First Drive: 2009 MINI Cooper S Convertible

Click above for a high-res gallery of the 2009 MINI Cooper S Convertible

As far as we can tell, the 2009 MINI Cooper S Convertible draws cold air wherever it goes. First came the drop-top's ironic unveiling in Detroit, where we had the misfortune of experiencing one of the coldest, snowiest shows in recent memory. Just over a month later, we found ourselves in the cabrio-friendly climes of Southern California, where temperatures in the mid-50s did their best to spoil our open-air fun. But in spite of the chilly atmosphere, we bit the bullet, dropped the top and put the new MINI 'vert to the test to see if the lil' British runabout lives up to its "Always Open" tagline. Make the jump to find out what drop-top Motoring is all about.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

2009 is a big year for MINI. In August, the automaker will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sir Alec Issignis' creation, and later this year, MINI will launch its fourth variant, a smallish CUV that will be similar to the Crossover Concept originally shown in Paris. Jim McDowell, VP of MINI-USA, made it clear that the CUV would not carry the Crossman moniker, but that's a story for another day, as the MINI Cooper Convertible awaits.

It took some time, but the new cabrio is finally based on the second generation (modern) MINI that debuted in late 2006. Like its hatchback and Clubman siblings, the newest version is slightly longer than the original revival, mainly to meet current crash and pedestrian safety standards. The nose is a bit higher and rounder, but still utterly familiar and instantly recognizable as a MINI.

The interior, dominated by the huge central-mounted speedometer, is essentially identical to the rest of the MINI range, save one unique element to the convertible: the "Openometer." The new gauge hangs on the steering column to the left of the tachometer and tracks the amount of time the MINI is driven with the top down. The needle rotates clockwise for every minute the car is operated in drop-top mode, up to 60 minutes. At that point it, it flips back to the start point and LEDs illuminate for each hour you're enjoying the outside world. The chassis computer tracks the cabrio's total time with the top down over its lifespan and MINI USA Marketing Manager, Trudy Hardy, explains that the company is working on a variety of social networking tools that will allow owners to compare their "open time" with other MINI drivers. One predictable method being considered is the development of an iPhone app that would download the overall open-air time from the MINI's computer when the phone/MP3 player/global domination tool is plugged in and then automatically transmit it to a special website.

While the "Openometer" is fun gimmick, it adds nothing to the driving experience. That's where the mechanical bits come into play. The first order of business is putting the roof down, and like the first-gen. model, the power top features a "sunroof" function. Press the switch above the mirror and the portion of the roof above the front seats slides back. Continue holding the switch and the entire top retracts back behind the seats in 15 seconds. Another 15 seconds reverses the process. Given the MINI's diminutive size, there isn't room to stash the top entirely behind the seats, so a portion of the roof is stacked onto the rear deck, cutting into rearward visibility.

However, line of sight is notably better than the outgoing model thanks to a new active roll-bar mechanism. The last convertible had fixed double hoops that were always in view. MINI has addressed this problem with a new active system that's mounted even with the rear headrests under normal conditions. When the inertial sensors of the standard stability control system detect an impending rollover, a pyrotechnic charge causes the bar to pop up into its extended position. A ratchet mechanism holds it permanently in place afterward, making this a one-time deal that requires a professional fix, just like an air-bag.

Like its fixed roof brethren, the new convertible is available in mild, medium and caliente flavors, officially designated as the Cooper, Cooper S and John Cooper Works edition. That means propulsion from a 1.6-liter four cylinder with 118, 172 or 208 horsepower, the last two augmented by a turbocharger and in the case of the JCW, direct injection. We had the opportunity to spend some time with a Cooper S coated in the latest color choice "Interchange Yellow," which popped in the sunlight and had a slightly green cast to it.

Even though the temperature was an unseasonably cold 52-degrees in San Diego, the top immediately went down before we got underway. Fortunately, our Cooper S tester was equipped with the $500 Cold Weather Package that includes heated seats. So with the butt-warmers engaged and the heater cranked up we set out on our little journey.

They don't call this a MINI for nothing. At just over 12-feet-long, this is currently the second smallest car available in the U.S. after the smart ForTwo. Even the regular MINI hatchback has tight rear accommodations and the convertible is a bit more snug. Nonetheless, with the front passenger seat pulled forward, a small-framed passenger can fit, if only for short trips.

The entire MINI range is reasonably quick, with the normally aspirated Cooper equipped with a six-speed manual hitting 60 mph in 8.9 seconds, and the turbo'd S dropping that to seven seconds. The boosted mill was always responsive with no hint of any lag, pulling strongly out of corners or down freeway on-ramps. The exhaust note is aggressive, but it doesn't have the droning tones you'd likely find with an aftermarket system.

While the turbocharged four-pot is entertaining, the MINI's strong suit is its handling. The cliched "go-kart" characteristics are present and accounted for – and that's both good and bad. The MINI benefits from a small overall size and relatively low center of gravity, making it very nimble and willing to change direction almost as fast as the driver can think. The new convertible gets standard 16-inch wheels with run-flat tires, but our tester was mounted with the optional 17-inch Black Star Bullet alloys that add an aggressive look to the cute Cooper. Like other MINIs, the convertible has excellent steering feel and feedback, with no slop or free play. Rotation of the wheel translates directly and predictably to the tires, providing the driver considerably more confidence than they'd find in other similarly sized runabouts.

But for some, the downside of go-kart handling is a go-kart ride. The MINI may be a premium small car, but it's no luxury boat. The suspension and runflat sidewalls are fairly stiff, and the 97-inch wheelbase means that while driver commands get translated instantaneously, rough pavement finds its way into the passenger compartment with minimal damping. It's hardly horrendous, but those who live in areas cursed with dubious pavement quality would be advised to take a thorough test drive before putting down a deposit.

Over a few stretches of less-than-ideal tarmac in So. Cal., the Cooper S felt solid and showed no signs of rattles, squeaks or cowl shake. At freeway speeds with the windows up, we had to talk slightly louder than normal, but shouting was hardly necessary and wind buffeting was fairly reasonable. With the fully lined roof in place, life was definitely quieter, but as is often the case with drop-tops, the rear three-quarter blind spots were substantial. When you need to handle parcels larger than the 6.0 (yes, six) cu-ft trunk can accommodate, the rear seats fold down. The rear hatch's easy-load system allows things to slide in with ease and with the roof up, the rear part of the top can be released and raised to allow a few more inches of cargo space.

Having said all of that, the only major issue with the MINI cabrio is its price tag. Releasing an entertaining runabout during a global economic meltdown is going to be a tough sell, and when you've got a U.S. dollar exchange rate of $1.80 to the UK pound, BMW can't keep prices down without losing its shirt. Regardless, those looking for a stylish means of transport with handling to match and wind-in-your-hair thrills can plunk down $24,550 for the base Cooper convertible, $27,450 for the Cooper S or an eye-watering $34,950 for the JCW variant. If the Cooper convertible is on your shortlist, it could be worth the coin, no matter the weather.

MINI US Communications Mgr Nathalie Bauters and Product Manager Vincent Kung discuss the features of the 2009 MINI Convertible

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.

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