TEST DRIVE | BMW maintains Mini legacy with latest entry
April 21, 2008

The MINI Cooper Clubman is the larger new version of BMW's Mini Cooper, which was an iconic British car, especially in Swinging London of the 1960s, when celebrity owners included Paul McCartney and Peter Sellers (who owned 10). Fashion designer Mary Quant reportedly even named her miniskirt after the car.

The front-wheel-drive British Mini two-door was a picture of practicality, despite a sporty blend of personality, style and performance. Tiny and fuel-stingy, it transported four adults and was suited to narrow London streets.

The British built more than 5 million versions of the Mini from late 1959 to 2000. BMW then began making a modernized, higher quality, better-equipped version, while leaving the basic original front-drive design unchanged.

 

The British built more than 5 million versions of the Mini from late 1959 to 2000. BMW then began making a modernized, higher quality, better-equipped version, while leaving the basic original front-drive design unchanged.

BMW began selling its Mini here in 2002 after a major publicity drive because, remarkably, few Americans knew about the car. The Mini took off, and 42,045 were sold here last year -- up from 39,121 in 2006. That partly was because the 2007 Mini was made marginally larger and got a little more horsepower. It looked virtually the same, but all body panels were different. (The 2008 Mini convertible, though, retains the 2002-07 design.)

Mini sales also have increased this year, and should be helped by the Clubman. It's an extended version of the front-drive Mini two-door hatchback, about 9.5 inches longer on a 3.2-inch-longer wheelbase. The Clubman also is about 175 pounds heavier and has no significant horsepower increase to compensate for the added weight.

BMW is keeping up the Mini tradition with the Clubman because the British made various versions of the Mini. The 2008 Clubman is reminiscent of the 1960s Mini Traveler and Countryman and gets its name from the Mini Clubman Estate wagon of the 1970s and early 1980s.

The Clubman comes as a base $19,550 model with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that generates 118 horsepower and as a sportier $23,450 "S" model with a turbocharged 1.6-liter "four" with 172 horsepower. The base Clubman is pretty well-equipped with comfort, convenience and safety items, while the S adds more supportive sport seats and a rear spoiler. Twin sunroofs make the interior especially airy. (Regular Mini coupes cost from $18,050-$21,200.)

Transmissions are a slick six-speed manual gearbox and a responsive six-speed automatic, which was in my Clubman S test car.

Estimated fuel economy of the non-turbo Clubman is 32 mpg in the city and 40 on highways with the manual gearbox and 30 and 37 with the automatic transmission. The S delivers 29 and 36 with the manual and 27 and 34 with the automatic. Premium-grade fuel is recommended for both models.

Despite its added weight the Clubman S has strong acceleration, although I suspect that the non-turbo version is noticeably slower, especially with an automatic transmission.

The payoff for the Clubman's larger size is 3 more inches of badly needed rear legroom and about 8 cubic feet of extra cargo space when rear seatbacks are folded forward. Still, front seats must be moved up quite a bit for decent rear-seat leg room for 6-footers, and they still have little room to spare.

A small rear-hinged third door on the passenger side has an inside-mounted handle that maintains the Mini's smooth two-door appearance. The stubby third door doesn't open independently of the front passenger door and doesn't swing out very far. But it makes it easier to get in and out of the right-rear passenger side of the back seat. However, sliding to the seat behind the driver still is a hassle.

The added length and wheelbase allow slightly improved high-speed stability and mildly enhanced ride comfort. However, while the Clubman -- like the standard Mini -- is a blast to drive, with very quick steering and go-kart-style handling, it has a stiff, choppy ride. The S version is especially harsh over bad bumps.

There are two rear center opening "barn doors" instead of a hatchback. The doors forced Mini designers to cleverly put rear lights in the body instead of the doors. The centers of the cargo area doors form a pillar that creates a thin vertical obstruction in the rearview mirror.

The Clubman retains the two-door hatchback's styling up to the windshield. But it's noticeably longer, and the revised rear end gives it a rather offbeat look. The longer roof looks flat at a glance but has a gentle curve to it.

BMW continues to copy much of the British Mini's interior, with the world's largest speedometer. It's put square in the center of the dashboard, with a tachometer placed directly in front of the driver. This is fine for a race car, rather silly for a road car. Small, retro-style dashboard toggle switches for such things as the power windows are very low on the dashboard and sacrifice style for functionality. Climate and audio controls are more conveniently located but have tiny lettering. Front cupholders are within easy reach.

Outside door handles are large, but inside ones are hard to grab with their stylish but awkward semi-circular design. Finding the outside hood release latch was difficult and led to a finger cut. Curiously, the owner's manual index has no listing for "hood."

The Mini basically is bought to be a "fun" car, and the new Clubman enhances its appeal by making it a more practical one.

Source: Chicago Sun Times