All manufacturers are feeling the heat in recession-hit Europe this year and BMW Group is no exception. Even the highly successful Mini brand has been impacted with the plant at Oxford losing a shift.

However, Mini officials believe the brand is very well placed to benefit from a downtrading trend in the recession as buyers forsake luxury cars for lower cost and smaller cars that nevertheless work as statements for the fashion conscious.

Lee Connolly, the Mini brand’s UK market product and planning manager told just-auto that he believes the Mini brand will exercise considerable appeal in recession-hit times.

“Obviously, the whole market is undergoing change and there are large uncertainties about where total industry volume is going,” he said.

“But in the UK we have already seen an upturn in orders after the initial paralysis to activity late last year. The first two months of this year have definitely picked up,” Connolly maintains.

He’s also upbeat about the impact the new Mini Convertible will make. Speaking at a press launch event in Pau, France, he maintained that such cars will see increased interest from buyers downtrading as luxury cars come up for replacement.

“Many buyers with large cars, luxury or performance models, may be attracted to a car that is cheaper to purchase, to run and that is perceived as more in keeping with the times,” he said.

“A car such as the Mini Convertible is far from bland and still makes a strong statement when compared to volume brands – so that’s a downtrading aspect that we expect will develop further over the next year or so. People who feel, for example, that a Porsche is out of step with the times may increasingly consider downtrading to a car like this.”

How many will be sold in Britain?

Connolly is cautious. “There are huge uncertainties right now,” he acknowledges. But the company is looking to sell 7,000 Mini Convertibles in Britain this year and 10,000 in 2010.

Accounting for sales of approximately 164,000 units within five years – 39,800 in the UK – the first generation of the Mini Convertible (R52 – the new one is codenamed R57) has made a significant contribution to the brand.

And Mini has opted not to make any radical changes on the design front with the R57 Convertible. To the casual eye, the new Mini Convertible one doesn’t look very different to the one it replaces. But there are a number of improvements.

Mini says the new Convertible is comes with a body shell that is 10% strengthened for less scuttle shake. There are also powertrain advances combining with the package of ‘efficient dynamics’ technologies to lower CO2 and improve efficiency.

Mini says that fuel consumption and CO2 emissions on the new Mini Convertible are reduced by up to 23% compared with the cars’ respective predecessors.

The two 1.6-litre petrol four-cylinder light-alloy power units offered at launch are built at the BMW Group’s Hams Hall Engine Plant (UK).

Visibility – an area highlighted by some as a deficiency on the previous model – is another area of improvement. There are now larger side windows and a retractable rollbar at the rear has clearly made a big difference to rear visibility.

The soft roof opens and closes completely within just 15 seconds, naturally with fully automatic, electro-hydraulic control. It can also be opened or closed while the car is moving at road speeds of up to 30 km/h or 20 mph.

There’s also a ‘sunroof’ partial opening option in which the front section of the soft top moves back by up to 40 centimetres or approximately 16 inches to produce a sliding sunroof. That partial opening can be operated while driving at speeds of up to 120 km/h or 75 mph.

To drive? The main Mini DNA driving dynamics – derived from sporty suspension, a punchy engine in the Cooper S and tactile steering – have been successfully carried over in the new model. Wind noise with the roof down seems to have been reduced also.

The openometer that records time driven with the top down? Daft and whimsical perhaps, but there again, what’s wrong with a bit of that occasionally?

And if you are enjoying some sunshine with the top down on a hot summer’s day, there’s also a place to keep your bottled water and Mars bar ices cool. There’s an air-conditioned glovebox.

The Mini Cooper Convertible starts at GBP15,995 (OTR) in the UK market. The Cooper S Convertible is GBP18,996 and the John Cooper Works performance version (expected to make up around 4% of sales) is GBP23,740.

Dave Leggett