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Mini goes soft up top

"This will be a brand and image shaper for MINI," MINI national manager Shawn Ticehurst says. "We expect it will attract new target groups and grow MINI volumes by greater than 30 per cent to more than 2000for 2005."

While not all of the growth will be Cabrio sales – Ticehurst says research shows that when a drop-top model is launched, hard-top versions also enjoy a popularity boost – MINI is expecting to move at least 600 of the new cloth-tops.

"The small convertible market has enjoyed considerable growth in recent years," Ticehurst says.

"It started with the Peugeot 206cc and Holden has proven with the Astra convertible that there is a good market for a well-designed small convertible at the right price."

The MINI Cabrio will arrive in both the 85kW Cooper and 125kW Cooper S models at $35,900 and $44,900 respectively.

A five-speed manual is standard on the Cooper while the Cooper S has the same compact six-speed manual shifter as its hard-top stablemate.

A CVT (continuously variable transmission) is a $2200 option on the Cooper while from March a six-speed automatic with a sequential manual mode will be available for the Cooper S for the same premium.

Both models come stacked with the same level of specification as the hard-top versions – and the same availability of "personalisation" options that in the most extreme case can lift the cost of a Cooper S to beyond $86,000.

"MINI owners love to customise their cars to be different," Ticehurst says. "There is a saying in Oxford [where MINI is manufactured] that you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to see two MINIs exactly the same."

The options run from a full John Cooper Works tuning kit – now upgraded to produce a spanking 154kW Cooper S – at $9850 through bonnet stripes, xenon headlights, rain sensor wipers, satellite navigation, automatic airconditioning, a range of 17 and 18-inch light alloy rims, a high-spec Harman Kardon sound system and a wind deflector.

Another personalisation option is the choice of three colours – black, green and blue – for the cloth roof to co-ordinate or contrast with the 12 available body colours, two of which – hot orange and cool blue – are exclusive to the Cabrio.

The fully automatic folding roof will drop in two stages in 15 seconds either from a button inside the car or from outside using the remote key fob. The "integrated sunroof" function allows a first-stage opening of 400mm at speeds of up to 120km/h.

The Cabrio claims a safety rating equivalent to the hard-top with four airbags.

Mechanically, the main difference between Cabrio and the hard-top is in the suspension, where the settings have been shifted down a notch towards a softer ride. The Cooper S has the Sport setting – Sports-Plus in the hard-top – while the Cooper Cabrio is fitted with the standard suspension against the Sports in the hard-top model.

Structurally the Cabrio has been stiffened through the A-pillar and along the bottom rails of the cabin section, as well as with a cross member under the seats and through the use of the aluminium cross-brace, which doubles as the rear roll-over loop.

"Since its launch MINI has seen a fairly strong 70:30 male bias in ownership and while that is softening a little recently we believe the Cabrio will bring more women into the showrooms," Ticehurst says.

"Obviously we don't want this to be seen as a 'chick's car' ... it is a very worthy sports car in its own right, but it is a style of car which could attract more female buyers."

If you like the MINI there is every chance you will love the MINI Cabrio.

The drop-top version of the modern brick has all the same go-kart-like driving characteristics of its hard-top stablemate, the same stylish cabin, the same potential for personalisation with an added dash of look-at-me flair ... and a few extra compromises.

Melbourne's weather didn't play fair during the launch drive for the Cabrio this week, with fog and rain reducing the opportunity for top-down and adrenalin-up testing.

Consequently, a judgment on the level of scuttle shake noted by several overseas reviews will have to wait until a more thorough test drive but it was not obvious with the clever sliding/folding cloth roof in place.

What was noticeable was the effect of the softer suspension settings nominated for the Cabrio models.

For the hard-top versions MINI Australia had opted for the firm Sports-Plus setting on the Cooper S and the slightly more compliant Sport on the Cooper.

That has been wound back a notch further with the Cooper having standard settings and the Cooper S the basic Sport package.

While the effect on the Cooper is minimal, the difference in the Cooper S ride is fairly dramatic. The car is more prone to being jiggly over broken surfaces and has a certain nervousness to its ride quality.

The Cooper S, coupled to the six-speed Getrag manual, remains a barrel of fun with its 125kW and 220Nm on tap and willing over a good spread of the rev range.

Even the extra 100kg of the Cabrio and the softer suspension cannot take away the fun factor.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the 85kW Cooper with the CVT automatic.

Using the "manual" shift mode with six nominated "ratios" does little to improve the experience as the box is more interventionist than US foreign policy.

It changes up without being asked and resists changing down even when requested.

Steering and handling remain sharp. There is still a slight propensity for push understeer if too aggressive with the wheel input – but it does take quite gross movements to induce it.

The rear seating positions have been compromised, presumably squeezed to make room for the workings of the automatic folding roof.

The upshot is that rear-seat passengers have been forced to sit at a rather awkward angle by the intrusion into the outsides of theseat space.

For a single-layer roof the Cabrio's cloth-top is a benchmark.

Wind noise is at a minimum, the fit is drum-tight and there was no noticeable stretch or drumming of the roof on the launch vehicles driven.

Operation is a simple one-button affair with no manual catches to release.

The first 400mm of the roof travel is a slide rearwards, opening up what MINI calls the "integrated sunroof".

While that operation can be done at up to 120km/h the folding and storage of the remainder requires the car to be stationary for about 15 seconds.

With the roof down, wind buffeting is not a major issue, at least for the front-seat occupants – an advantage of the (relatively) huge upright windscreen.

To aid loading of the boot the rear skirt of the roof can be lifted when the tailgate is dropped, providing a quite large opening for difficult-sized objects.

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