Mini Cooper reflects size as well as price

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The 2009 Mini Cooper convertible is fun to drive, efficiently packaged and cute.

But more compelling in these hard economic times is that Mini's open-top model has the lowest starting price of any new four-seat convertible in the country: $24,550 with manual transmission.

This price, which includes destination charge, undercuts the 2009 Mitsubishi Eclipse that starts at $26,644, the 2009 Volkswagen New Beetle that starts at $26,690 and the 2009 VW Eos, which has a $32,315 starting retail price. All are four-seat convertibles which, like the Mini, have four-cylinder engines.

The Mini convertible's starting price also undercuts most two-seat open-air cars, except for the 2009 Smart Fortwo convertible starting at $17,634 and the 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata, which starts at $22,500.

The Mini is just 12 feet long, so rear-seat legroom is limited to 28.5 inches, which is less than what's in the third row of most minivans.

I could sit in the back of the Mini without my knees being jammed into the front seat backs, provided the front seats were pushed forward a bit on their tracks. But it was the upright position of the rear seat backs that kept me from enjoying total comfort.

The upright seat back helps allow for 6 cubic feet of cargo room in the small trunk. If you don't have anyone riding in back but need more cargo room, the rear seat backs fold down so longer items can pass through from the trunk. This expands cargo space to 23.3 cubic feet, which is more than what's in a typical sedan.

If that still doesn't do it, the Mini's rear cargo door can be left down so really long items can extend out the back.

The base convertible comes with the base engine -- a 118-horsepower, 1.6-liter, dual overhead cam four-cylinder that's not turbocharged. It was in the test car, mated to a six-speed automatic. Alas, the performance wasn't very peppy, even when I wasn't carrying luggage and people.

The car's engine buzzed loudly as I pressed on the accelerator, but it still took time for the 2,800-pound convertible to get to work. Torque peaks at 114 foot-pounds at 4,250 rpm, so there wasn't a lot of low-end zip.

The uplevel Mini Cooper S convertible does better with a turbocharged version of the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. Horsepower in this car is 172, and peak torque is a more forceful 177 foot-pounds starting at 1,600 rpm.

The only problem is the retail price of a Mini Cooper S convertible starts at $27,450. For even more power, buyers can get a top-of-the-line model with John Cooper Works package that gets 208 horsepower and starts at $34,950.

The Mini convertible is efficient with fuel. With manual transmission, the base open-top car is rated by the federal government at 28 miles per gallon in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway.

The test car, with automatic, was rated at 25/34 mpg, though during my test I averaged just under 28 mpg in combined city/highway driving.

The ride in the test car, a base model without sport suspension, bordered on firm to stiff. On pothole-scarred roads, the car jolted over road bumps and passengers noticed crisp impacts when it traveled over a series of highway expansion cracks. Railroad tracks can be jarring, too.

But steering was precise and the car stayed flat and mostly devoid of body lean in curves and turns. Brakes also worked strongly.

The interior is well done, with a mix of modern and old style, creating a special environment reminiscent of the Minis of the 1960s.

A large speedometer dominates the center of the dashboard between passengers where other cars have only ventilation and audio controls. Don't worry, a digital readout in the middle of the tachometer, centrally located in front of the steering wheel, keeps the driver informed of the speed, so there's no need to keep looking over at the big speedometer.

Radio controls are clumsy and difficult to understand, and the volume knob is inexplicably placed a couple inches below the main radio controls.

It's difficult for a driver to see other cars approaching when backing out with the Mini's roof in place because side pillars around the rear window are sizable.

It's equally difficult for the driver to see what's behind the short Mini when the top is down because the folded roof sits up above the rear seats and blocks views, even for a 6-foot driver.

SPECS

THE VEHICLE: 2009 Mini Cooper convertible, a front-wheel-drive, four-passenger convertible

BASE PRICE: $23,900

AS TESTED: $32,050

ENGINE: 1.6-liter, dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder producing 118 horsepower

EPA MILEAGE: 25 mpg city, 34 mpg highway

TRANSMISSION: Six-speed automatic (optional)

TOP SPEED: 124 mph

LENGTH: 145.6 inches

WHEELBASE: 97.1 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 2,822 pounds

BUILT IN: United Kingdom

OPTIONS: Seats trimmed in Leather Lounge Hot Chocolate color, $2,000; Steptronic automatic transmission, $1,250; premium package (includes anti-theft alarm, multifunction steering wheel, chrome interior trim), $1,250; Horizon Blue metallic exterior paint, $500; cold weather package (heated front seats and outside mirrors), $500; traction control, $500; rear parking sensors, $500; Xenon headlamps, $500; fog lights, $250; sport seats, $250


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