Cute just got practical.

Its name is the 2008 Mini Cooper Clubman, a logical and welcome sibling of the popular Mini Cooper.

Introduced in 2000, the Mini Cooper was a modern rendition of a classic-the British Mini of the 1960s, although the new car actually was larger and closer in size to the Mini's bigger garage-mates, the Austin and Morris 850 models.

Built in Great Britain, the modern Mini Cooper is owned by Germany's BMW, which builds high-performance, high-priced cars. The BMW powers decreed that the new Mini Cooper should be a premium small car with a dizzying array of options so customers could personalize their rides.

The profitable concept was an instant hit. But the two-door Mini had obvious disadvantages, mainly owing to its size-slightly longer than 12 feet. It made for a nimble, easy-to-park package, but the back seat was so cramped as to be mostly useless.

That same dilemma faced the builders of the original Mini. They solved it with the Morris Traveler, followed by the Austin Countryman, which were stretched versions of the Mini-tiny, two-door station wagons that Brits were quaintly wont to call "shooting brakes."

History repeats itself with the 2008 Mini Cooper Clubman, which again is a taffy-pulled version of the front-drive Mini. It is slightly more than nine inches longer, with all of the extra inches going into the back seat and the cargo area.

The designers also crafted a rear-hinged third door on the right side that eases access to the back seat. The result is a car an inch shy of 13 feet that can seat four adults in comfort, with 17 cubic feet of stash space-more than what you'd find in a mid-size car. Fold the back seats and you get nearly 33 cubic feet for cargo.

Access is through two side-hinged doors in back, each with its own hydraulic struts and window wiper. The doors are cleverly designed with openings that surround the taillights, so they are visible even with the doors open. Closed, with the Clubman's unique two-tone paint schemes, they present a classy look from the rear.

All of this means that the subcompact Clubman, unlike the standard Mini Cooper, can function as a family car.

Yet it gives up nothing of its perky character. The Clubman weighs just 177 pounds more than the Mini, and the differences in performance, handling and ride are miniscule.

As with its stubbier sibling, the Clubman comes with two engine choices: a 118-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine on the base model, and a 172-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder on the S version.

Both engines are available with either a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode. With the manual, the Clubman's zero to 60 acceleration time is rated by the manufacturer at 8.9 seconds with the 118-horsepower engine and seven seconds with the 172-horsepower motor.

The base Clubman starts at $20,600 and the S model starts at $24,100. But the options list is extensive and expensive, so almost any Clubman likely will cost way more. Mini people say the option combinations theoretically total 150 trillion, which is one way of saying that you might be able to own a unique vehicle.

Because of the multitude of options, it is possible to outfit a Clubman to where it costs north of $30,000. The tested base model had nearly $7,000 worth of extras, which brought its suggested sticker price to $27,350.

The interior retains the quirky English ambience of the Mini, with the center of the dash dominated by a giant speedometer and other instruments, including a unique lighted fuel gauge. A tachometer rests on the steering column. There's also an array of retro toggle switches overhead and on the dashboard.

Standard equipment includes stability and traction control, antilock brakes and side-curtain airbags, along with run-flat tires. The test car also had automatic air conditioning, a dual glass sunroof, sport seats and a sport suspension system, cloth and leather seats, and upgraded interior trim.

Only the forward part of the dual glass sunroof opens, and the interior shade is made of a mesh fabric that allows the intrusion of too much sunlight. Moreover, the tiny sun visors do not slide on their support rods, although the driver gets a separate side sun visor.

Despite the third door and a sliding right-front seat, it still takes some agility to fold into the back seat. Once inside, the coved seats offer decent comfort, although knee room is in short supply.

On the road, even with the 118-horsepower engine, the Clubman is an engaging puppy. The low power, along with indirect ratios in fourth, fifth and sixth gears to enhance fuel economy, means that you do a lot of shifting. But the shift linkage is direct and effortless, and the clutch engages smoothly, so it's more fun than chore.

BMW's deserved reputation for supple suspension systems carries over to the Mini, resulting in squat-down handling as well as a ride that is probably the best you can get in this size car.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)

 

Source:  Scripps News