The Clubman will put a smile on your face with accurate steering, a sweet gearchange, and great handling
Before there was iPhone, there was the MINI Cooper. A fashion icon without the quasi-religious overtones, the Cooper relaunched in the early 2000s after adoption by the friendly Germans at BMW into a newer, larger body that retained the essence of the original Mini down to the snicky toggle switches on its dash. Like the old Minis, the new car felt right—dialed in—and looked every inch a MINI, even though it clocked in at quite a few more than the original.
Now MINI's brought back another facet of its history with the Clubman, a stretched version that recalls the extended Travellers, Countrymans, and Estates sold under the Mini nameplate from 1960 to 1982. Like the Cooper hatchbacks and convertibles that have preceded it since BMW reignited the brand, the newest MINI will offer a wide range of custom trim to go with its new turbocharged and normally-aspirated engines when it goes on sale next spring.
TheCarConnection.com drove the new MINI Cooper S Clubman in Madrid recently and—as we expected, from lots of seat time in the reborn Cooper—found the Clubman comfortable, solid, fun, and more functional than the original hatchback.
In truth, the additional size doesn't add a huge amount of space to the MINI's tart, tight little body. But the added size should make it more appealing to the world beyond Manhattan, the City of San Francisco, and other places where parking costs $43 a night (shame on you, Westin St. Francis!). Single shopaholics, pay close attention here.
Spooled up for fun
The Clubman's engine and gearbox range mirrors that of the MINI Cooper S TheCarConnection.com tested last fall. The base powerplant is a normally aspirated, 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 120 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque. It's paired either to a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic gearbox. This version of the Clubman can accelerate to 60 mph in less than 9.6 seconds and can hit 125 mph with the manual gearbox, MINI claims.
Enthusiasts will linger over the turbocharged version of the same engine, found in the Cooper S Clubman, however. In U.S. trim it blows out 175 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, which propels the longer Clubman to 60 mph in less than 7.6 seconds, and to a top speed of 139 mph. With an automatic, it still hits 60 mph in 7.8 seconds and reaches a top speed of 136 mph.
The Cooper S is very powerful and as a result, there is noticeable torque steer at launch and coming out of corners. It's not as easy to drive fast as the base car, but has plenty of grunt when the boost comes on. And the hill-holder clutch is a great idea for a car meant to be driven and parked in the city—it makes launching on an incline a no-brainer.
The start-stop feature, which shuts off the engine under longer braking to improve fuel mileage, is great in concept but we confused it a few times. When you come to a complete stop in traffic, the vehicle turns off. Once you have the clutch in and touch the gas pedal, it starts up immediately. It didn't work for us a few times. Luckily, you can turn it off if you want to keep a steady power flow. The feature will not available when the Clubman goes on sale in the U.S. next spring, but it will be introduced to the U.S. at a future date. It's part of BMW's "efficient dynamics" strategy, to deliver fun to drive cars with less impact on the environment, they explain.
Big where it needs to be
The Clubman's clear distinction from the base MINI is the stretch in its midsection—as if MINI was trying to craft a Munchkin version of the Lincoln Town Car.
That "Clubdoor" you see etched into the MINI's flank opens on its rear hinges, like that on a Mazda RX-8, and into a much larger interior space behind the front seats. Rear passengers will notice vastly more interior legroom: the Clubman sports a 9.5-inch addition to its wheelbase, while legroom itself has grown about 3.2 inches.
But it's not all about the stretched wheelbase and the Clubdoor. There's also a pair of double doors at the rear where the hatch used to live. Rear cargo room is up to 32.6 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down; with the seats raised, the Clubman still carries 9.1 cubic feet of stuff.
An interesting note: for drive-on-the-right markets in North America and Europe the Clubdoor is ideal, as it opens on to the sidewalk. In MINI's home market of the U.K., it means occupants are discharged straight into the traffic.
Rear visibility is compromised a bit by the design of the rear doors, and the center pillar is thick. But you get used to it eventually. While there's certainly more room with or without the rear seats down, the doors aren't quite as useful as a true hatchback if parking spaces are narrow. The best benefit is when putting packages or children in the rear seats and cargo area. When in back, those passengers will sit on either a sculpted two-seat or flat three-seat bench.
The Cooper's classy dash carries over intact, with its ginormous speedometer and confusing audio controls and all its charm. And all MINIs coming to the U.S. will get a raft of standard safety gear including six airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution, Cornering Brake Control (CBC), and Brake Assistant. Stability and traction control with hill-start assistance will also be standard. A limited-slip differential will be an option on the Cooper S Clubman, while 16-inch wheels will be the standard on the S models.
The Brits may not be happy about that Clubdoor arrangement, but thankfully their anger will be forgotten the moment they push the starter button and select first on the six-speed manual gearbox. The Clubman is a great driver's car.
On the road it's the sort of vehicle to put a proper smile on your face, with direct and accurate steering, a sweet gearchange and great handling. As with all Cooper S models, the ride is pretty firm and the front-wheel-drive setup means there's a fair amount of torque steer. But dynamically it's a real rollerskate and a dashboard-mounted Sport button creates even sharper steering and throttle responses when selected.
MINI engineers spent a considerable amount of time on the "go-kart" steering, with mixed results. It handles really well but feels artificial. The electric power steering is a good idea but could use some improvements, as it feels very stiff on-center.
Otherwise the Clubman handled the hills outside Madrid with ease. It flaunts a great exhaust note—garnering the attention of many locals as we paused in front of a small dam in a village outside Spain's capital. In city driving around Madrid, the additional power and the inherent agility of the design shone through. The stretch to its chassis doesn't change the driving feel of the MINI; it's larger but still drives "small."
The extra cargo room is fine, but it's not enough to make this the obvious choice for a one-car family. It's still a second or even third vehicle for most people. But if that's what you're looking for, and you've rejected the MINI so far for being just too small, put the Clubman on your list of test drives and go find some twisty roads. You won't regret it.
2008 MINI Cooper S Clubman
Base Price: $25,000 (est.)
Engine: Turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder, 175 hp/177 lb-ft (base Clubman: no turbo, 120 hp/118 lb-ft)
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual or automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 155.8 x 66.3 x 56.4 in
Wheelbase: 100.8 in
Curb weight: 2800 lb (est.)
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): N/A
Standard safety equipment: Dual front, side, and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD player; power door locks/windows/mirrors; variable intermittent wipers; air conditioning; Comfort Key system
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles