What's an "Openometer" gauge?

Answer: About the most useless item on a Mini Cooper convertible.

It's a gauge right in front of the driver that gives a truly useless bit of automotive driving feedback: The time you've been driving with the convertible top down. Sorry, we're not making this up.

We learned to love a convertible the old-fashioned way. If the sun's too hot, put the top up and turn on the A/C. (Hmmm. My '54 Ford Sunliner didn't have A/C, either). If it's too cold, put the top up and turn on the heat. If you're too windblown for your evening out, put up the top and use the visor mirror to brush your hair.

An Openometer? C'mon.

The German car industry hasn't quite figured out how to have executives with marketing and ergonomic common sense rein in their always creative engineering departments. Thus you get the "Openometer," not to mention the goofy oversized center-mounted speedometer that would be great for backseat drivers to view - if the rear seats were big enough for anyone to sit in. Instead, the rear seats are just padded cargo counters and the huge "eye" in the middle of the dash is basically out of the driver's sightline.

Control layout and general dashboard chintziness aside, the Mini - any Mini - is near the top of my "Fun-to-Drive" list. Even then, there are different levels of fun, and the Mini we spent time with - a base engine with an automatic transmission - was the least fun of all to drive.

The drivetrain was OK for buzzing around town. If you're doing any longer drives you want the manual transmission option or to step up to an S version. Leave the John Cooper Works Edition for the true performance aficionados.

We averaged 31.5 miles per gallon on a 300-plus mile trek that included being caught on the periphery of The Great Mass Pike Easter Night Traffic Jam.

It took some searching, but we found an auxiliary plug set back and below the bottom row of switches on the center console. It was right above a storage tray so the layout was right to have some music from the iPod during the delays.

If I'm bashing the engineers about the gauge and control layout, it's time to give them five stars for the convertible top. It retracts easily at the touch of a button, but its best feature is that the front section slides back in a sunroof function.

Any Mini driver - especially a taller one - can tell you that being first in line at an overhead traffic light requires ducking and craning one's neck to the overhead signals. After an hour-and-a-half on the highway, you yearn for a seat with more thigh support; however, for such a small vehicle, front-seat passengers have ample legroom and headroom. There's a trunk that, because it's squared off, holds a surprising amount of gear with the aforementioned rear seats available for the spillover.

The '09 convertible has a double rear rollbar that moves up and into place under heavy braking or situations when the car's stability system senses possible danger. The advantage is that when the rollbar is retracted, there is more visibility out the rear window than in prior Mini convertibles. The side mirrors are on the small side so spending time to get them adjusted properly is a must before driving in traffic.

Base price of a Mini convertible is $23,900. With a premium package, automatic, and A/C, ours had a sticker of $27,550. You could have plenty of fun in just the bare base version.