by Colin Mathews
Two things you should know about the 2009 MINI Cooper Convertible S: it refuses to be ignored, and it can make you erupt into spontaneous laughter. This is a car to drive if you always seem to wake up on the wrong side of the bed; it’s got a certain Kathy Najimy quality that can seem ridiculous at first but leaves you grinning every time, wondering exactly why you take yourself and life so seriously.
Open the power scissor-folding cloth top (with a glass, defrosted rear window of course) in about 15 seconds with the touch of a toggle, and the world rushes in. So do roving eyes, especially if you happen to be in nice weather and sporting a sleeveless gym shirt. Or, hell, driving around San Francisco on a spectacular day, gratuitously shirtless and trying to peg a perfect 6 on the Kinsey Scale.
But our Interchange Yellow MINI Cooper S Convertible wasn’t just a family affair. People couldn’t help smiling, asking questions, and reminiscing about roadsters and convertibles they used to own. The car became my personal goodwill ambassador, cracking ice, opening conversations, and spreading grins with its indefatigable cheer.
A middle-aged lady in a Volvo wagon outside a Vallejo laundromat went from tired to tickled when I pulled up; she started talking about the weather, her beloved Volvo 740, and finally expressed a touch of envy at my glowing ride. “No, no, it’s not actually mine,” I explained, “but the more I drive it, the more I wish it were.” Also on that bright, 72-degree day in Vallejo, an old man shuffling up a hill flagged me down: “young man now what kind of car is that?” After I told him, he immediately spun off into a nostalgic tale from his youth about a Ford convertible that got him plenty of attention with the ladies. We smiled our goodbyes.
While a smiley, bright yellow soft top hardly seems a pillar of masculinity, the torquey four, rorty exhaust note, athletic 17-inch dark gray wheels, and unarguable BMW solidity mean this ride’s just as tough as it is whimsical. I never tired of the mighty mouse 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, which makes a stout 177 lb-ft torque from 1,600 to 6,400 rpm. Along with a six-speed manual and clutch as slick as those in the Mazda Miata, this engine is swift at all speeds and can execute highway passing maneuvers in sixth gear with just a jab at the throttle. Even better, on an autobahn-fast drive up the I-5 from LA to San Francisco, I averaged 33 mpg. This from a car that leaps from 0 to 60 in less than 7 seconds (and 60-90 in a blink). Credit the fuel-saving, performance-boosting engineering wonder called gasoline direct-injection in concert with a variable-vane turbocharger that’s almost never caught sleeping.
My foolish grinning turned into pure laughter when I flogged the MINI Cooper S Convertible on LA’s famed Mulholland drive, which cuts a delightfully serpentine path through the Hollywood Hills. You’d be hard pressed to find a front-wheel drive car this responsive and fun. The chassis talks to you, the turbo’s blowoff valve laughs along with you on deceleration through the turns, and the exhaust booms and burbles in the way only a British roadster can.
MINI is onto something. They were one of the few brands that actually saw a sales increase in the midst of 2008, one of the worst years ever for auto sales. Owner/designer BMW keeps perfecting the MINI formula, tweaking, tuning, and keeping weight low to make this vehicle a styling statement and driving experience non pareil.
MINI is a gay-friendly company.
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