Driving the BMW 340i, Mini Cooper Clubman, Chevy Malibu Hybrid, Toyota Yaris

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtu
al Driver

The 340i sedan BMW dropped off cost an eye-watering $58,420 (it had $11,625 in options), but I almost didn’t c
are. This is a quick, competent, comfortable sport sedan you can use everyday that is blessed with a clutch that is the textbook definition of how this device should feel and operate.

The pedal is firm but light, has a creamy take up that starts just off the floor and finishes before reaching the travel midpoint, and a pedal arc that feels natural. It is complemented by a gear lever that has a well-oiled movement and unerring accuracy. Together they make you want to shift gears. Stir in a torquey, powerful 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six, and you have the recipe for automotive nirvana — even with stop-start.

The Track Handling package is everyday livable, the seats are wonderful, and even a modicum of restraint will reward you with a 24 mpg average. The interior is well trimmed and roomy, and the head-up display should be standard equipment. So should the $575 rear door sunshades and $350 ambient lighting package. Still, the 340i proved that, ultimate or not, as far as its highest volume model is concerned, BMW still knows how to make driving machines.

Mini Cooper Clubman

I hate the Mini four-door with a passion. It is awkward, ugly and dumpy, and its only reason for being is to give young parents easy access to their kids strapped in the back. That’s because attaching a child seat in the two-door is best left to relatives of Harry Houdini.

I wasn't expecting much from the Clubman, especially since it is, dimensionally, the biggest Mini in history. The first generation was overstyled, and had gloss black or silver trim pieces that ran alongside the dual cargo doors and a weird rear-hinged half door on one side. Yeech! The new version is elegant, sophisticated and handsome, and has a lot more usable room — especially in the back.

The turbocharged 1.5-liter triple under the hood acquitted itself well, though the extra power of the 2.0-liter turbo four is seductive, especially when mated to the six-speed Getrag manual gearbox. I found the stop-start system to be third world harsh (I shut it off), and the engine slow to shut off. Many were the times when I found myself letting out the clutch with the car in gear just as the engine was almost wound down.

Priced at a reasonable $26,500 as tested, the Clubman proved itself to be my favorite model of the latest generation Mini yet. Thanks to pedestrian crash regulations, it has a guppy-like face, but the elegant interior and otherwise cohesive styling give it an unexpected sense of class and style. Good job, Mini.

Chevy Malibu Hybrid

The most dominant word that comes to mind is “disappointment.” Not for the mileage, which averaged 43 mpg, but for the raucous powertrain under load, questionable interior plastics, and swoopy but sleepy styling. After months of watching “real people” fill Chevy’s television commercials with comparisons to much more expensive cars, my first encounter with the Malibu was an anticlimax.

Part of the problem was the combination of a Blue Velvet Metallic exterior and Jet Black interior, which did nothing to accentuate the Malibu’s styling. The first time I grabbed the turn signal stalk, I was shocked by how insubstantial it felt. The interior is a bit overstyled, but the fabric on the instrument panel face is a unique touch. There’s plenty of room, including a decent rear seat area, but the hybrid battery pack really takes a bite out of trunk space.

Trips to the grocery store to buy mass quantities of bottled water and food, or to a big box store meant filling up the back seat or, more often than I care to admit, taking the family VW Passat. It has a huge trunk and back seat.

And while the fuel economy was excellent, the 1.8-liter four under the hood could be quite noisy. Tooling around town at part throttle is its milieu. accelerating onto the expressway is not. Though it has plenty of power to merge into traffic, you’ll want to lift out of the throttle at the first opportunity in order to reduce the din making its way into the cabin. Personally, this car makes no sense.

Ditch the hybrid drive system, liberate the trunk space, and head for the upper trim level where you can get a 2.0-liter turbocharged four mated to an eight-speed automatic.

Toyota Yaris

Last time around, I was surprised just how much I liked the littlest Toyota. This time around, I drove it mostly on the highway. This is not a car whose main road work should take place at 70 (or more) miles per hour in traffic. In these conditions, hustling the Yaris  is like taking a triple hit of Red Bull and following it with a side of meth.

Frenetic doesn’t begin to describe the way you feel as the road noise, tire vibration, engine buzz and crosswind behavior combine to bridge your nerve endings with jolts of electricity. Pile on the miles in the fast lane, and you’ll find yourself talking louder and faster, too.

Some of this is to be expected, the Yaris is meant for scooting through cities and plugging gaps in traffic, not for long haul duty. Use it this
way, and you’ll be pleased, though cars like the Ford Fiesta are capable of dispatching both sets of duty without making you feel like Hunter S. Thompson after a long Vegas weekend.

Though somehow that feeling might explain the test car’s slightly odd black-over-red two tone paint job.

The Virtual Driver