LIT­TLE JOY

The Mini de­fies the odds by be­com­ing more pop­u­lar while be­ing less ap­peal­ing

The Weekend Australian - Life - - MOTORING - PHILIP KING Mo­tor­ing ed­i­tor

The topic I get asked about most — apart from the num­ber of points left on my li­cence — con­cerns what is my favourite car. It’s im­pos­si­ble to an­swer be­cause when you know what’s out there — and you know what’s on the way — set­tling for one model would mean rul­ing out too much that’s de­sir­able. Why only one?

It’s more fun to play a ver­sion of Desert Is­land Discs. In­stead of eight records, you pick eight mo­tors: Cast­away Cars. Though my isle has an au­to­bahn, a race­track and lots of moun­tain passes.

But why does no one ever ask what is my least favourite car? What comes bot­tom of the list? In­evitably, when you drive lots of cars there are plenty you don’t like. Again, it would be a list, quite a long one: the Cars I’d Crush.

In the in­ter­ests of fair­ness, I should say at this point that I have tried to like the Mini. With reser­va­tions, I was fond of the first reborn model pro­duced by BMW in 2001. The ex­te­rior cap­tured some­thing of the orig­i­nal’s cute­ness, the en­gines were char­ac­ter­ful and it was fun to drive.

More­over, when the his­tory books are writ­ten, BMW will be cred­ited with show­ing the way when it comes to mar­ket­ing small pre­mium cars. It rein­vented a class­less 1960s icon as a fash­ion state­ment for the iPod gen­er­a­tion and of­fered en­tic­ing add-ons to make each car unique. Buy­ers be­come hooked on op­tions lists. Mini was reap­ing a motza for what is es­sen­tially a small — al­beit trendy — hatch­back. With each suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tion, though, it has evolved the recipe by mov­ing closer to the main­stream. This is partly be­cause the main­stream started to catch up, with trendy small cars of its own. But also be­cause Mini got big­ger as it at­tempted to over- come the core virtue of the orig­i­nal. It spawned vari­ants, in­clud­ing a four-door hatch and a mini-SUV, each one uglier and less au­then­tic than the last.

Some were so far wide of the mark they have been culled. But over­all, the strat­egy has been suc­cess­ful. Last year, sales grew 12 per cent to reach al­most 340,000 world­wide, a record. BMW is well on the way to its goal of mak­ing Mini a stand-alone brand with a whole range of mod­els.

The third gen­er­a­tion, which ar­rived two years ago, is still fill­ing out its line-up. The lat­est to ar­rive is the Con­vert­ible, which fol­lows the hatch in get­ting wider and sub­stan­tially longer, in­creas­ing cabin and cargo space. As with the hatch, prices have been cut, in this case by at least $4800 com­pared with the out­go­ing car, while equip­ment lists are longer.

The two tur­bocharged en­gines, a 1.5-litre three­cylin­der in the Cooper or 2.0-litre four-cylin­der in the Cooper S, are both more pow­er­ful and more ef­fi­cient than be­fore. A carry-over six-speed au­to­matic is stan­dard, though you can have a six-speed man­ual if you like.

As ever from the BMW sta­ble, the driv­e­lines are a strong point. The triple — driven in other vari­ants — is strong enough to do the job and the four has a con­vinc­ing turn of pace once on the move.

Nei­ther avoids the bane of turbo en­gines, which is the de­layed re­sponse to ac­cel­er­a­tor pres­sure. And of course the con­vert­ibles are slower than their hatch­back equiv­a­lents. At 7.1 sec­onds to 100km/h, the Cooper S Con­vert­ible is al­most half-a -sec­ond slower. My fuel use was about 50 per cent higher than the of­fi­cial fig­ure, too.

But the real prob­lem lies else­where. The su­per­charged units in the Gen I Mini had feisty per­son­al­i­ties and con­stantly emit­ted en­ter­tain­ing sounds. The oc­ca­sional burp on over-run from the present Con­vert­ible feels like a con­trived di­ver­sion from its in­dus­trial drone.

Some of the plea­sure has also been di­alled out of the chas­sis. This plat­form, suit­ably strength­ened for a roof­less car, is shared with front-wheel-drive BMWs. The re­sult is com­mend­ably rigid, with lit­tle tell­tale shake or body roll through cor­ners. But again, there’s pre­cious lit­tle to in­spire. The con­vert­ible lacks the alert­ness you should ex­pect from a Mini. It’s leaden through direc­tional changes, even re­luc­tant, the steering ar­ti­fi­cial.

Worst of all is the ride, which is jolt­ingly in­tru­sive. You’d be more com­fort­able on a skate­board.

At least you’d have the wind in your hair. The roof opens sun­roof-style with the first push of the but­ton and folds com­pletely if you hold it down. At 15 sec­onds to op­er­ate, it’s more than quick enough

and func­tions on the move, at speeds about 30km/h or less, which is a boon.

How­ever, it con­certi­nas be­hind the cabin as neatly as a dis­carded nap­kin and sits high enough to block out cars on your tail.

Re­gard­less of the roof po­si­tion, vi­sion is an is­sue. With the roof up, the rear sec­tion is so wide that lane chang­ing re­lies en­tirely on wing mir­rors. Re­vers­ing, even with the stan­dard rear cam­era, is a fin­ger­scrossed af­fair.

If you raise the rear head­rests so they can be used, they also block rear vi­sion. How­ever, you can lower them in per­pe­tu­ity be­cause any­one likely to fit in the rear will be so short they won’t need them. Adults would have to sit knees splayed, pressed into the seat back, feet crushed to­gether. I didn’t even try to get into the back with the roof up.

So the in­creased di­men­sions have added lit­tle to oc­cu­pant space and the ex­tra lug­gage room is also heav­ily com­pro­mised. The boot hinges down, like a tail­gate, to ex­pose a nar­row open­ing. A lever sys­tem al­lows you to ex­pand this load aper­ture a lit­tle and the rear backs drop (against the front seats un­less they are for­ward enough). But with 215 litres of space (160 litres with the roof down) in re­al­ity it’s lim­ited to a cou­ple of squishy bags.

With the third gen­er­a­tion, cabin qual­ity was sup­posed to have im­proved but it re­mains a mon­u­ment to un­pleas­ant plas­tic. There is sim­ply too much of it, as ev­ery­thing in the cabin, from the vents to the con­trol screen to the speaker grilles, sits on ut­terly point­less hard plas­tic plinths. It’s meant to be a de­sign state­ment but it left func­tion well be­hind and reaches a nadir in the ab­surdly shaped door han­dles.

Cheap gim­micks are an­other Mini spe­cialty, epit­o­mised by the round cen­tral dis­play — a ves­tige of the 1960s speedo — which is sur­rounded by danc­ing coloured lights that would not be out of place at a tod­dler’s party.

In the test car, the cabin high­lights were the ch­est­nut brown, di­a­mond quilted front seats and … that’s it.

And they were an op­tion. As were other fea­tures that should be stan­dard in a con­vert­ible, such as seat heaters and a wind de­flec­tor. All told, the test car had al­most $11,000 in op­tions for a $56,030 price be­fore on-road costs.

For me, the Mini Con­vert­ible is where all the worst as­pects of the model come to­gether in their least con­vinc­ing, most su­per­fi­cial form. You can buy a lot of fun mo­tor­ing for the sort of money here.

The Mini Con­vert­ible isn’t my least favourite car. But it’s def­i­nitely got a re­served space in the crusher queue.

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