version to drive because the engine is more responsive; the turbocharger not only boosts power up to 173bhp from 118bhp but, more importantly, the torque goes up from 118lb ft to 177lb ft and that really gives the car some punch.

The Cooper version will be the best-seller for a number of reasons: cost, better mpg, lower road tax and a significantly lower insurance premium. With a top speed of 123mph, 0-62mph in 9.8 seconds, an official combined consumption of 49.6mpg (35.6mpg actual during my road test) and a road tax bill of £120, it is the sensible way to go topless in a classy sort of way.

The 146mph John Cooper Works Convertible model cannot be left out although it will sell in small numbers when it comes to overall MINI sales. It has the same 1.6-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged engine but with 208bhp and 192lb ft of torque — the standout figure in my mind, however, is the £23,470 price tag.

Yes it is fun and great to drive, and with all that power and no hard roof to maximise on bodyshell stiffness it didn't, surprisingly, want to tie itself in knots under hard acceleration and very fast cornering. Indeed, the 'flex' in the body seemed to give it a more compliant ride than the JCW Hatch version.

Even this second-generation MINI Convertible is not quite perfect — it costs more to buy, there's very limited boot and rear seat space, rear visibility is still not good and some of the switchgear is cheaply finished and fiddly. That noted, in every way — except for the inevitable rise in the purchase prices over the old models — the new MINI Convertible is a vastly improved product over the previous version. It has better engines, uses less fuel, emits less CO2 and remains a design icon which now really does justify its 'premium' brand status. Happy 50th Birthday MINI! — David Miles

MINI Cooper Convertible Mk 2
| £15,995
Maximum speed: 123mph | 0-62mph: 9.8 seconds | Overall test MPG: 35.6mpg
Power: 118bhp | Torque: 118lb ft | CO2 137g/km | Insurance group 9E