March 23, 2008
Whenever a cute little vehicle appears in the U.S., there are those who insist the smaller the car, the higher the mileage and the higher the mileage, the more likely we'd make petroleum last another millennium or two.
And others insist any small car that sips rather than chug gas is nice, but not as nice as one just a bit bigger to hold a couple more people and their suitcases.
That bigger-is-better crowd swayed BMW, which has rolled out the newest addition to its Mini line for 2008, the Cooper Clubman that sports a 3.15-inch longer wheelbase and is 9.45 inches longer overall than the original Mini for those who felt the minuscule version was a tad snug.
Mini enthusiasts also wanted more room to slip kids in the back seat without folding them in half, plus a little more cargo room to carry a change of underwear so they wouldn't have to turn the pair they are wearing inside out on a trip.
The added length contributes to more knee and leg room in back while the small access door on the passenger side makes getting into/out of the back seat much easier. The "suicide" door opens rearward, and the release handle is in the cabin.
While leg and knee room is better, an adult still wouldn't want to venture cross country in back. And if the headrests are left down they are pure torture.
The swing-up hatchlid on the regular Mini is replaced with a pair of swing out "barn doors" that open wide for easy loading/unloading. The added length, which translates into about 6 inches more room behind the second seat, provides space for a couple suitcases.
When barn doors are open, you can lower the rear seat backs. The flat cargo floor can handle luggage, groceries or gear like a Grand Marquis. A pullout shade hides whatever is stored inside.
The Mini has always been a fun machine, and Clubman is no exception in Cooper version with 1.6-liter, 120-horsepower 4 or Cooper S with 1.6-liter, 175-h.p. turbo 4.
We tested the tamer 120-h.p. Clubman with a smooth-shifting 6-speed manual. It packs a little punch except when moving from the light as the turbo S does. That, no doubt, is why the latter is hotter.
But, as with any size Mini, Clubman's sports-tuned suspension makes it so agile and nimble, and steering response is so quick and accurate, that the machine feels more potent than it is.
It helps that the large side bolsters hold you in your seat in aggressive maneuvers, and the XL seat bottom provides above-average thigh support for long distances.
While the sports suspension excels in keeping the radials planted in any horizontal maneuver, the price is paid in lots of up-and-down jostling over blemishes in the road.
The Clubman tested came with optional panoramic sunroof over front and rear seats. The glass over both tilts to let in air, but only the front panel slides open. All that glass provides an open-air feeling and makes the cabin seem larger and roomier than it is.
Nice touches include a cooling vent in the glovebox to chill pop or water, a flip-down sunshade over the driver's side window and a novel hunk of dash trim in front of the passenger that, when pushed, lifts to expose a clever little compartment.
Clubman starts at $19,950. Stability control, anti-lock brakes and side-curtain air bags are standard, along with AM/FM radio with CD player, power windows/locks/mirrors (heated), heated seat (manual only), remote keyless entry, keyless ignition, air conditioning and tilt and telescoping steering wheel.
Options included Hot Chocolate paint finish at $500; leather upholstery at $2,000; a convenience package at $1,500 with sports steering wheel, universal garage-door opener, auto-dimming rearview mirror, center armrest with cell-phone holder, rain-sensing wipers and Bluetooth hands-free phone; premium package at $1,500 with the dual panoramic sunroof, automatic air conditioning upgrade and sound system upgrade; sport package at $1,500 with 16-inch radials, sports suspension/seats/fog lights; and Xenon headlamps at $500.
Maybe the Mini had to grow into a Clubman to hold the window sticker with all those add-on $1,500 packages.
What's next, an 8-foot bed on V-8 Mini pickup? Or perhaps a Mini SUV with three rows of seats to hold eight?
Not so far-fetched when General Motors execs learned at the Chicago Auto Show that consumers' ideal vehicle is a 30-m.p.g. Chevy Tahoe.