I honestly thought this review of the MINI Cooper S Clubman would be a lot easier to write. After all, the Clubman is basically just an extended-length MINI Cooper. Like the regular Cooper, the Clubman is available in regular and racy S models. And like the Cooper, it prioritizes the fun-to-drive factor above everything else (notably comfort and cargo space). So why am I having such a hard time finding the right words to describe the Clubman? Read on. $20,600 base, $32,950 as tested, EPA fuel economy 23-28 city, 32-37 highway.
First Glance: It depends on how you look at it -- but don't look from the back
There are two ways to look at the MINI Cooper Clubman. You can think of it as simply an extended-wheelbase MINI, and from that perspective, it's quite flawed. Yes, it's more practical than the short-wheelbase Cooper, in the same sense that a bacon double cheeseburger is more healthy than a bacon double cheeseburger with extra mayonnaise. The Clubman may be longer, but it's still cramped, it's still tough to see out of, and it still rides like an ox cart. Conclusion: The Clubman is an annoying little car.
But one can also look at the Clubman as a hot hatch. Seen from that perspective, it's a slick little micro-wagon with a powerful engine and energetic handling that just happens to seat four adults and get great gas mileage. Conclusion: The Clubman is an amazing little car.
MINI went to great lengths (no pun intended, though let's face it, that wasn't much of a pun) to preserve the MINI's proportions, and the Clubman wears its extra length well. But it all goes wrong around the back. Someone made the brilliant decision that all Clubmans should have their back corners and rear bumper tops painted silver or black, regardless of what color the rest of the car is. On my metallic gray test car, the results (link goes to photo) are simply awkward, but check out this blue one and this red one. Ugh! Between the silly paint scheme and the cargo bay's double barn doors -- which I'll complain more about later -- the Clubman has the ugliest rear end I've laid eyes on since the last time I caught sight of my own caboose in the bathroom mirror.
In the Driver's Seat: Great back seat, not-so-great cargo bay
From the front seats forward, the Clubman is virtually the same as the standard MINI Cooper. The dash is dominated by the huge center-mounted speedometer, and the gun-slit windshield limits how much you can see out front. The view out back isn't much better thanks to the thick post between the two cargo doors, which dominates the scene in the rear view mirror.
Most of the Clubman's extra length (9.6 inches, with an extra 3.2 inches between front and rear wheels) is dedicated to the back seat, and the results are fantastic: There's room for a full-size adult (two, actually) to sit comfortably, as this picture of 6'2" SUVs guide Jason Fogelson shows. A rear-hinged half-size back door on the right side makes entry and exit quite a bit easier than in the short-wheelbase Cooper.
Move back to the cargo bay, and it all goes south again. The Clubman's trunk boasts more room than the standard Cooper, but at 9.2 cubic feet it's still pitifully small compared to the Nissan Versa hatchback (17.8) or the Honda Fit (21.3). But the problem isn't just the lack of space -- it's those silly double doors, which are always in the way if you're loading from the curbside. Try as I might, I can't see a single advantage over a proper top-hinged hatch lid. As far as I can tell, the doors are a throwback to the original long-wheelbase Mini of the 1960s (which, incidentally, was called the Traveller or the Countryman) -- a car designed well before pneumatic trunk struts made those ridiculous barn doors obsolete.
On the Road: Better than I remember
When I tested the redesigned MINI Cooper S last year, I criticized its handling, specifically its torque steer (the tendency of a powerful front-wheel-drive car to pull to one side under hard acceleration) and its somewhat unpredictable at-the-limit cornering behavior. I got along quite a bit better with this year's Clubman. It, too, was an S model, with the 172 horsepower turbocharged 1.6 liter engine, but it had a 6-speed automatic in place of the stick-shift I drove in '07. Torque steer was much less of a problem; having the ability to change gears with a quick press of the steering-wheel-mounted paddles definitely helped matters, as it was easier to keep the revs high and the turbocharger on the boil. Fuel economy was very impressive -- I averaged 28.1 MPG, a very pleasant surprise considering how quick this car is.
As for the handling -- well, let's chalk that up to improved technique. I'm a bit smoother and a bit less ham-fisted than I was when I tested the '07 MINI, and the Clubman responded well to a more gentle hand on the tiller. I had a much better time in the curves than I expected. One thing that didn't change was the noise (from both tires and engine) and the hard ride, the latter problem exacerbated by my test car's optional sport suspension. If you're not a hard-core enthusiast, skip it. In fact, you'd be well served to check out the base-model (non-S) Clubman -- its 118 horsepower engine should be more than enough for the Clubman's 3,362 lb. curb weight, plus it gets even better gas mileage and its lack of a turbocharger could make it cheaper to insure.
Journey's End: A good hot hatch, but a family car? No way
If you're thinking the Clubman will make a good family car, forget it. Granted, it's better than the regular Cooper. My MINI-owning, baby-totin' friends had a heck of a time finding a child seat that would fit properly, a problem they thought would be eliminated by the Clubman's bigger back seat. And while their collapsible twin stroller hasn't a hope of fitting into their Cooper's trunk, we were able to squeeze it into the Clubman. Still, I wouldn't call the Clubman family-friendly -- not when there are so many small cars more deserving of that title, including the roomy Scion xB, the inexpensive Nissan Versa, and the super-frugal Honda Fit.
As a four-seat hot hatch, the Clubman looks a lot better. Prices start at $20,600, but the sporty S will set you back $24k. That's a bit more than the Volkswagen GTI and a bit less than the Audi A3 2.0T, both of which offer more horsepower, more space, a more comfortable ride and a comparable fun factor. Ditto for the Honda Civic Si and Mazdaspeed 3. Still, I wouldn't say any of these cars are leaps and bounds better than the Cooper S Clubman, and one could argue that the MINI has a much higher cool-factor.
So here we are at the end, and I still can't decide how I feel about the MINI Cooper S Clubman. I love its feisty, fuel-efficient engine, unique interior, and useful back seat. But I hate those stupid barn doors, the silly silver trim, and the tiny cargo bay. I guess we'll just have to call this a love-hate relationship. -- Aaron Gold