The MINI blows its top

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One of my favorite Matchbox "Superfast" cars - still English-made and all-metal back in the mid-'70s - was a "Racing Mini." In blazing orange, it was modeled on the boxy car first introduced in Britain in 1959 to become a rally champ and a cult favorite of motorists with a penchant for the petite.

You could almost hear the burbling back-pressure from its tiny exhaust.

Thirty years later, those imagined harmonics hold true for the latest full-sized version of the toy-cute car: a 2005 MINI Cooper S convertible.

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Its twin-tipped, center-mounted exhaust - gently rumbling during shifts - juts out a scant 10 feet back from the 1.6-liter power plant: a 16-valve, four-cylinder engine that makes 168 hp, thanks to a supercharger. (That's the "S," and that's up from 115 hp in the version without forced induction.)

As muscular as it is, the six-speed still achieves about 32 miles per gallon on the highway, 25 m.p.g in town.

MINI - all capitals to differentiate it from the original - roared back into the automotive world in 2002 as a division of BMW. The S performance option followed. Just last fall came the ragtop, with a useful half-retracted setting that affords the driver a sunroof - really a soft-backed version of a targa top. Those are appearing on northern roads now.

The drop-top S, at under $30,000 well-equipped, remains endearingly straight-from-the-toy-box, especially with the optional bright-white "bonnet stripes." Nine-year-old girls on bikes point and whoop when it tools into a neighborhood. The driver of a panel truck rolls down his window to extend a thumbs-up at a stoplight.

Other MINI drivers often wave or flash their bright Xenon headlights.

For 2005, MINI tinkered with the gear ratios. The car doesn't whine to get out of first gear, a big plus for the stop-and-go commuter.

Gripping the doorknob-shaped stick, the driver finds a remarkably agreeable shifter. It's neither a loose long-throw stick nor a tenacious short-stick that requires heavy wrist action.

The MINI corners like a slot car, owing to its short wheelbase and stiff suspension, with stabilizer bars fore and aft. The car seems to beg for more throttle as it pulls through turns. Its run-flat tires on 16-inch rims grip tight, pasting its driver to the high-backed leather seat.

Apart from all of the expected safety features, MINI also offers rear "park distance control," a signal that intensifies as you near anything solid. The manufacturer has anticipated the tight spaces MINI drivers will probably try to navigate.

Quirks are few and quickly learned. From inside the car, for example, you double-pump the door handle, first to unlock and then to open the door. The window controls are tiny silver toggles below the Harman-Kardon audio system.

Drawbacks are minor. A big passenger-side cupholder looms like something from a dentist's office, and it doesn't retract. The peekaboo glass rear window, roll bars, and the rear portion of the roof, when up, limit rear visibility a bit. (The hardtop's rear view is panoramic by comparison.)

Rear legroom? Nobody said the MINI was a people-hauler, and the retracted top cuts into available space even more. But rear headroom is more than ample. Four six-footers rode in the Monitor's test car for 30 minutes and the fun (slightly) outweighed the discomfort.

Flat out on a northeastern highway potholed by winter, MINI, with its low-profile tires and sport suspension, can deliver some jolts.

And MINI may still be experimenting with gauge placement. The speedometer, once in the saucer-size window in the dash's center, now perches in smaller form beside the tachometer on the steering column. It's partly eclipsed by the fat go-cart steering wheel; speeds between 50 and 130 m.p.h. are almost impossible to acquire at a glance.

Now prominent in that center-dash circle: oil pressure and temperature.

But then, MINI drivers will be blissfully ... driving. Darting through traffic, a hummingbird among lumbering geese, MINI is a car that a motorist practically wears. You'll want to slip it in your pocket like a favorite Matchbox when you reluctantly park for the night.

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