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Why going topless is fun with the Mini Convertible Cooper S

Truth be told, Bali may be a magnet for pilgrims seeking to eat, pray and love, but the romantic island getaway packed with beaches, paddy fields and temples is not the kind of destination best seen by means of a road trip.

Its narrow alleyways, their flanking walls colourfully garnished with car body paint, and their perpetual state of gridlock, a quagmire of overladen lorries, underpowered people-movers and smoky mopeds piloted by kamikaze drivers, conspire to see to that.

Having been assigned to cover the Mini Adventure, I was thus left scratching my head over this curious venue choice for the annual regional press shindig designed to acquaint journalists with the brand’s latest and greatest.

Pre-departure, plotting the routes into Google Maps revealed expected average speeds of 20kmh. Certainly a smidge more rapid than allowing the car to creep forward in D, but not the best way to experience motorised transport capable of much more velocity, for sure.

On arrival, however, I spy a squad of police motorcycle outriders – which I learn will be escorting us throughout our three-day drive – waiting by the neatly parked rows of Mini Convertibles and Mini Clubmans outside Ngurah Rai International Airport. Crisis averted.

With sirens wailing and, to compel recalcitrant infiltrators to cease and desist, loudspeakers blaring in commanding Bahasa, our knights in tinted visors carve a clear path through the chaos that is Denpasar’s streets, where shops hug the tarmac’s edge, lanes nonchalantly end, and vehicles alarmingly gyrate in both directions around traffic circles.

Although the contemporary Mini is larger than the lithe getaway cars in the 1969 cult classic The Italian Job, it remains compact by modern standards, making short work of our convoy’s escape far from the madding crowds.

THE NUMBERS

ENGINE 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder turbo
POWER 192 bhp between 5,000 and 6,000 rpm
TORQUE 280 Nm between 1,250 and 4,600 rpm
0-100 KMH 7.1 seconds
TOP SPEED 228kmh

As we push towards Singaraja on the north coast, the congested city roads morph into mountain passes. And with that, we trade urban hazards for precipitous inclines, hairpin turns and gutsy stray dogs. And trees, one of which is soberingly memorable for its stripped bark and the surfeit of memorials placed at its base.

Here, with the polisi on radio and continually updating us of conditions as they clear the road ahead, we are finally able to stretch the cars in search of the brand’s much vaunted go-kart driving feel.

First things first. Even in faster Cooper S guise, the engine puts out a valiant but not-quite-earth-shattering 192 bhp. The glorious chassis, however, more than makes up for this lack of puff, squatting relentlessly on the potholed, undulating road, thanks to stellar springs, chatty steering, and wheels that are pushed out to the four corners.

Turn after turn, punch the accelerator, flick the gear paddles and be rewarded with lots of go, plus the playful burble of the exhaust. Meanwhile, rice terraces and native abodes fashioned from black volcanic rock whizz pass in a blur. There is a lot to enthuse over in the Mini’s packaging – perhaps too much, for some passengers emerged worse for wear at the end of the mountain route.

In any case, you know that you are up in the mountains when your ears start to pop and the temperature gauge drops to 20 deg C as the stifling heat down below gives way to cool misty air. Then, as if presented as confirmation that we have reached the peak, appears Lake Bratan – a massive waterbody formed from inactive volcano Gunung Catur’s caldera – with water sports enthusiasts gliding across its mirror-like surface in speedboats and on skis.

Which means it is time to retract the roof. The sliding function replicates a plus-sized sunroof and handily operates at any road speed; to open the soft top fully, simply slow down to 30kmh, push a button, and it is done in 18 seconds flat.

The Mini Convertible is the only full-fledged cabriolet in the small premium market, and it boasts touches like an optional Union Jack motif woven into the fabric, an 3G-connected rain warning system that cues you to pop the roof back up, and a cute eco-driving function that nudges you to save fuel by means of a fish in a bowl that spills over whenever you accelerate or brake hard.

Mini has been, in fact, undergoing a self-imposed brand re-alignment since mid-2015, a timely revamp of its positioning to accompany its growth from a one-model brand to a complete offering that includes coupes, wagons and off-roaders.

Its products and their communications now underscore the fact that Mini has become higher-end and more grown-up, while retaining its fun factor. Think yuppie professional rather than surfer dude.

Already, in its cars you will find its parent group’s technologies, such as an automatic transmission that shifts at opportune moments, aided by terrain analysis courtesy of the satnav. It is remarkable that this system can also be found in much pricier cars like the BMW 7-series and the Rolls-Royce Wraith. Other examples: logos projected onto the floor using light trickery, and BMW’s Internet of things, Connecteddrive.

At this point, it becomes clearer why Mini has chosen to showcase this move in Bali, with a series of suitable lifestyle activities to help wrap my head around the new concept.

At that night’s sprawling resort, built at the edge of a national park, we watch a short film directed by Oscar winner Joachim Back. It is about a record label owner and Mini Convertible driver who was given three chances to relive a life-altering decision, a la Groundhog Day, and eventually chose to pursue his happiness.

The outing to Potato Head Beach Club in Seminyak, an achingly hip establishment, puts us among the same type of tanned, chiselled-bodied people who would presumably form the Mini clientele: lots of disposable income, leisure-focused and fun-seeking.

Well, wealthy to some extent, but probably not enough to afford full-time police escorts. In other news, it will be tough adjusting back to driving in Singapore.