So, what does that extra two grand (before options) really get you? After all, the regular MINI Cooper is a tidy little package; it's great looking, fun, and economical, while offering a high level of factory customization and/or personalization. Want more performance? Buy an S. Want even more than that? Get the JCW. If you wanted more room, however, you had a problem. Until now. Enter the Clubman. MINI has decided to expand the niche it occupies by combining the red meat its core customers want -- the cars' signature styling and entertaining nature -- with more room for people and stuff. But not too much more, because then it wouldn't be a MINI. The idea was to get bigger while remaining small. What a conundrum. Go too big, and you squash brand identity, don't go big enough, and the whole exercise is a waste of everyone's time.
All photos Copyright ©2008 Alex Núñez, Weblogs, Inc.
Our tester was a standard non-turbo Clubman finished in Pepper White with a black roof and black rear-door trim. Appearance-wise, it just looks like a bigger Cooper, which is the general idea. The Clubman half-door on the passenger side and twin barn doors in back are the model's obvious visual cues -- there's no "Clubman" badging on the exterior at all. Inside, it was embroidered on the floormats. Additional length does little to lessen the MINI's squat, eager stance. Sitting out in the driveway, it looks like a wheeled version of the Pokey Little Puppy, and people always smiled at it. Because really, who doesn't love a puppy?
Notable additions to our tester included the Sport Package and Premium Package ($1,500 apiece), the latter of which includes a pretty impressive panoramic roof. Both panels tilt up, and the front glass slides back. The Clubman is a full ten inches longer than its little brother, and it sports a 3-inch longer wheelbase. This translates into a back seat that's actually tolerable for adults, assuming neither the front nor rear occupants are particularly tall. I'm 5' 9", and I was able to sit behind the driver's seat in a state of reasonable comfort. With a taller driver, probably not so much, and as I said, tall backseaters are probably going to have a hard time getting settled in unless the person in front is of Ewok stature. Accessing the back seat requires you to flip the front seatbacks forward, even on the passenger side where the so-called Clubman door lives. That spare door makes clambering in back substantially easier, and why MINI didn't put one on both sides is a bit mind-boggling.
The mini door is especially handy is if you have kids. I positioned my 2-year-old son's car seat on the side with the Clubman-door, since that gave me more room to work with when it came time to buckle him in. My daughter, age 5, was fine climbing through the driver's side and getting herself strapped into her booster. Parents still using the LATCH connections will find the anchors easily accessible through plastic tunnels in the seatbacks -- no digging under the cushions is necessary. As a people carrier, the Clubman is a substantial improvement over the regular Cooper, whose back seats are sized for miniature pinschers and Micronauts.
In addition to legitimately carrying four humans, the Clubman can also haul more of their stuff. Walk around the back of the car, pull open the side-by-side barn doors, and you'll find 9.2 cubic feet of storage behind the second row. If you're thinking, "that's not that much," you're right, but it's still a sight better than the 5.7 cubes the regular Cooper has to offer. The Clubman's cargo area doesn't incorporate the minivan-like recessed tray the small Cooper uses. Instead, you have a flat load floor with a cargo net to secure loose items. There's some additional storage under that floor and the barn doors themselves are equipped with small, map-pocket-like bins. I had to take Millie, my 52-pound border collie mix, to the vet in the Clubman, and she was content sitting on a beach towel in the standard cargo area behind the back seat. She did her usual thing there, peering out the windows and barking her damn fool head off at every living being that crossed her field of vision. If you're planning on throwing a bag of golf clubs or any other item larger than my dog in back, you're going to have to flip down the second row (or at least part of it). With both rear seats dropped, total cargo capacity increases to 32.8 cubic feet, a decent bump over the Cooper's 24 and change.
Style rules all in the passenger cabin. This is evident the moment your glutes dent the pleatherette-shod sport seat. From this well-bolstered and comfortable vantage point, you can take in the surroundings BMW's interior designers came up with. A nice, meaty steering wheel is complemented by a column-mounted tachometer with an integrated multifunction display. Very nice. A glance to the right brings the speedometer into view. Given that it's the approximate size of the second Death Star, it's sort of hard to miss. I mean, people three cars back in traffic can't miss it either. The giant speedo is also home to the warning lights, fuel gauge, radio display and radio controls, the latter of which look simple, but are less than intuitive -- remember, the MINI is brought to you by the same people who invented iDrive. I ultimately got acclimated enough to configure my presets, and once I found the AUX jack and had my iPod plugged in, I never bothered with the actual radio again anyway.
The HVAC controls come next, and their central display and outboard buttons form the shape of the MINI logo. Cute, but it's also easy-to-use. An array of various toggle switches finishes off the stack. All are clearly labeled and caged off from one another, because heaven forbid you accidentally turn on the rear defogger. A similar arrangement is mounted to the ceiling, where you'll find the sunroof controls. The rest of the interior is comprised of good-looking plastics highlighted with shiny piano black trim. When you take in all the interior elements as a whole, the arrangement comes together well visually.
One thing that's genuinely annoying about the Clubman is its rearward visibility (or, more precisely, the lack thereof). The barn doors look neat and all, but when closed, their meeting point obscures the middle third of the rearview mirror, rendering it essentially useless. Whatever's directly behind you is either partially or completely hidden every time you glance up to check your surroundings. This begs the question, were the barn doors really necessary? I know they're a nod the same-style doors found on the original Mini Traveller, but one of the benefits of hindsight is that you get to learn from the past. A regular liftback would not have diminshed the Clubman's looks one bit, and it would have let you see out the back of the car.
Stick the flying saucer-shaped key fob into its in-dash receptacle, press in the ovoid clutch pedal, and hit the start button to bring the MINI's PSA-sourced 1.6L four to life. Rated at 118 horsepower, the French motor isn't one to set your hair alight, but it's plenty good at motivating the Clubman. It emits a throaty rasp as you work the six forward gears, a task made easy thanks to a tall shifter that falls right to hand and is easy to row through the pattern. I pressed the Sport button located ahead of the bezel that surrounds the boot and a little green light illuminated, letting me know I was now in Sport mode. Good thing, because I probably wouldn't have known otherwise. I later cracked open the manual, which informed me that the Sport setting delivers better throttle response and more direct steering. These changes are far from dramatic, and if you're interested in the real Sport mode offered by MINI, you tell the nice man at the store you want the Cooper S Clubman and go from there.
Driving the Clubman is a great source of amusement. Give it a head of steam, hustle it along a curvy stretch of tarmac and watch the smiles come. It's not all-powerful, but it's wonderfully sorted, well-behaved and predictable, doing what you ask of it with little fuss. Torque steer is nonexistent with the base motor, which is just as happy to putter around in errand mode as it is for you to put the spurs to it when the road and conditions allow. The suspension keeps you solidly-planted without being harsh; the slightly longer wheelbase likely helping strike this comfortable balance between refinement and sportiness. Not only is the car a gas to wheel around in, it also earns its chops as a commuter averaging 31 mpg all-around in a mix of local and highway driving, with a fair allotment of crummy stop-and-go Merritt Parkway traffic thrown in. That kind of mileage with gas at four bucks a gallon works for me. That it comes in such an entertaining little box is gravy.
So, getting back to the original question we started with, is the Clubman worth the price premium over the regular Cooper? If you're shopping for a MINI and need a little more utility, drive with more than one other person in the car, or have kids, choosing the Clubman over the regular Cooper is a total no-brainer. It puts all of the good stuff from the smaller car in a more useful, yet admittedly quirky package. "Quirky" is charming to some and off-putting to others, though, and our car's $25,450 as-tested price also puts it solidly into the "you've really got to want it" category. You can certainly spend less and get a car that's equally or more practical in terms of packaging, and that's what some potential buyers will undoubtedly choose to do. Not everyone thinks that way, though, and this is where the MINI wins fans. It's a premium vehicle that has panache many other compacts lack, both visually and in the driving experience itself. With the Clubman, current MINI drivers are given something to trade up to if they outgrow their Coopers, and people like me, who would have otherwise never even considered a MINI in the first place, now have a reason to stick their heads in the door. The Clubman isn't perfect, but it pulls off the trick of being a genuinely useable big MINI without sacrificing any fun along the way.
Click here to view the 2008 MINI Cooper Clubman's tech specs at AOL Autos.
All photos Copyright ©2008 Alex Núñez, Weblogs, Inc.