Pardon us while we get all Existentialist on you. But is Mini as a measure of size, or a state of mind? That’s what’s got us scratching our heads with the latest Clubman S.
This is actually the second generation of the Clubber, the first was a longer wheelbase version of the existing model, with a small suicide door on the passenger side to help passengers pile in and enjoy the extra room. It actually made a lot of sense, it gave a bit better ride, and introduced Mini drivers to the joys (accessibility) and horrors (visibility) of split rear doors.
We especially lusted after the Mini Clubvan version, that swapped out the rear side windows for body color panels, making it the coolest small wagon since the Pinto panel wagon. OK, it was much cooler than the Pinto, but because of a tariff of 25% on commercial vehicles, only 50 Clubvans (Clubven?) were ever brought here. So if you see one, it’s a rare bird indeed.
Things have changed since then. With the current Mini, they’ve brought out a 4-door model, so the same philosophy that created the original Clubbie wouldn’t have made much sense.
Mini did the smart move and made the Clubman larger, and it’s noticeable. Over a foot longer and nearly 5 inches wider, it dwarfs the previous Clubman. And it creates an interesting divide in Mini owner opinions – we found those that felt it had just gotten too big, while others loved that you could get that Mini cheekiness in a more usable package.
Our tester was the Cooper S model, which gives you the more powerful turbo 4-cylinder and more standard sports goodies. Our tester was dressed in Pure Burgundy with contrasting Melting Silver roof and mirrors. It quickly earned the nickname Grape Expectations. (Also under consideration were Jack Clubman and Clubber Lang.)
The new Clubman is not only larger, but much more practical, thanks to 4 full-size doors. We’ve tested the regular Mini 4-door and found the proportions awkward, and the added usefulness limited at best. If you want a Mini, we’d go for the 3-door.
The 4-door Clubman takes spaciousness to a new level in Mini-dom. There’s added legroom in back – good for kids, but just short trips for adults please, but the added interior width really gives a more substantial feeling inside. And if you need to haul stuff, folding the rear seats down now gets you over 47 cubic feet of space – nearly 50% more than the previous model.
Which of course has us once again dreaming of a Clubvan panel van model.
Access to the cargo area still comes from those split barn doors. And like the doors, we’re split on them. They’re spring-loaded and pop open for easy access – you can even get optional power opening that activates by a swing of the foot under the bumper –but when you’re driving, the solid beam in the center of your rearview is a real hindrance. And that rear window isn’t very tall to begin with.
We’re now seeing manufacturers using a camera that displays a clear picture in the rearview mirror regardless of what you’re carrying (a great thing for people who drive around with loads of balloons) and it would be greatly appreciated here.
On the other hand, if you ever lusted for a split-window 63 Corvette, you can at least enjoy a similar view for a lot less.
The rest of the inside view is typical Mini – stylish, fun and unique. You’ve got the big center gauge that used to house the speedo, which has migrated above the steering wheel where it’s easier to see. We’re in the minority, but we liked the location of the old one… Speaking of that giant pie-hole, our tester had the Technology Package which includes navigation, and fun call-outs when you change driving modes.
A big step forward when accessing your navi-info-tainment is the round touch controller located behind the shifter. Obviously stolen from parent company BMW’s parts bin, its super-easy to use and light year’s ahead of previous mini’s design. Also on the hit list are actual door-mounted power window controls – the old toggles on the center console were undoubtedly cool, but infuriatingly hard to control accurately.
Along with better design, the quality of materials is a huge step forward, and the Clubman feels much the baby BMW with soft-touch panels and upscale materials throughout.
Like the Bavarian, Mini will tempt you with glorious, options. We’d spring for the Indigo Blue Chesterfield Leather, with swanky diamond-shaped stitching on the back and seat inspired by British Chesterfield furniture. Makes Milord feel like he’s in a Bentley…
Best of all, the Clubman S is an excellent drive. While it is a substantial bit larger than the regular Cooper, this is still a small car by most standards. And that makes it a very wieldy companion to slice and dice traffic. The 189-horse, 2-liter turbo has plenty of punch, but equal love must go to the new 8-speed Sport automatic that snaps off shifts through the paddles, and really keeps the Club on the boil.
Especially in Sport mode, which is activated by a toggle below the shift lever that you nudge left or right. Sport is really aggressive here – throttle response is immediate and the ride gets very firm, and combined with the run-flat 18’s you’re autocross-ready at the flip of a switch.
Handling is sharp and direct, and we really enjoyed the steering feel. Funny, the Mini now feels more like BMWs used to feel, than BMWs do now.
After torturing the tarmac and giving your kidney’s a shiatsu massage, going back to normal mode makes a surprisingly large difference and really smooths out the ride.
Which is made even more impressive by how quiet the Clubman is. No squeaks, rattles, or wind noise. The lack of squawking points out that those grippy run-flats are a bit noisy, but that’s a trade-off we’d accept.
Trade-offs are the name of the game when it comes to building a Mini, and the Clubster is no exception. At a base price of $27,650. temptation begins. If you live in slippery climes, a Cooper S ALL4 with 4-wheel drive rings in at $29,450. An intriguing little rally rocket, no doubt.
Our front-driver had the previously-mentioned Chesterfield Leather ($1,750), plus Sport Package which includes the Dynamic Damper Control ($1,500), the Technology Package including Navi, Rear View Camera, Park Distance Control ($,1750), and Premium Package with Dual-pane Panoramic Sunroof, Harmon Kardon Audio and Comfort Access ($1,800). And there’s more! We also tallied in 18” Silver Star Spoke Wheels ($750) and the 8-speed Sport automatic with paddle shifters ($1,750). Totaled up, you’re just under $37,000. Gulp!
But really, you shouldn’t think of this as an expensive Mini, but more of a designer BMW X1, which shares the engine and chassis with the Clubman, and is $5,500 dearer to start. And is not nearly as cool.
So to us, Mini is a state of mind. It’s about fun, fashion, performance, and now with the new Clubman, fewer compromises. Pricey? Perhaps. But special, desirable things often are. Our Grape Expectations have been exceeded.
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.