Mountain Wheels: Big and little, Mini’s improved Clubman is the jumbo shrimp of the auto world
2016 Mini Cooper Clubman/Cooper S Clubman
MSRP: $24,100/$27,650; as tested, $35,450/$37,000
Powertrain: 134-HP 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder/189-HP 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder; six-speed manual transmission
EPA figures (combined/city/highway): 28/25/34 (26/22/32)
A friend from Vancouver, Canada, was asking me recently why it’s often hard to find good used examples of the workhorses of the contemporary automotive scene — newer RAV4s or Honda Civics — but there always seems to be a lot of Minis.
I postulated that it’s kind of like the pound-puppy routine. People fall in love with the looks and sporty style of the basic Mini (especially when decked out with a British Flag paint job), but quickly discover that size, practicality and the hidden reality that is BMW engineering — and the costs that can go along with that — make them reconsider their purchase, especially when looking for something more suited for all-season driving.
But there’s a compromise to this, in the form of the new version of the Mini Cooper Clubman — launched last year and available now in varieties that also include an all-wheel-drive system.
The Clubman’s still a weird beast, but one that’s got a modicum of practicality, as well as much-improved interior comforts and a set of marginally de-weirded controls. You can order it up plain, with a still fun-to-use three-cylinder turbo that provides loads (134 horsepower, though it seems powerful here) of cavorting goodness to the still-small chassis, or you can go upscale a bit to the S model and its turbocharged four-cylinder, putting out a happily fearsome and torque-steer-crazed 189 HP. In that case, the All4 AWD system might keep things a tad more grounded.
And yes, those giddy barn doors in the back are still giddy, with tiny windshield wipers straight out of an old MG Midget, but the trade-off is a not unpleasant 47.9 cubic feet of storage when you drop the rear seats. Those rear seats, by the way, are also not the tiniest places in the world, with 34.3 inches of legroom and a much roomier feel.
“Roomier feel” is, as mentioned earlier, a subjective experience in Mini-land, and many larger drivers are still going to find even the Clubman’s proportions too petite for their needs, with tiny armrests and the oversized wheel making you feel like Andre the Giant each time you climb aboard. To really embrace the Mini experience, you’ve got to slide the seat back to get in and then squeeze yourself as close as possible to the wheel and controls, and then drive with Small Dog attitude, at all times.
Happily, the much more BMW-ized 2016 Minis have not lost an ounce of their joyful chuckabillity, with a ride that’s go-kart-like in its agility, poise and general ridiculousness. Spin the selector over to the Sport mode — the bezel around the oracle-styled navigation/entertainment screen will glow and give you the feeling that the flux capacitor has been turned on — and you can turn in, stick to and roll around corners in a way that larger vehicles simply cannot.
Clubman is, thus, the anti-SUV, though it is in fact sort of the SUV of the Mini family; at its best, the ability to cavort and careen helps justify its still-miniature status. Otherwise, you’d have a tiny dud like those older and weirder Scions, which both looked strange and drove terribly; Mini delivers on the promise of vibrant motoring, especially with the not inconsiderable plowing power of that 2.0-liter turbo.
A six-speed manual also helped keep things more energetically focused, though both engines have varying degrees of turbo lag that makes the lower gears a challenge without lots of revving. And you’ll also find that downshifting sometimes doesn’t produce the perceptible engine-braking effect you might be trying to achieve, emphasizing more brake usage.
Its looks are a slightly more contemporary take on the first generation of retro-fabulous nouveau Mini design, and inside, what once was a rolling display of Austin Powers-styled nuttiness is a little more subdued, though the bank of toggle switches (especially the start-stop one, which you’ll find either endearing or annoying) and the hard-to-fathom LED gas gauge still serve to remind you that you’re not driving anything normal at all.
As might the vibrantly blue leather seats I had in the standard Clubman I tested, a fantastically gaudy collision between German and British sensibility. The car’s low-tech heads-up display, a piece of plastic that jiggles into position, is also a bit silly.
Another point I might have made to my friend is the reality that Minis, like the rest of the BMW family, are not particularly inexpensive, if you’d like a good dose of optional comforts and conveniences. The base price of the Clubman may be $24,100 but a not-explosive list of options in mine brought the price to $35,000 — a lot to pay for a three-cylinder automobile with limited passenger and cargo room and a roofline that’s only 56 inches off the ground.
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