Demand is so great for the zippy, fuel-efficient MINI Cooper Clubman that most buyers won't get one until the fall--but it's worth the wait!

The Good: Excellent fuel economy, sporty handling, roomier interior

The Bad: Long wait to get one, quirky interior, rear seat still cramped

The Bottom Line: The best high-mileage vehicle this side of a Toyota Prius

BMW's sporty but fuel-efficient Mini Coopers are among the hottest cars on the market right now. The company's plant in Oxford, England, is running 24/7 and still can't keep up with demand. Jim McDowell, vice-president of the Mini Division, recently told Automotive News magazine that U.S. Mini Cooper dealers are out of cars and will be mainly selling pre-ordered units for the rest of the model year. So, unless you get lucky and find an '08 Mini Cooper on a dealer's lot, your best option is to sign up now for an '09 model that won't be delivered until this fall.

Is it worth the wait? In a word, yes. There's no other model that combines the Mini Cooper's sportiness, low price, and great mileage. And the model I'd be signing up for is the new Mini Cooper Clubman, a 9.4-inch-longer and roomier version of the car. With a stick shift, the base Clubman is rated to get a phenomenal 37 miles per gallon on the highway and 28 in the city, for an average of 32. (Mileage drops to 26/34 with an automatic transmission.) The base Clubman can't match the 46-mpg average mileage of a Toyota's TM Prius, but it sure is more fun to drive.

If excitement is your thing, there's an "S" version of the Clubman with a turbo-charged engine that's very quick, yet with a stick shift still gets 34 mpg on the highway and 26 in the city, for an average of 29 mpg. (Again mileage drops, to 32/23, with an automatic transmission.) If my experience is any indication, you'll at least match the ratings—if you don't stomp on the gas all the time, as I did. In 888 miles of very fast, mainly highway driving, I got 27.8 mpg in an S Clubman with an automatic transmission.

My main doubt about the Clubman is whether its quality is up to snuff, especially with the Mini factory being pushed to its limits. Consumer Reports ranks the reliability of the regular Mini Cooper hatchback as "well above average." However, in the J.D. Power 2007 Vehicle Dependability study, the Mini Cooper ranked well below average, with 247 problems per hundred vehicles, compared with the average of 216.

The Clubman differs in a number of ways from the regular Mini Cooper. The wheelbase is 3.2 inches longer than the regular Mini's, with almost all of the extra room going to rear-seat leg space. It has a little half-door on the passenger side that's a bit like the half-doors on an extended-cab pickup truck. In back, instead of a hatchback there are twin doors that open up like those on a delivery van—a retro feature borrowed from such 1960s models as the Austin Mini Countryman, Morris Minor Traveller, and the Mini Clubman Estate. Luggage space behind the rear seats has been increased by nearly two-thirds, to 9.2 cu. ft. With the rear seats folded down, maximum available space has been increased by 37%, to nearly 33 cubic feet.

The Clubman is powered by the same engines as the regular Mini Cooper. The base model comes with a 1.6 liter, 118-horsepower, inline four-banger. In the S Clubman, the engine is turbocharged, raising its horsepower rating to 172. The six-speed stick shift is standard. The optional six-speed automatic with a manual shifting function costs an extra $1,250.

The '08 Clubman starts at $20,600 for the base model with a stick shift, and $24,100 for the S Clubman. Starting prices are expected to increase by $250 on the '09 models, according to Automotive News. The Clubman has a long list of options, among them a navigation system and leather interior ($2,000 apiece), a $1,500 sport package that includes a sports suspension, fog lights, performance tires and 16-inch alloy wheels, plus HD radio and an enhanced sound system ($500 apiece), and a $250 center armrest (highly recommended). Among the other options are numerous interior and exterior color combinations, many of them at no extra charge.

The Clubman hasn't yet been crash-tested in the U.S. However, like the regular Mini Cooper, it comes packed with safety gear, including front, side, and head airbags; traction and stability control; and antilock brakes. In a crash, optimum load paths within the body and frame design divert the force of the collision away from the vehicle's occupants.

U.S. sales of the Mini Cooper are up by one-third in the first half of this year, to 26,400. The company sold 4,874 Clubmans in the first half, an excellent start for a new model.

Behind the Wheel

 

The regular Mini Cooper is great fun to drive, and you don't lose much of that excitement by moving up to the Clubman. For starters, the Clubman is offered with the same engines as the regular Mini Cooper, and acceleration is about the same. The S Clubman jumps from 0 to 60 in about seven seconds, versus 8.9 seconds for the regular Clubman.

Despite its greater length, the Clubman retains much of the "go-kart" feel of the original Mini Cooper, though the ride is slightly less choppy. You sit low to the ground, and the car's steering responds almost instantly to any input from the driver. The S comes with a stiff, sport-tuned suspension. There's also a "Sport" button that further stiffens the car's suspension and makes the automatic transmission's shifting pattern quicker and more aggressive.

As with other powerful, front-wheel-drive cars, the S Clubman's steering pulls to the left or right when you punch the gas. But there's far less of this "torque steer" than in competing models such as the MazdaSpeed3) and Chrysler's Dodge Caliber SRT-4.

The Clubman isn't exactly roomy inside, but it's noticeably more spacious than the regular Mini Cooper. One of the surprising things about all Mini Coopers is how much legroom there is in the front seats. The front seats travel way back, and the tilting and telescoping steering wheel gives tall drivers the flexibility to create even more space. Several readers over six-feet tall have told me it's one of the few small cars they feel comfortable driving.

The rear seat is another matter. It's designed to accommodate only two passengers, rather than the usual three, but it's still cramped. The two-and-a-half inches of extra legroom in the Clubman isn't enough to provide enough space for normal-sized adults to be comfortable during long drives, especially if the front seats are way back. On the other hand, increasing the luggage space behind the rear seats to 9.2 cubic feet gives the Clubman almost as much luggage space as other compact cars. The '08 Honda Civic EX Coupe, for instance, has 11.5 cubic feet of trunk space.

The Clubman's cabin suffers from the same overly cutesy (in my opinion) design features as the regular Mini's. In the middle of the dashboard, there's a huge round speedometer that takes up more room than necessary and would be more user-friendly if it were directly in front of the driver. The retro radio look of the sound system and temperature controls is starting to look dated. The chime that sounds if you fail to attach your seatbelts, which sounds like something out of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, is fun at first, but quickly becomes annoying.

Buy it or Bag It?

 

It's hard to find a direct competitor to the Mini Cooper Clubman. It's a unique vehicle, and you either want one or you don't.

The base Clubman is probably sporty enough for most people, especially given its five grand price advantage. The average selling price of the base model so far this year is $25,677, versus $30,971 for the S, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). Whichever model you choose, no sporty competitor I can think of can match the Clubman's fuel economy.

The Clubman's toughest rival may be the Volvo C30, which has distinctive Scandinavian styling and sells for an average of $26,193, or only about $500 more than the base Mini Cooper, according to PIN. The C30 does 0 to 60 in just 6.2 seconds with a stick shift, which makes it quicker than the S Clubman. However, the C30 is only rated to get 19 mpg in the city and 27 on the highway (28 with a stick shift). (PIN and J.D. Power, like BusinessWeek, are units of the McGraw-Hill Cos.)

Another European-style competitor with the base Clubman is the Saturn Astra, a made-in-Belgium General Motors' GM hatchback that has been imported to the U.S. The Astra, which with a stick shift is rated at 19 mpg city/28 highway, can't match the Clubman's fuel efficiency, either.

Sporty but less fuel-efficient models that compete with the S Clubman include the Volkswagen GTI (average price this year, according to PIN: $24,969), the all-wheel-drive Subaru WRX ($28,576), and the MazdaSpeed3 ($23,609).

The bottom line is that once you factor in fuel economy, there's nothing quite like a Mini Cooper Clubman. It's worth the wait.

Thane Peterson reviews cars for BusinessWeek.com.

by Thane Peterson