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car review

2013 Mini Cooper JCW

If I were a poet, I might be better able to explain Mini. Everyday prose just doesn't seem able to explain why I so enjoyed playing around with a nearly-$50,000 2013 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works ragtop.

You read that correctly. Nearly $50,000. For a Mini with a removable lid. At least it was power-operated and worked seamlessly with the flick of a shiny rocker switch. And it certainly had enough grunt. The turbocharged four-cylinder, at just 1.6 litres, spins up 208 horsepower and 192 lb-ft of torque. That is plenty: 0-100 km/h in considerably less than 7 seconds.

But no one buys a Mini – even a souped-up JCW Mini – for pure, racy performance. We expect Minis to be entertaining, but they're not muscle cars. We expect Minis to be fully able to handle curves, but other than perhaps the new Mini Coupe, nothing in the lineup is what anyone in the know would call a sports car. Sure, Mini challenged Porsche to a race in a publicity stunt of pure genius. But Mini was then promptly crushed.

Yet the zippy, little JCW convertible felt tremendously fun in my hands. Does it need the $1,850 Wired Package loaded into my tester? Mini types will tell you that their younger/young-at-heart buyers want voice recognition, Bluetooth, smartphone integration navigation and the rest. I am not so sure.

Mini also stuffed in a fancy Harman Kardon sound system ($750), cushy, carbon black "Lounge Leather" upholstery ($1,900), a $550 Sirius satellite radio tuner, metallic paint ($490), 17-inch Black Star Bullet Alloy Wheels ($250), a $150 wind deflector – look, Mini offers no end of options. If I'd wanted a six-speed automatic gearbox, I'd have been set back another $1,300. The Sport suspension is $250 and rear fog lights are worth an extra $100. It's possible and not difficult to send the final price north of $50,000. Beware.

The question that so often comes to mind for me is this: What makes it possible for BMW's Mini brand to command this kind of premium pricing? What's the magic?

What allows the Mini brand vehicles to retain 47 per cent of their value after four years, according to Canadian Black Book (Porsche is No. 1 at 53 per cent)? In crash tests by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Mini Cooper is only a middling performer. And in quality studies such as J.D. Power and Associates three-year Vehicle Dependability Study, the Mini brand is ranked well below average.

So how is it that Mini has grown sales globally to more than 300,000 a year – when a decade ago company officials said they'd be happy with annual sales of half that number? As far as sales and profitability go, Mini is a casebook business success story, despite hard truths on crash test scores and reliability research.

Some of the secret of Mini's success is design. I am certain of that. Every Mini sits low, with nicely balanced proportions all around. The headlamps are big and bold, the front and rear overhangs are short and tight and there is a distinct lack of excessive adornment. No excessive chrome, but just enough to dress up the tailgate and the door handles, for instance.

The interior is an even more interesting place. A big speedometer sits right in the centre of the dashboard and this is a love-it-or-hate it affectation. I love it. It is just so in your face, such a slap at convention.

I like the aircraft-like toggle switches that operate the power windows and such, too. The seating position in comfy buckets is excellent and the cabin ergonomics are first-rate. Visibility. For a car that sits so low, the outlook is shockingly good.

But if you need to carry almost anything other than yourself and a passenger, good luck. The rear seating space in my convertible tester is tight as old Scrooge at Christmas. Trunk space? You can only fit a small roll-aboard in the boot in back. We are not talking about a car for hauling home furniture from IKEA. Which means my Mini JCW tester operates strictly as a toy, a $50,000 toy.

Yet, after a week I was captivated. Have I been injected by brilliant marketing? Maybe. The latest efforts, the ones being generated by Mini in the United states – which dictates the tone of Mini marketing in North America – focuses on what's been called a "not normal" advertising campaign developed by the agency Butler Shine Stern and Partners in Sausalito, Calif. As Automotive News has reported, the essence of this advertising is to push Mini's peculiarity as a standout feature of the brand.

"We're a feisty, small brand. We're a featherweight in the ring with heavyweights. We have to stick and move," Tom Salkowsky, Mini's U.S. marketing chief, told the industry publication.

What's amazing is how well it all works. A $50,000 Mini ragtop? Yup, I liked it, despite that eye-popping price.

Tech specs

2013 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works Convertible

Type: Sporty convertible

Base price: $42,900 (destination charge $1,955); as tested, $49,395

Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged

Horsepower/torque: 208 hp/192 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.7 city/5.6 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: Fiat 500c Cabrio Abarth