THERE was a time when convertibles were not that popular in SA, principally because driving along getting “grilled” under the sun’s fierce UV rays had limited appeal. But once South Africans became heavily image conscious, ragtops entered a renaissance period, and the latest to join the movement is the Mini, available in Cooper – fivespeed manual and CVT automatic – and six-speed supercharged Cooper S derivatives. There are a number of body colour/hood colour/stripe options that can be ordered, as well as a choice of trim combinations. Our Hot Orange Cooper S test car arrived with a black hood and black bonnet stripes, too. (Ordering a Mini is a customising experience.)

CAR tested the Cooper S hatch in November 2002 and mechanically the chopped-top version is no different, although the hatch came with optional 17-inch alloy wheels whereas the convertible was fitted with the standard run-flat 16-inchers shod with 195/55 rubber. Once again there is a choice: Mini offers different wheel styles and sizes.

But this test is more about the hood. Firstly, the multi-layered top appears to be well fabricated but it is not entirely successful in isolating the cabin from major exterior noises, such as the rumbling engine of a truck standing alongside in a traffic queue. We heard some slight wind noise creeping past the hood-towindow seals at higher speeds, and we detected some exhaust boom when cruising around the legal limit. Visibility through the small glass back window is poor, partly because of the rear seats’ roll hoops with integral head restraints being in the line of sight. These are common failings of soft-tops, but they are factors nonetheless.

Eschewing the trend towards folding metal roofs, the Mini does, however, boast something a little different from the norm. The roof offers two modes. Press the button on the windscreen header rail and the roof begins to slide back like a conventional sunroof. The maximum opening is 400 mm, which recalls the old coupé de ville position, but Mini recommends that speeds be kept below 120 km/h in this condition (presumably when fully open).

Release and depress the button again, and the hood folds into a Z shape and collapses behind the rear seats, all in around 15 seconds. Thankfully, unlike the original Mini’s post-war pram look, the new Mini’s roof folds pretty much out of sight. And, as is usually the case, the car looks better topless, although the Mini is not too clumsy-looking with the hood up.

With door and rear side windows down, a fair amount of turbulence fills the cabin, but this can mostly be eliminated by raising the side windows, although some air swirl remains. However, a folding screen can be fitted across the body behind the front seats and above the rears to make speedy motoring for one or two people a calmer affair. If passengers are to be carried in the back, the rear seats have decently sized cushions, but unless the people up front are small, legroom is almost nonexistent. As is useful boot space…

Being a Cooper S, performance is strong, and despite being around 100 kg heavier than the hatch – due to all the reinforcing necessary to compensate for lopping off the roof – the Convertible provided near identical test figures. The whine of the supercharger is evocative, and the engine’s pull from mid-range is impressive. The gearshift is meaty and precise, contributing towards a general feeling of powertrain integrity.

The Mini is one of the nimblest and most wieldy cars around, but ride quality is dependent on the wheels and tyres fitted. We noticed that the Convertible was softer than the hatch we had tested. Mind you, there is noticeable body flex, which probably contributed to the overall effect of feeling more compliant. Notwith-standing, ridges and ruts cause the body to shake. You either love or loathe the Mini’s facia: the test team leaned more towards the latter. The two instrument pods atop the steering column have faces that reflect distractingly if the sun is behind. Reading the instruments is difficult at the best of times, and the row of toggle switches are fiddly to operate. Frankly, the facia and controls are an ergonomic mess.

Test summary

Mini is probably the only retrostyled vehicle that can genuinely be labelled a sales success. Oddly, though, it is younger people who more readily identify with the car rather than the ones who grew up with the original. Creating a Convertible was a natural, and it will doubtless capture a large chunk of its niche market. Whether the S performance potential is necessary is debatable, because you cannot sensibly exploit it to the full with the top down, which is how convertibles should be seen. But if you’ve got it, flaunt it…