Maxing the Mini: More room, more doors, still cuddly
Little distinguishes the new longer, roomier MINI Clubman's driving experience from that of the standard Mini. Which is great news: None of the coupe's quick reflexes, playful nature, or overall Mini-ness is diminished. The differences are all about space: 3.2 inches more wheelbase (which yields an equal bump in rear legroom), 9.6 inches of increased overall length, and a cargo hold that grows from 24.0 to 32.6 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. Plus a few more doors. From the driver's seat, you'll hardly know there's more Mini behind you. But your rear-seat passengers, pets, surfboards, golf clubs, shopping bags, swap-meet treasures, and mall haul will really appreciate the extra room.
The Clubman notion isn't a new idea, but it remains a good one. It's the third body style in the reborn MINI lineup, alongside the second-generation coupe, which came to market early this year, and the convertible, still on the carryover gen-one platform for another year or so.
Mini's design job is clever. The longer roof appears flat at first glance, yet there's a gentle curve to it. Like Clubmans of old, access to the cargo bay is via two hinged "barn doors." Besides the squarer look, the exhaust pipes are no longer centered in the rear valance, instead splitting to the sides in a more conventional, dual-exhaust fashion. A spoiler at the top of the rear deck integrates the center high-mounted stoplight. In keeping with the Mini's USP of allowing the owner a wide variety of color combinations, there are many different ways to spec out the body, bumper, roof, and window-surround finishes.
Joining this club is all about space and access to it, so besides the split rear-cargo doors, there's a rear-hinged, half-door-size access panel on the passenger side that makes back-seat entry and egress a much easier proposition than in the coupe-all the better by which to enjoy the much-needed increased legroom. A squeege over three inches more room may not sound like much, but it's a world of difference in a car this compact. Full-size adults now sit comfortably in back, with plenty of head and knee room for six-footers.
This access door is well integrated into the exterior styling, with the door handle mounted inside so as not to spoil the smooth two-door look. In the name of safety, it can be opened only when the front passenger door is open. The split rear seats fold to create a commodious space for stuff-interesting in that packaging efficiency was one of the aspects that set the original Mini apart from other compact city cars of the 1960s. The centers of the two cargo area doors come together to form a pillar that bisects the driver's view out the rearview mirror, not so different from what the driver of a 1963 "Split Window" Corvette experiences. But the blockage isn't wide enough to hinder rearward vision, and it's something you quickly get used to.
No special structural reinforcement was required to accommodate the increased number of doors and hatches. Overall weight grows by about 175 pounds. Engine, transmission, and equipment levels are otherwise a direct carryover. We spent all our drive time aboard a turbocharged, 172-horsepower Cooper S version and could detect no meaningful decrease in acceleration. The extra ounces will, however, take a bit of sparkle off the naturally aspirated, 118-horsepower base model's straight-line punch. We'll verify this with instrumented testing as soon as we have the opportunity.
Same goes for handling. Overall, the Clubman S feels no different through a smorgasbord of cornering situations from the new Cooper S we just added to our long-term test fleet. One major difference in the Clubman's driving persona is ride comfort. Those three-plus inches of additional wheelbase really smooth out the standard Mini's tendency to hop on bad pavement, over railroad crossings, and the like. It's a dramatic improvement, and one that, combined with all the extra room, makes the Clubman a much happier long-distance car than the short-wheelbase model.
One bane that hasn't been exorcized, at least in the S, is torque steer. Power out of a corner, and the wheel wiggles in your hand. When the turbo boost kicks in, it wiggles worse. Perhaps Mini could have dialed out some of the effect, but steering feel would have diminished because of it. While this problem doesn't kill the Mini's fun factor, it knocks it back a notch or two. There'll never be a rear-drive Mini, but an AWD version might be fun, no?
The car's only other maddening trait, also shared with non-Clubmans, is the HVAC system's too small, too slippery, and just poorly designed fan and heat/cool controls. The tiny, click up-and-down fan switch is slick plastic and practically requires long fingernails to operate. Wearing gloves? Forget it. Why not some large, knurled knobs? And much of the center-stack lettering is too small. These are two instances where function followed form, and Mini ought to get to fixing them. Now.
MINI hasn't yet released the Clubman's pricing structure, but indicates it'll fall midway between the current coupe and convertible models. That translates to about $20,750 for a base Clubman and around $24,000 for a Clubman S, reasonable enough if you fancy the new model's design and extra space.
Besides being a blast to drive, reasonably economical, and a cheeky fashion statement, the Clubman's most significant accomplishment is that its increased passenger comfort and extra cargo room make the Mini a real car for more people. For many buyers, this functionality will more than offset the few extra dollars and the few extra pounds the Clubman packs over the standard models. Mini USA estimates that 15 percent of the cars it sells will be Clubmans. We say it had better be prepared to build more than that.