HERE IT is - the best Mini that the Rover Group, or any of its numerous ancestors, has yet made. It is the smoothest, the quietest, the most comfortable, the best built, the most thoroughly honed.

This is a fine achievement, although the car's creators have had 34 years to perfect it. But there is a snag - at pounds 11,995, this version is the most expensive ever to have left the Longbridge factory, where the Mini has been built since 1959.

Why is it so expensive? Well, while this is not the first time that someone has chopped the top off a Mini to make a convertible, previous efforts either looked dreadful with the hood up or leaked in the rain, or both, but this one really is different, not least because the hood is expensively engineered and the side windows are made of glass and frameless.

Previous Mini convertibles started life as saloons, which someone bought and then took to a metal-bashing shop for surgery. This one has been properly designed by Rover. The bodyshell has been 'reproductionised' with strengthened sills under the doors, a stiffer cross-member under the seats, and a much stouter windscreen frame. Once welded together it travels down the same production line as all other Minis.

The very observant among you might think you have seen this Mini Cabriolet before. The German coachbuilder Lamm built 75 chop-top Minis a couple of years ago, with Rover's approval and, though the structure was short of stiffness, it did at least look a thoroughly professional job. That car had wide alloy wheels, pumped-out wheel-arches and hunky bumpers; so does this one.

If you are not sure whether the Cabriolet is dead racy or a bit of a lump, note the reactions of your fellow humans: they smile and point, exclaim with delight, and engage the Mini's driver in conversation. It is definitely a cute car, friendly, cuddly, non-aggressive, an antidote to faceless modernity.

People become even more animated when they look inside, an easy enough feat when the fabric hood is folded back into a foot-high pile on top of the boot.

What the eager onlookers see is a cabin flaunting polished walnut (on the door cappings, facia, instrument cluster and gear-lever knob), leather (for the steering wheel), and stainless steel (for the door steps). Everything else is trimmed in rich and tasteful grey fabrics, including the outsize, Rover 800-like, front seats. You could not get further from Sir Alec Issigonis's original minimalist Mini concept if you tried. Even the driving position is normal now.

Those seats count a lot towards the Cabriolet's comfort, because they absorb much of the Mini's bounce. But this is not the only reason why the Cabriolet rides the bumps more serenely than any previous Mini. Additional weight plays a part, and while the Cabriolet bodyshell is commendably rigid considering it has no roof, there is a little bit of flexing in the structure which acts like an extra layer of suspension beyond the usual rubber cone springs behind each wheel. A side-effect of the weight and flex is that this Mini does not steer with quite the precision of its best forebears. That is to say, it is no more than extremely agile. The chunky 165/60 R13 tyres give it ludicrously high levels of grip, and there remain few cars that can keep up with the Cabriolet through a series of tight corners.

True, it cannot compete on the straights, for the venerable 1,275cc engine (a direct descendant of the motor that powered granddad's Austin A30) is not very powerful. But its easy, lazy power delivery, with strong pull from low speeds, suits the Mini's character to perfection. This is not a car in which to rush from place to place at the highest possible speeds. Rather, you should fold back the roof, wind down all the side windows and head off into the sun, the sounds and the smells.

And should the rains interrupt, up goes the hood to make a snug and serene little saloon. That is when you discover the final bonus: the body boom that has plagued past Minis is nowhere to be heard.

It is uncanny. Everything that drives you mad in a Mini has been expunged from the Cabriolet, to leave a cracking good little car. If you think a modern Mini cannot be anything but a tarted-up museum piece, try this one.


Mini Cabriolet, pounds 11,995. Engine: 1,275cc, four cylinders, 63bhp

at 5,700rpm. Four-speed manual, front-wheel drive. Top speed 92mph, 0-60mph in 12.3 seconds. Fuel consumption: 35-40mpg unleaded.


Honda CRX ESi, pounds 15,395. A good deal more expensive than the Mini, and with two fewer seats, but this sports car does have a retractable, rigid roof which is stored in the top of the boot. Fun to drive, though much floppier than the Mini.

Mazda 121 Canvas Top, pounds 9,800. A Corsa-size supermini with a friendly shape and full-length electric sunroof. No convertible, but good for fresh-air fiends. Lively engine, good ride, excellent handling.

Peugeot 205 CJ, pounds 11,535. Nowhere near as old a design as the Mini, but the 205 is still a design classic. CJ version uses modest 1.4-litre engine, lacks luxury touches and quality feel of the Mini but has more space and equally fine dynamics.

Volkswagen Golf Clipper, pounds 12,660. Now ousted by the new convertible version of the Mk III Golf, just launched in mainland Europe, the Mk I-based Clipper might still be available in a few VW dealers. Dated but still appealing design; good value.

(Photographs omitted)

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