Mini Cooper Clubman — stretched is very good

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Like thousands of Americans, the wife fell in love with the tiny Mini Cooper the first time it arrived for a test drive several years ago. She was enamored of its quirky exterior appearance that mimicked the famous English city car and adored the interior with its dinner plate speedometer smack-dab in the middle of the dashboard and the form-over-function toggle switches for windows and lights.

But like thousands of Americans, she came to the regrettable conclusion that it was too small for her needs.

Eighteen months later another Mini showed up in front of our test-car garage and the love affair began all over. We were enthralled by its point-and-shoot driving dynamics, its ability to scoot in and out of city traffic and its smile-inducing ability to hug twisty rural roads like there was glue on its wheels. Alas, the same regret surfaced — the Mini was just a tad too mini.

But now, speaking in cliches, all's well that ends well. Or should we say, all's well that ends with a new car payment?

The 2008 Mini Cooper Clubman has made things right. The third Mini style to reach the public — there's the standard-sized Mini coupe and there's a convertible — is a version stretched 9.6 inches that includes a rear-hinged half door for easy access to the second-row seats and at the rear the neatest little hinged "barn doors" in the automotive kingdom.

The new size creates legitimate seating space for four adults and a cargo area that can hold 33 cubic feet of stuff with the rear seats folded flat.

This is, indeed, the Mini that the misses wanted, yearned for, dreamed about. This is a practical Mini. Can you say, go find the checkbook?

The kicker here is that the Mini look has not been altered. Indeed, you can see the stretch marks if you take some time to study the vehicle. But unless its parked next to a standard Mini, the Clubman still looks just as intriguing as the coupe. And the Mini's incredible driving experience is still thankfully there.

The new functional style is also a conversation starter, particularly when you open the rear doors, each with a tiny windshield wiper attached. To reach the interior, first grab the handle on the right-side door and with just the slightest tug it swings open. Maybe its just perception, but it seems that access to the cargo area is greater than with a tailgate looming overhead. When shut, the cargo doors come together to form a center pillar. The downside is that the pillar bisects the driver's view through the rearview mirror. But it's pretty much a non-issue, easy to look around and easy to get used to.

The rear-hinged reverse-opening half door is nicely integrated into the sheetmetal located on the passenger-side of the car. Much like an extended cab pickup, the door handle is mounted inside the door and can't be opened without opening the front door.

The small door allows easy entry and exit. One of our regular riders slipped right into the rear seat. We arranged the front seat about halfway up, which allowed plenty of room up front for an average-sized person. Our rear-seat passenger proclaimed adequate leg and foot space for a comfortable ride. She said that it helped to have the optional double moonroofs overhead to create a less claustrophobic and more airy environment.

The extra 9.6 inches on a 3.2-inch longer wheelbase adds three inches of rear leg room.

Behind the wheel you forget there's more sheetmetal behind. The dashboard is standard Mini and the driving experience is unchanged.

The Mini Clubman is propelled by the same two engines as found in the coupe and we discovered no fall-off in performance even through the Clubman is about 175 pounds heavier. The base model gets a 1.6-liter four-cylinder making 118 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque mated to either a six-speed automatic with manual shift control or a six-speed manual transmission. The Cooper S gets a turbocharged version of the engine generating 172 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque.

Our base test car came with the smaller engine and the automatic transmission, the slowest combination. Normally we would be less than thrilled by getting a base engine, but this time it worked in our favor because we can report that performance is adequate for all occasions. Certainly there's more momentum with the manual shifter, but most people aren't into shifting for themselves. We say, don't be afraid to buy the automatic with the smaller engine.

If you want the ultimate in Mini thrills of course go with the Cooper S. It will indeed scoot with 0-to-60 time of around seven seconds.

Both engine variants come with outstanding gas mileage, certainly a major consideration with constantly accelerating gas prices. The base engine is rated at 28 mpg city and 37 highway with the manual and 26/35 with the automatic. The turbocharged version gets 26/35 and 24/32.

If there's a downside to the Mini it is with the form over function dashboard layout. Some of the controls, particularly on the stereo system, are small and hard to use. The climate control wheels for fan speed and temperature are not user friendly. And you will have to get used to toggle switches for the power windows. But if you can find peace with the setup, it's sure cool to look at.

Another cool aspect of the car is its price. It will probably be hard to find a discount but you'll get your money's worth at sticker price.

The base Clubman starts at $20,600 including destination charge. Not only do you get the head-turning Mini look and the wonderful driving dynamics, but you also get full power accessories including one-touch up and down driver's window, air conditioning, 15-inch alloy wheels, leatherette upholstery, a tilt-telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel and a six-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary jack.

Standard safety includes antilock brakes, stability control, front side airbags and side-curtain airbags.

The Cooper S begins at $24,100 and comes with the bigger engine, sport-tuned suspension, sports seats and 16-inch run-flat tires.

There are a few worthwhile options, but watch the bottom line carefully because the options list is long and you may find yourself driving off in a 30 grand car.

Our test car came with just two options, automatic transmission for $1,250 and the panoramic sunroof for $1,000. That brought the bottom line to $23,850. We would have liked a center armrest ($250) and Sirius satellite radio ($1,000 with a lifetime subscription).

Mini got it just right with the new Clubman and we predict it will be a successful addition to the lineup. It's big enough for carrying three or four people or a sizable amount of cargo including two golf bags without losing its driving dynamics or its wonderful personality.


Base price, $20,600; as driven, $23,850

Engine: 1.6-liter 4-cylinder

Horsepower: 118 @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 114 foot-pounds @ 4,250 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Drive: front wheel

Seating: 2/2

Wheelbase: 100.2 inches

Length: 155 inches

Curb weight: 2,723 pounds

Turning circle: 36.1 feet

Luggage capacity: 9.2 cubic feet

Cargo capacity: 33 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)

EPA mileage: 34 highway, 26 city

0-60: 9.5 seconds (estimated)

Also consider: Volkswagen Beetle, Honda Fit, smart fortwo

The Good

• Fun to drive and fun to be seen in
• More versatile than regular Mini Cooper coupe

• Responsive engine with excellent gas mileage

The Bad

• Still a very small car

The Ugly

• Form-over-function controls can be aggravating