The cute Mini Cooper has a rough ride on poor roads, is dwarfed by even compact cars on expressways and has scant rear seat and trunk room.
But the Mini has been a hit since introduced as a 2002 two-door hatchback. The new convertible version should cause sales to climb even higher, especially when spring sets in.
Mini sales rose a bit last year to 36,032 cars in America, despite a small number of dealers. And January sales this year climbed to 2,917 cars from 2,756 in the same month last year.
The $1,295 Mini was a sensation outside America when introduced in 1959. Built by the British, a whopping 5.3 million were bought from 1959-2000 because the Mini was cheap, fuel-stingy, roomy for its size and a blast to drive.
The Mini was designed expressly for Europe's high fuel prices and narrow roads. It initially carried the British Austin and Morris badges, but soon was just called "Mini," with a hot rod version called the "Mini Cooper."
Owners in swinging 1960s London included Paul McCartney and Peter Sellers (who owned 10). Fashion designer Mary Quant even named her miniskirt after the Mini.
Drawbacks such as poor promotion and distribution caused the Mini to flop in America during the 1960s, with less than 10,000 sold, although auto buffs such as actor Steve McQueen owned one.
Germany's BMW bought the rights to the Mini in 1995 and built a slightly larger, considerably refined version, introduced at the 2000 Paris Auto Show to rave reviews. The car retained the front-drive and basic styling of the rather tinny British version. It reached America as a 2002 model, after a massive publicity drive. BMW had found that few knew about the car and its colorful history.
The Mini comes as a base 115-horsepower two-door hatchback for $16,449 and as the new two-door convertible priced at $20,950 in base form. The supercharged S has 168-horsepower -- up five from last year -- and costs $19,899 as a coupe and $24,400 as the S convertible.
There's a five-speed manual gearbox for the base version and a six-speed manual for the more powerful S version, with an optional, efficient continuously variable automatic transmission.
One must shift a lot with the manual transmission with either version of the four-cylinder for the best performance because the engine is small at 1.6 liters, and engaging reverse gear calls for extra effort and awkward moves. The clutch has a long throw, but performance is lively with the regular engine, and the car is very fast with the supercharged four-cylinder because the Mini is light. The coupe is faster because it weighs 2,524 pounds, compared to 2,700 pounds for the convertible.
The engines rev high at highway cruising speeds, but the supercharged one in my test car didn't sound or feel strained at 75-80 mph.
All 2005 Minis get minor appearance changes to headlights, taillights and grille, although only Mini buffs would notice.
With its small size, it's comforting to know the Mini hatchback has standard front side air bags and front and rear side curtain head-protection air bags. The convertible's front side airbags protect both the torso and head.
The standard Mini is generally well equipped, with items including air conditioning, AM/FM/CD player, split-folding rear seats, anti-lock all-disc brakes, 65-series tires on 15-inch wheels and power mirrors, windows and locks with a remote keyless entry system that worked erratically.
The S version adds anti-skid and traction controls, sport seats, sport suspension, a rear spoiler for the hatchback and wider 55-series run-flat tires on larger 16-inch wheels.
The ride is choppy on anything but smooth roads -- especially with the S version with its sport suspension and wider tires, which have less sidewall area to help absorb bumps. However, the convertible has a slightly softer ride.
To add strength without the hard top, the convertible's windshield pillars and door sills are reinforced for more rigidity, and an aluminum roll bar is integrated into the rear headrests.
My test convertible generally felt solid, but its empty front passenger seat and front seat belts rattled and squeaked. It has a standard rear obstacle protection system, which is good because the top creates bad rear blind spots when erected.
Neither Mini version is very practical. They're both four-seaters. But, while the front seat area is OK for tall occupants, the rear seat of the hatchback is tight for adults and the rear of the convertible is only suited for children, who might even have a hard time squeezing in. Low seats and wide doors can make it difficult for the nonathletic to get in and out of the front, especially in tight spots.
The trunk is small in the hatchback and miniscule in the convertible, so it's best to flip the rear seatbacks forward to enlarge the cargo area if there are no rear occupants.
There's a bunch of options such as a $550 Harman/Kardon sound system, $850 power sunroof for the hatchback, $250 cruise control with steering-wheel radio controls, $1,700 navigation system and $1,300 leather upholstery.
But watch those options! My test $24,400 convertible's bottom line price was $27,620, although it lacked such things as the $1,350 option group that has such things as cruise control and automatic climate control.
Few cars are as much fun to drive as the nimble Mini, with its go-kart handling. Its steering is quick, braking is strong and handling is outstanding. Handling is even sharper with the $1,350 Sport packages for the base and S versions. The packages contain larger run-flat tires (16-inch for the base and 17-inch for the S), and the S sport package also contains very wide 45-series run-flat tires.
The front seats are quite supportive.
Small "retro" toggle switches in the center of the stylish dashboard control the power windows and locks and are awkward to use. Sound system and climate controls are too small, and the outside mirrors should be larger. There are few cockpit storage areas.
The Mini is a perfect city car, but proves rather punishing on long drives -- especially the S version.
Insiders say the 2007 Mini, which debuts late next summer, will be all-new but easily recognizable as a Mini. Both the ride, rear seat room and engines will be improved. And a four-door version arrives later in the model year, along with a station wagon. However, a new convertible isn't scheduled to be introduced for several years, so Mini convertible lovers may want to stand in line to snap up the current one.
2005 MINI COOPER
New convertible model. Blast to drive. Very fast with supercharged engine. Superb handling. Gas miser.
Choppy ride. Small rear seat and trunk. Diminutive size.