Let’s start with a reminder: there have always been more sensible small cars than a Mini. And the 2016 Mini Clubman is the quirky BMW brand’s first concerted effort to make something sensible – a compact hatchback.
Being from Mini, the new Clubman isn’t completely conventional. You can load it with a contrasting roof color, loads of different interior materials and, of course, the barn doors in place of a traditional tailgate still make it more offbeat than run-of-the-mill hatches.
Yet Mini’s whole point with this new car is appealing to those who’ve grown out of their old Minis, both physically and emotionally, and are tempted by so-called premium cars.
The Clubman, therefore, has seemingly conflicting missions to be a nonconformist that’s just as practical as conventional hatchbacks – premium or not. It does a better job than you might think.
Today I am a Clubman
When I heard a Mini designer last fall say they actually tried to make the Clubman look bigger than it actually was, I may have unintentionally let out a groan.
The fact today’s Minis are gargantuan compared to their 1960s ancestors is old news, but it’s still tough to hear it emphasized.
The Clubman looks bigger than a Volkswagen Golf, even though it’s shorter. And like the current generation of Minis on the BMW-based UKL structure, they look like marshmallows that have been puffed up a little too much.
Having said all of this, I don’t know why we fussed so much about the Clubman’s looks. And alongside modern cars, it actually does look small. Even in this beige/silver-on-black combo that I was not a fan of, there’s a good amount of oddness to its shape. It looks wagon-like too, rather than a traditional hatch.
The longer the roof, the cooler the car in my book.
What’s on the inside matters most. And the Clubman makes a strong case for itself once you step inside.
The big difference between a Golf and a Clubman is how much more plush the Mini feels compared to what VW decides to put in American-spec hatchbacks. Pretty much all of the switchgear is solid, if not always BMW-like in quality.
The best news, however, is that it’s pretty easy to find all of the buttons and switches once you’ve sat down. What’s going on, Mini?
As a bonus, most of the Mini’s controls make sense now, too. The “iDrive” wheel and controls are logically placed, unlike in the other models where they require a concerted effort to reach and avoid coming into contact with the handbrake or armrest. That wheel controller operates something that actually looks like it was ripped out of a 3-series, but only if you spring for the Mini Connected XL package – I’ll get to how much these options are going to cost soon enough.
One option that’s a touch dubious is the hands-free opener for the barn doors in order to access the cargo space. The space is actually good and more usable than that of a Golf’s or A3 Sportback’s when the seats are up, but waving your foot around to get it to open “hands-free” took practice. And a friend who doesn’t work for Mini but might as well, since he found the sensor every time.
Aside from a rock-hard rear bench, the Clubman is comfortable inside. Five adults is a non-starter, but four will ultimately be comfortable. Compared to even a Countryman, the Clubman has the width of what Americans would consider a “normal” car. No longer can you use, “Oh, I was just getting fourth gear,” as an excuse for touching your front passenger’s knee.
After driving the redesigned Mini Convertible a few months ago, I was concerned the Clubman would be even duller in the corners. While it’s not exactly a hot hatch, it’s certainly warmer than the drop-top.
The Clubman I drove was a Cooper S with a six-speed manual, a combination I found more irritating than fun in the convertible. And in the Clubman, passengers could attest to me searching frantically for third gear. After being in a classic Austin Cooper recently, I suspect this is a heritage quirk built into the new models.
Minis have also been known to egg you on at higher speeds, especially in Cooper S and Works forms, and the Clubman is no exception. Despite hot versions of the Golf, Focus and even Kia Forte5 posting superior horsepower figures, the Cooper S’ 189 horsepower from the 2.0-liter four felt super quick, even though my Mk 7 GTI will smoke it from the lights.
But this style of driving is slightly at odds with the spirit of the Clubman. It’s the most substantial feeling Mini yet, and it does a decent impression of an Audi. That’s why the automatic, an 8-speed in the Cooper S, is probably the way to go if this is a rational purchase.
I have little doubt the standard Cooper, with its three-cylinder turbo, is adequate for in-town traffic and would return better fuel economy. And fuel economy should be better, as it was harder than it should’ve been to average much more than 27 mpg in highway driving.
As endearing as the Clubman is, you still have to want one. But it gets under your skin like a Mini should. In doing car reviews, there’s usually a strong correlation between the cars I’d buy and the cars I hate to see leaving my driveway.
I’d have a hard time spending my money I had a hard time returning the Mini Clubman, much more than I expected.
My Cooper S Clubman lacks a $1,500 automatic transmission, the $500 Dynamic Dampening Control, $1,250 power front seats, $750 18-inch wheels, among other options – but it still rings in at $37,000. Mini is fine with that, because it’s going after the Audi A3 that’s more costly yet. Loading up a Clubman doesn’t make sense unless you can’t stand to see blank switch covers.
But is it as good as, say, a $36,000 VW Golf GTI Autobahn? Not for that price, and even optioned up, there are some parts of the Mini that just aren’t as finely tuned as the VW’s. The Golf, however, lacks a sense of humor, something the Mini is overflowing with.
Watching me struggle to wrap my head around the Clubman versus my own Golf GTI, I was offered this piece of clarity:
“I’d buy this if I had a reason to boycott VW right now.”
This might be the Clubman’s opening.
Photos: Carscoops.com/Keith Moore