MINI Clubman "S" more charming than a Countryman?

With the launch of its new Countryman, the Mini brand is expanding its model lineup, adding a max-y Mini to a model series that includes the mini Mini Cooper hatch and the midi Mini Cooper Clubman. That the Countryman is an intriguing addition is beyond doubt, it being the first Mini to have four doors, seating for four adults and the first to offer four-wheel drive.

But, while I'm confident it will prove a sales success for the BMW-owned brand, I hope said success doesn't come at the expense of the Clubman.

As fond as I am of Minis in all forms, I have had a certain affinity for the Clubman since its debut several years back.

In essence, it's a stretched (by 240 millimetres) Mini, the Clubman's "shooting brake" (station wagon) configuration a modern rendition of the Morris Mini Traveller, Austin Mini Countryman and Mini Clubman Estate that rounded out the original Mini family back in the 1960s when it was under the control of the British Motor Corporation.

And, while the Mini Cooper hatch is so cute and a blast to drive, the Clubman makes more sense, at least if you have a need for more room. With one or both of the split-folding rear seatbacks down together with the flat load floor and the height provided by the roofline, the Clubman offers more flexibility and practicality than the basic Mini Cooper.

Open the split rear cargo door and the Clubman serves up 9.1 cubic feet of space with the seats upright and 32.6 cu. ft with the seats folded flat. (Regular Minis offer a puny 5.7 cu. ft with the seats up and 24 cu. ft with the seats folded.) No, it's not the perfect conveyance for serious antiquing, but it is less claustrophobic than the hatch -with more space for something other than the week's groceries.

There's also the added benefit of the Clubdoor, a second, handle-free, rear-hinged door behind the passenger front door that makes it easier to access the rear seats.

There is 80 mm more legroom in the back, but it's a stretch to call the Clubman a legitimate four-seater.

The more pragmatic nature of the Clubman doesn't come at the expense of the zippy performance that characterizes the Mini hatch either -the wagon has the same powertrain, which, for 2011, benefits from engineering refinements to the feisty 1.6-litre DOHC fourbanger.

Subtle yet effective changes that reduce frictional losses and improve heat management deliver a three-horsepower increase from last year to 121 hp. Combined with a peak 114 ft-lbs. of torque, a Clubman equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission will accelerate to 100 kilometres an hour in 9.6 seconds (0.6 seconds slower than the hatch). This isn't breathtaking performance by any means, but the beauty of any Mini is its ability to project the feeling that it's going faster than it is, simply because you, as the driver, are totally involved in the process.

With a starting price of $27,350 ($31,730 for the tester), the Clubman wouldn't be my first choice if I was looking for an inexpensive, compact runabout. But that's not the Mini brand's shtick. Mini is one of those lifestyle decisions. The Clubman is unique, sporty, upscale, it has a measure of practicality (beyond that of the hatch) and it is plain fun to drive.

Consider it a toy with benefits.

 

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Countryman's fine, but this one's a charmer

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