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2009 Mini Cooper S Clubman

The MINI Cooper Clubman is the epitome of a niche vehicle. As such, it's a car that works for some but will leave many people cold. For my part, I think it's pretty cool, but I'd have to think long and hard before I made it my primary vehicle. Of course, it's far more practical than the regular Mini Cooper, thanks to the passenger's-side half-door (a feature we've already seen in the Saturn ION and the Mazda RX-8) and the extended wheelbase, which translates into significantly more rear-seat room and cargo space than the regular Mini. In fact, I needed to haul a 27" x 27" x 18" plywood box (to be used to elevate a washing machine) to a friend's house, and I had no problem fitting it into the back of the Clubman with the rear seats folded (see photo).

The Mini's turbocharged four-cylinder engine, mated to a six-speed manual, takes some getting used to. Torque steer is surprisingly bad, just like it was in our Four Seasons Mini Cooper S. You might think that BMW, of all car companies, could better address this issue, but the Mini's front wheels scramble for traction as you fight to hold onto the steering wheel in a variety of traffic conditions, from stoplight getaways to 75-mph freeway merging. Another similarity to our Four Seasons car is the notchy, imprecise manual shifter, which is also a surprise coming from BMW.

As far as the Clubman's packaging goes, I can live with the impeded rear vision caused by the center pillar created by the rear Dutch doors, because it's a narrow pillar and you can still pretty easily see anything behind you. And the rear seat is reasonably roomy for such a diminutive car. I love how the Dutch doors pop open on their hydraulic struts and how they have holes molded into the sheetmetal so that they fit over the taillights to complete the clamshell rear look. Very clever. As for the passenger's-side half-door, well, like all such devices, it's better than nothing for giving rear-seat occupants better ingress/egress. I suspect that most owners will use it most often for loading groceries, gym bags, and loot from the mall.

Joe DeMatio, Executive Editor

Holy lift-throttle oversteer, Batman! Even with stability control on, you can swing the Clubman's little butt right around a tight corner. Lots of fun. Not as fun is the torque steer that Joe mentioned, though. I literally was scared to move my hand to shift for fear the steering wheel would wrestle free of my grip.

It will be interesting to see how big a Mini can become before it's just a laughable oxymoron. The Clubman still manages to pull it off, adding some utility and ease of use without looking awkward in the least.

The rear view is somewhat obstructed by the door seam and the dual windshield wipers, but at least you can see something, which is more than one can say about the Mini convertible. My biggest disappointment is with the interior materials. The cheap gray plastic radio knobs look like something you'd find on a $20 clock radio from Target, and there's not a soft surface to be found on the matte-black dash. I understand that BMW has to cut costs somewhere in order to get a vehicle this stylish out the door for less than $25,000, and I appreciate all the unique switchgear, which is a rarity even in luxury cars these days. But after the novelty wears off, you're stuck with an interior that feels much cheaper than what you get in a Mazdaspeed 3 or a Volkswagen GTI.

David Zenlea, Assistant Editor

In addition to its riotous handling, cool looks, and increased usability, the MINI Cooper Clubman is one of the best cars in the world for driving at highway speeds with the sunroof open. It's surprisingly quiet and doesn't even let in too much cool, 50-degree air ... yet another Clubman advantage versus the Mini droptop. All Minis, however, have finicky power-window switches that are initially reluctant to kick into auto-down mode but then don't seem to stop their auto-up/down pogoing. There goes BMW again, trying to fix something that wasn't broken. The thumbwheel climate controls are very fickle, as we also found in our departed Four Seasons Mini Cooper S coupe.

More important, BMW should have found a way to better minimize the Cooper S's torque steer. After all, lots of front-wheel-drive cars (even normally aspirated ones) have more than 172 hp and manage torque steer much better than this car. Is the limited-slip differential to blame? I do have to say, though, that I prefer the Clubman's slick, quick stick shift to the rubbery manuals in some of BMW's current rear-wheel-drive products.

The Clubman's cool appearance helps distinguish it from the army of Minis already on the road. Plus, its extra length (9.6 inches) and weight (187 pounds) shouldn't hinder the car's sportiness versus the regular Mini, at least for most people in most situations. And the convenience that it adds should be worth the additional $1750 that a Clubman S costs compared with a Cooper S hardtop. Indeed, installing my daughter's child seat into the back of a Mini would have been much trickier without the Clubman's rear half-door and 2.4 inches of added rear legroom.

Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor

I love the way the Mini Cooper Clubman looks. However, I learned the hard way that even though it's 9.6 inches longer than the coupe, four adults don't fit comfortably for long periods of time. The Mini Cooper in general is one of those cars best experienced when it's just the driver, the car, and a stretch of curvy roads; no passengers demanding more leg room, no cargo shoved in the rear hatch area.

The shifter is nearly perfect; I prefer the gluey-sticky feel that BMW is known for over the sloppy-loose feel other brands have any day. Mini incorporates the checkered flag theme throughout the car, from the seats to the dash accents; it's very fitting given the S version we tested. The turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder is a great engine; it sounds great from inside the cabin and the turbo whistle can be put to tune by your right foot. The Clubman S sprints from 0 to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds (the same as a Volkswagen GTI). Unfortunately, as others have noted, torque steer is very prominent.

Mike Ofiara, Road Test Coordinator

Base price (with destination): $24,350
Price as tested: $31,550

Standard Equipment:
6-way manual adjustable seats
Tire pressure monitor
Side curtain airbags
Air conditioning
Remote keyless entry
Power windows with one-touch up/down
Tilt/telescoping steering wheel
Front fog lights

Options on this vehicle:
Sparkling silver metallic paint - $500
Convenience package - $1250
-Universal garage door opener
-Comfort access system
-Auto-dimming rearview mirror
-Bluetooth and USB/iPod connectivity
17 in. aluminum alloy wheels - $1250
Rear spoiler - $250
Black hood stripes - $100
Dual pane panoramic sunroof - $1000
Cargo net - $250
Heated front seats - $500
Rear parking sensors - $500
Xenon headlights - $500
Smartphone integration - $100
Satellite radio with 1-year subscription - $500

Key options not on vehicle:
Roof rails - $250
Rear fog lights - $100
Factory installed aero kit - $1250
Lounge leather upholstery - $2000
3-spoke wood sport steering wheel - $500
Colorline dash trim - $250
Anthracite headliner - $250
Navigation - $2000
Automatic air conditioning - $500
Heated power folding side mirrors - $500
Hi-fi 10-speaker stereo system - $500
Alarm - $500
Xenon headlights with power wash and auto-leveling - $500

Fuel economy:
26 / 34 / 29 mpg

Size: 1.6L Turbo-charged four-cylinder
Horsepower: 172 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 1600-5000 rpm

6-speed manual

Weight: 2855 lb

17 in. aluminum alloy wheels
Summer high performance tires