The Mini brand has developed a devoted following thanks to quirky styling, genius marketing and the constant addition of new models and variants to the lineup. Selling small cars when SUVs are hot and gas is cheap is no easy task, but Mini continues to soldier on, probably in part because its cars aren't so small anymore.
Take the new Clubman, which is essentially an extended version of the four-door Mini Hardtop. It's fractionally bigger than a Volkswagen Golf, weighs more than an Infiniti QX30 and has more cargo room than a Mercedes-Benz GLA250. This Mini isn't so Mini, which makes you wonder if it's kept the magical driving experience that early examples of the reborn brand delivered nearly 16 years ago. Does it still have the go-kart-like handling, the darty dynamics, the diminutive dimensions and the quirky design of last decade's Minis?
Clear Heritage Design
On the outside, it's easy to tell this is a Mini, as nothing else really looks like it. From the big round headlamps to the floating roof, the iconic styling of the original 1960s Mini has been updated steadily and successfully. This is the Clubman model, meaning it has four doors and a wagon-style back (or "estate" as the Brits would say). But it's not a five-door, as cars with liftgates are often called — it's a six-door, with tiny twin side-opening "barn doors" that split the rear window vertically.
That split rear door might seem like another fun styling quirk, but it's one of the car's worst features. Not only does it mean you have to push two buttons to open the rear doors when you have your arms full, but visibility out the rear is blocked by a thick vertical pillar, then further degraded by two tiny windshield wipers meant to keep the back glass minimally clean. A traditional liftgate would have been a far better choice here, like the one on the normal Mini Hardtop, but "Clubman" is a historic name and feature for Mini, so this is what we get.
Not the Athlete It Was, But Still Athletic
You can get your Clubman in one of three flavors — Cooper, Cooper S or John Cooper Works, each with more power and sporting equipment than the last. My test car was a Cooper S, with a more powerful 189-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission (an automatic is optional). All-wheel drive is also an option, and my test car had it.
The 2.0-liter is a snorty little motor, making some fun sounds and delivering decent low-end power, but it doesn't pull the Clubman around with as much verve as it should. A turbocharged 2.0-liter making only 189 hp is anemic by today's standards; the same size engine in a Volkswagen Golf R makes 292 hp, and in a Cadillac ATS, it pumps out 272 hp. My Mini's rather tepid acceleration is explained by the fact that this car was more than 400 pounds heavier than a VW Golf GTI. In fact, it's heavier than any of its competitors — including small SUVs like the Mercedes-Benz GLA250 and Infiniti QX30. About 200 pounds of that is explained by the all-wheel-drive system, but when you pair that much weight with the engine's unimpressive numbers, it's not hard to see why this isn't much of a rocket ship.
It’s all grown up, this Mini; no longer the brash college track star, it’s now more of the suburban family man who still goes jogging.
The Clubman Cooper S is more about balance. The shifter feels notchy and precise, the brakes are strong and firm, and the steering is nicely weighted, but the car doesn't have the go-kart dartiness and eagerness that past Mini Coopers have exhibited. It's all grown up, this Mini; no longer the brash college track star, it's now more of the suburban family man who still goes jogging — not as fast as he once was, but still athletically inclined.
Fuel economy is middle-of-the-road. The Cooper S Clubman All4 with the six-speed manual is rated 21/30/24 mpg city/highway/combined, with the eight-speed automatic improving that to 22/31/26 mpg thanks to its extra gears. In comparison, the AWD Volkswagen Golf R with a manual transmission and much more powerful engine is rated 22/31/25 mpg, while the Mercedes-Benz GLA250 with 4Matic all-wheel drive and an automatic comes in at 23/31/26 mpg.
Bring Your Friends — and Their Stuff
Material quality looks like it's been improved in the Clubman, and the quirky switches and controls remain, but the old customizability that was a Mini hallmark has been toned down to a degree; you're limited in the number of combinations you can create for the interior look, and many of the more fun and unique color combinations are no longer present. Most are included only in packages, as well, further limiting personalization to specific option requirements. Mini's old "make it unique and make it yours" mentality doesn't seem to be around anymore, and that's a shame.
The growth spurt the Clubman has experienced is apparent from inside it. There's so much more room in it now than there ever has been, with width and length that make for genuinely comfortable accommodations for four. Up front, the low roof and short windshield do make for challenging conditions when trying to look up at some stoplights, but overall visibility is acceptable and headroom isn't an issue even with the optional moonroof. Two full-sized adult human males can sit up front without their shoulders touching, and backseat legroom is acceptable for more than just a jaunt down the street.
Cargo room is significant, as well, with 17.5 cubic feet available behind the backseat — more than a Mercedes-Benz GLA. Drop those seats and you'll have a copious 47.9 cubic feet of cargo room. That's more than the Benz or the similar Infiniti QX30. It's not quite as large as the Golf R's cavernous 52.7-cubic-foot box, but it comes very close.
Visibility out the cargo area is another matter, however. That dual rear-door setup is awful for rear visibility, and it's made worse by two tall head restraints on either side of the backseat that further limit rearward vision. The head restraints can be folded down, but even in this state, the combination of the restraints and the pillar means it's almost impossible to see what's behind you. I left the rear seats down for much of my loan and found this improved the situation somewhat.
Safety Equipment Lags
The Mini Clubman Cooper S has not yet been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
As for safety technology, the Clubman falls short here, too, not even offering some now-common systems one expects to see in a premium brand, like lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking. The only systems the Clubman features are standard rain-sensing wipers and optional parking sensors with a backup camera.
The Pricing Problem
The 2017 Clubman Cooper starts at $24,950 including destination for a standard model with front-wheel drive. My Clubman Cooper S All4 started at $30,300, and with options like the Premium Package, Technology Package, Wired Package, heated seats, satellite radio and Digital Blue Metallic paint, rang in for a total of $35,150. That's not outrageous for a premium compact four-door wagon, but the problem is that you can get so much more for that kind of money.
Like a Volkswagen Golf R, for example, which is pretty much the exact same size inside and out and has an adjustable suspension, all-wheel drive and nearly 100 more horsepower for the same price as this loaded Clubman Cooper S All4. Or, if you can forgo all-wheel drive, a front-drive Volkswagen Golf GTI features all the benefits of the Golf R's size and shape but with better handling than the Mini Clubman — and more content, as well, for 2018.
My personal choice would be a Golf R over a Clubman, as I prefer driving fun over styling statements, but for folks who view the Mini as a fashion accessory, only the quirky will do.