Tiny machinery is almost universally satisfying. A friend of mine once dismantled a perfectly healthy 350-cc four-cylinder engine from an early-1970s Honda motorcycle just because he wanted to see what its pint-size pistons looked like. Once it was apart, he stared endlessly at the tiny wrist pins and nickel-sized valves. At the bar that evening, people gathered and gawped at a Lilliputian piston-slash-shot-glass, unable to stop turning it over in their hands. For whatever reason, miniaturized machines fascinate.
And so I found myself in a dingy parking garage in central Spain, taking delivery of a Mini Cooper S Clubman and unable to stop staring at the car's back end. I found myself ogling the tiny twin rear doors--the Clubman has twin clamshell rear doors where the ordinary Cooper has a traditional hatch--clicking their latches and opening them over and over. Two tiny doors, two tiny rear windows, two happily symmetrical tiny wipers. Same deal as with the Honda tiny moving parts, huge satisfaction.
At first glance, you'd think that those doors were about all the Clubman had going for it. Its looks -- an odd mix of taffy-stretched Mini Cooper and retro-pretentious bread van -- are an acquired taste. And its 100-inch wheelbase and 155-inch length (3.2 and 9.4 inches longer, respectively, than those of the ordinary Mini) don't bode well for preserving the nimble reactions and feisty likability of Minis past.
That's ironic, because the charm of Minis past is exactly what the Clubman aims to mine. The car takes its name from the shooting-brake-style Mini Clubman Estate wagon from the 1970s and early '80s. That vehicle -- a mildly updated version of the similarly styled Morris Mini Traveller and Austin Mini Countryman -- wasn't imported to the United States, but it was relatively successful in Europe and the rest of the world. Like its predecessors, the modern Clubman is little different mechanically from its smaller siblings; the dampers, stability control, and ABS have all been recalibrated for the Clubman's larger dimensions and greater weight, but drivetrain options are identical to those in the rest of the Mini lineup.
Once you finish playing with the rear doors -- and, believe me, this can take a while, especially for mild obsessive-compulsives like yours truly -- and climb behind the wheel, you're met with immediately familiar surroundings. The Clubman sports the same dash and basic interior layout as the ordinary Mini, albeit with three more inches of rear legroom and another eight cubic feet of cargo space when the seats are folded. A third side door sits behind the passenger door (think Mazda RX-8) and aids access to the rear seat. There's even a nifty little "Clubman" sill plate.
Overall, the Clubman doesn't feel that different from a normal Mini. The extra length and wheelbase manifest themselves in slightly better high-speed stability, and ride comfort has been improved a bit over the standard car, but little else stands out. The rear seat is roomier but still slightly claustrophobic, the chassis is ever-so-slightly less willing to rotate in tight switchbacks, and rear visibility -- owing to the thick C-pillars and the central post created by the twin rear doors -- stinks.
That's about it.
Still, there's a lot to be said for charm, and surprisingly, the Clubman produces a fair bit of it. It's quirkier and more esoteric than the ordinary Mini, and the neat little unique-to-the-Clubman styling touches -- twin rain-gutter ridges in the roof panel, rear doors with cutouts for the taillights -- are strangely satisfying. The added practicality goes a long way, too. If you're not the autocross or track-day type, the Clubman (and its extra cargo space compared with the standard Mini) makes a great deal of sense.
People don't buy Minis because they make sense, though; they buy them because the cars are a happy mix of functionality, look-at-me quirkiness, and fun. And the best Clubman endorsement was probably given by a kid I saw at the Detroit auto show in 2006. Walking up to Mini's Clubman concept car with a couple of his friends, he pointed and said, "Dude! Check out the rad tiny doors!"