Mini Gets Big and Useful, but Stays Fun

It's Hour 9 of our big driving day in the big Mini, the 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman, and daylight is fading. Weekend wine enthusiasts escaping to Paso Robles jam us up on California Highway 46, but this Mini Clubman has the optional automatic transmission, so we relax. Eventually we come to the turnoff for California Highway 41, and none of the civilians are going with us.

We've never driven the southernmost stretch of Highway 41 before. But with the Cooper S Clubman's responsive chassis and useful bi-xenons, it's point-and-shoot through the tight turns and we brim with confidence. Instead of holding us up, the six-speed Aisin-built automatic is playing along. It swaps gears as quickly as any dual-clutch gearbox and even matches revs when we call for a downshift. Sometimes we ask for a double and still it quickly obliges.

The 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman doesn't feel any different than it did when the sun was out. Certainly, it's not any less fun. But we realize there's something to this stretched Mini's 3.2-inch-longer wheelbase and 200 extra pounds. And it's not just extra room. It's extra comfort.

Idolatry, Anyone?

Although this is a pretty serious driver's car, we almost laugh at the 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman the first time we walk up to it. Its body stretches 9.6 inches longer overall than a regular Mini, yet the designers have been so faithful to the original template that the car is only 1 inch taller. The Clubman looks like a Mini that has motored into a funhouse of mirrors.

We poke fun, but during numerous exchanges at gas stations, grocery stores and beach parking lots, it's apparent this shape is long on appeal and will ensure the Clubman's success. Everyone who approaches knows it's a Mini — just a bigger than normal one — and wants to know exactly what's new.

Eyes glaze over when we say the words "longer wheelbase," so we focus on the Mini Clubman's signature features. We demonstrate the reverse-hinged rear door on the passenger side. Once it's opened, it nearly doubles the width of the entry to the rear seat. According to our own measuring tape, our long-term Mini Cooper S gives you about 18 inches in which to maneuver; this 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman provides 33 inches.

Of course, you still might trip over the door sills as you get in, but there's enough room to crouch inside and install a car seat. Also, a 5-foot-10 passenger can now sit behind a 5-foot-10 driver.

Then we like to show the lookee-loos just how cool the rear barn doors are. You unlatch the right one first and then the left, and thanks to gas struts, they sort of belch open of their own volition once you tug on the chrome door handles. An overhead gate would provide quicker access to the cargo bay, but the novelty factor is so high, we can't imagine any Clubman owner tiring of them.

Behind that delivery-van tail, there's a decent amount of hauling space. Mini wanted the Clubman to have a flat load surface with the rear seats folded, so the cargo floor was raised to meet the hatch's lower lip. That equates to about 4 fewer inches of vertical clearance, but no one's going to argue with the Mini Clubman's 32.8 cubic feet of cargo volume — up from 24.0 cubes in the regular Mini.

Besides, there's an additional storage compartment beneath the floor. And beneath that hidden space, there's a well for a temporary-size spare tire, made possible by the underbody clearance created by the Clubman's dual rear exhausts. But our Cooper S Clubman's spare tire well is empty because it wears run-flat tires, in this case the 205/45R17 Dunlop SP Sport 01 DSSTs from the Sport package.

A Little Calmer, but Just as Fun

Those run-flats do no favors for the ride quality of the 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman, but this car is a more compliant and stable high-speed cruiser than any of the Cooper S hatches we've tested. It's still nutso on rough pavement, though, and road noise grows tiresome during our long day on the road.

Of course the firmer springs and shocks, and stiffer antiroll bars that come with the Sport package are undoubtedly a factor here as well. These modifications would be harder to part with than the run-flats, though, since they contribute to the edgy feel that defines the Mini driving experience. The Clubman's steering ratio is 14.0:1, just as on the normal-size Mini, and the steering (which still uses electric power assist) feels no less direct on- or off-center. Around corners, the Clubman feels every bit as responsive in the same addictive way as the shorter Mini.

When we take the Cooper S Clubman to the test track, the numbers mostly justify our warm, fuzzy emotions. It runs through the slalom at 68.2 mph, virtually identical to the 68.5-mph pace of our long-term Cooper S hatch. On the skid pad, its tail wants in on the action, making it uncommonly entertaining for a front-driver of any footprint. The Clubman manages 0.85g compared to our long-termer's 0.88g.

Braking hardware is identical to the Cooper S, with 11.6-inch ventilated discs up front and 10.2-inch solid discs in back. The Clubman's brakes don't have quite the initial bite we'd like, but there's a nice progression in the pedal thereafter. The big Mini stops in 112 feet versus 115 feet in our long-term S, despite the slight increase in weight. We attribute the difference to varying surface conditions.

Goes Well if You Go Hard

If you keep the accelerator pedal mashed, this Mini Cooper S Clubman rarely comes up short in straight-line performance, despite its six-speed automatic transmission. Thanks to the direct-injected 1.6-liter engine's twin-scroll turbocharger plus variable valve timing and lift, torque response is almost immediate off idle.

We're only talking about 177 pound-feet of torque from this engine, but since it all comes together at just 1,600 rpm and sticks around until 5,000, you'll believe there's a lot more than that. Plus, full throttle unlocks a short-lived overboost good for 192 lb-ft.

In these situations, the automatic tranmsission upshifts at 6,400 rpm, 100 rpm shy of redline, no matter whether you're in regular "D," Sport mode or manual mode. This isn't really a disappointment, since peak horsepower comes in at 5,500 rpm and the power has already begun to taper off by this point. So even if you're doing your own shifting, you should have already pulled the paddle on the steering wheel by then.

At the track, our 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman isn't as quick as our long-term, manual-shift Cooper S, but you'd hardly call it slow. It takes 7.2 seconds to reach 60 mph versus 6.9 seconds in our long-termer, and it hits the quarter-mile mark at 15.4 seconds at 90.8 mph versus 15.0 seconds at 93.9 mph.

Although the automatic Cooper S Clubman feels very good when you're running hard, it doesn't adapt well to a life of low-speed stop-and-go driving. Throttle response is sluggish in these situations, and while hitting the Sport button quickens it up, progress isn't entirely smooth. What's more, pressing this button locks the transmission into its Sport mode, resulting in shift points that are too aggressive in heavy traffic.

Fortunately, everything settles down on the highway. The automatic's taller 6th gear gives our S a more relaxed demeanor than manual-shift models. (Both final drive ratios are virtually identical.) Nevertheless, the manual still returns better overall fuel economy, with a 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway rating to the automatic's 23 mpg city/32 mpg highway. We averaged 25 mpg.

Pricey Options

Our 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman has nearly a full plate of options, resulting in an unsettling $32,950 as-tested price. Less is more on a Mini, we believe, so given a choice we'd pass on the $1,500 Punch leather (one of two leather upholstery choices), which looks and feels like leatherette. Also of questionable value is the $1,500 Premium package, which mandates a single-zone automatic climate control system that's more trouble to use than the manual setup.

Otherwise, this is a standard-issue Mini interior with lots of design-y kitsch, including the pie-plate speedometer and wing-shaped audio head unit, but if you consider these flaws, you probably shouldn't be looking at a Mini anyway.

Bigger in All the Right Ways

It wouldn't be hard to get all cynical about the 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman. It's really not that much bigger than a normal-size Mini Cooper. Its cabin looks the same. And it carries a $2,250 premium.

But when you drive the Mini Clubman, you see it's a bit more than a marketing exercise. You can actually get regular use out of this backseat. You don't have to drop the rear seats every time you want to carry more than a few bags of groceries. And you can drive a few hours longer before the car's boundless energy wears you out.

Mini could have built a bigger Clubman, but we're not sure we'd still want to drive it. As it is, the 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman responds to its driver almost exactly like our '07 Cooper S hatch. And that's what makes it so desirable.