The Clubman poses an intriguing question for Mini. Does a brand that celebrates its smallness compromise itself by bringing out a larger model?
Seeking perhaps to preserve maximum authenticity, Mini went with a two-door station wagon as its larger body style, repeating an original Mini offering from the 1960s and even using the same name, Clubman.
Despite the extra 9.4 inches of overall length and the long rear side windows, the Clubman looks like a legitimate Mini rather than some bastardized off-shoot. Clubman-specific details-chiefly the panel-truck-style, twin cargo doors-even enhance the cheeky design.
Inside, though, the design can be grating. This isn't a special circumstance with the Clubman; all of its offending bits are applicable to the standard Mini as well. There are the bizarre and annoying climate controls, the odd logic to the stereo controls, and parent-company BMW's strange electronic column stalks. The large, dual-pane sunroof (part of the $1500 premium package) brings light to the interior, but its mesh shades do little to block the sun. Extra light flooding in from above doesn't do the readability of the giant, center-mounted speedometer any favors; luckily, you can choose a digital speed readout in the center of the tach, which is located right in front of the driver. We were also disappointed by the flimsy plastic center armrest (part of the $1500 convenience package) and the general lack of storage space.
Greater people space, specifically a habitable back seat, is the Clubman's mark of distinction over a standard Mini. In the regular Mini, when a six-foot driver is behind the wheel, his seat is just about pressed up against the rear seat cushion, making the back seat merely a perch for packages, not people. In the Clubman, a kid or even a medium-sized adult can sit in back. To ease the climb back there, the Clubman has a rear-hinged half-door on the passenger's side. (Putting one on the driver's side would have required an expensive relocation of the fuel system, so it wasn't done.)
The Clubman's other unique portals are at the rear. The twin cargo doors not only look symmetrical and cool (even their wipers), but they work great. The right one opens first, with gas struts helping push them along. In a low-roof car like the Mini, using swing-open doors rather than a swing-up hatch means not having to crouch down to get into the (decent-sized) cargo hold.
So the Clubman provides a meaningful extra measure of usefulness without losing any of the Mini's style. It also offers essentially the same driving experience, which is zippy and fun but not without its downsides. Naturally, the small size, relatively large window area, and very direct steering make the Mini easy to place. Slipping through traffic is enjoyable, and the punch of the well-integrated turbo in the S makes it easy to squirt through holes in traffic. The 1.6-liter engine, however, is a gruff, industrial-sounding piece, with none of the zingy, free-revving joy offered by, say, a Honda VTEC four.
We were surprised to see our test car equipped with an automatic transmission, which sort of goes against Mini's love-to-drive self-image. We couldn't fault the automatic's gear selection, but the standard six-speed manual would still be our choice.
For a car so obviously designed for the urban jungle, the Mini has a serious downfall, which is that it absolutely crashes over imperfect pavement. Blacktop edges, manhole covers, bumps of any kind aren't damped in the slightest. Our Cooper S was equipped with the optional sport package ($1500), which consists of xenon headlamps, seventeen-inch wheels, and a sport suspension. It's likely that without this package the car rides better, and any detriment in terms of a bit more body roll or slightly less immediate turn-in would be a trade-off worth making.
The Clubman is a somewhat more useful version of the Mini Cooper, particularly for those who might carry a third or fourth passenger. Like a regular Mini, it's economical (23/32 mpg), fast, and fun, but the downsides are annoying, contrived switchgear and a ride that really beats you up. Little can be done about the former, but to mitigate the latter, you might stay away from the sport suspension and go with the smallest wheels that don't offend your sense of aesthetics.
2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman
Base price: $24,100
As tested: $32,950
Engine: Turbocharged, 1.6-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4
Horsepower: 172 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
L x W x H: 155.8 x 66.3 x 56.4 in
Legroom F/R: 41.4/32.3 in
Headroom F/R: 39.0/37.7 in
Cargo capacity (seats up/down) 9.2/32.8 cu ft
Curb weight: 2900 lbs
EPA Rating (city/highway): 23/32 mpg