It's my considered opinion that the BMW Mini Cooper is the most successful car design of the last 20 years. What can touch it? Here's a car that puts a spearmint thrill through you every time you turn the key, a larking, capering, glass-and-steel nymph that nicks past other traffic like it's mired in molasses. On top of the giddy charge of merely wheeling the thing, you've got this utterly charismatic styling, a po-mo masterpiece, a rolling tribute to the iconic Mini (1959 to 2000) designed by Alec Issigonis and built by the British Motor Corp. That's Sir Alec to you, you peon.
If you think about cars in terms of expectation and fulfillment, you have to conclude the Mini Cooper is the perfect execution of the product brief: the Frenchie bulldog looks, the urbanity (easy to park and good gas mileage), the sophisticated interior fittings, the elfish demeanor, the bumblebee performance.
And it's affordable. The most exotic Mini Cooper extant -- a ferocious John Cooper Works edition convertible with every option, including a sound system such as Paddy Hopkirk never dreamed -- is still under $40,000. The cheapest version is about $19,000. The remarkable thing is that even the thrift-intensive Mini is more fun than a barrel of strippers.
The Mini is diamond-laced Champagne, a piano-playing Shetland pony, sex on the wing of an airplane. Simply put, if the Mini Cooper doesn't put a smile on your face, you're dead.
Now they've gone and made it bigger.
This could be problematic. Just about everything lovable about this car is leveraged on its diminutive size and fruit-fly weight. The new, three-door Clubman S (at 2,712 pounds) weighs 142 pounds more than the standard Cooper S and measures 155.8 inches, up a half-foot over the standard car, over a wheelbase stretched 3.1 inches. The object of this exercise is to expand the Mini brand, to make the car more accessible to people who might have wanted one but couldn't wedge their fat-soft lifestyles into the regular car.
And so, the club door on the right side that opens suicide style, à la the Honda Element. With the third door open, it's effortless to enter the back seats, whereas in the regular car, getting in the back seat requires a flying leap and a handful of Crisco. Once you're there, you'll find BMW designers have added a couple of inches of legroom. Meanwhile, the Clubman's added longitude makes more room in the rear cargo hold, now a friendly and usable 9.2 cubic feet. Drop the rear seat backs and the car can hold 33 cubic feet. The packaging of this car is nothing less than brilliant.
The other design flourish of the new Clubman -- which was also the name of an extended-wheelbase model in the old BMC Mini series -- is the rear barn doors. Hinged on the outside, with openings in the sheet metal for the fixed tail lamps, these doors swing open 180 degrees to make loading easier. Propped open with gas struts, and each having its own tiny windshield wiper and chrome handle, these doors are very cool and very pricey bits. Every time I opened the back of the car, I felt like I was getting a little bonus.
So, is the Mini Clubman still adorable, or does it look like Hello Kitty with a glandular problem? Is it every bit the dancing leprechaun as the regular Mini, or does it stumble like a drunken Irishman? The original was such a singular thing, a 300 game, a no-hitter. How can you change it without lousing things up?
And yet behold a bigger, better Mini.
In my few days with the Clubman, I observed many things. To begin with, the added weight is negligible when pitted against an engine with the soul and lower organs this one has. The 1.6-liter, direct-injection, turbo four-cylinder just spews torque from anywhere from about 3,000 rpm to 6,500 rpm. Free-revving, linear and endlessly willing, the little motor feels like it's got 25 more ponies in harness than the stat box says (172 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 177 pound-feet of torque from 1,600 rpm). The base Cooper model gets a naturally aspirated version of the same engine, good for 120 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque. Both models get the slick six-speed manual transmission; an automatic is optional.
By the stopwatch, the Clubman is a few tenths slower than the regular Cooper S (I estimate 7 seconds flat), but the difference is imperceptible, what with all the hooting and grinning going on. The car feels every ounce as lively, as tossable and exuberant as the regular car. Between 60 and 90 mph (sorry, state of California), the Clubman pulls like a reindeer. Perhaps the only dynamic difference is that the longer wheelbase makes the car a little less choppy over pavement. The electric steering is well-weighted and taut; the oversized brakes are superb.
I assert that there is no car on the market that provides as much fun per gallon of (premium) gas. Officially, the EPA numbers are 34 miles per gallon highway, 26 city and 29 combined.
The interior is more of the same from Mini: stylishly realized controls, switches and instruments, including the center-situated speedometer as big as a dinner plate, and the tachometer properly located on the steering column. Premium materials, brushed aluminum trim and soft LED pin lights round out the interior décor.
But what about the looks? The most delicate thing about the Mini is its adorable styling, which has by now pried open the wallets of hundreds of thousands of otherwise sensible car buyers. Somehow, the designers have managed to disguise the added length so well that most people can't really tell the difference. I passed unnoticed into the Trader Joe's parking lot in the little blue test car. But as soon as I opened the rear barn doors and started loading groceries, a crowd gathered.
If you were a car designer, you would not want the job of making the Mini bigger, any more than you'd want to add arms to the Venus de Milo. Still, against considerable odds, the Mini guys have made a great car larger, and greater still.
2008 Mini Clubman S Base price: $27,100
Price, as tested: $35,000 (est.)
Powertrain: Turbo-charged, direct-injection 1.6-liter, 16-valve DOHC in-line four-cylinder with variable valve timing; six-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive.
Horsepower: 172 at 5,500 rpm
Torque: 177 pound-feet at 1,600 to 5,000 rpm
Curb weight: 2,712 pounds
0-60: 6.7 seconds
Wheelbase: 100.3 inches
Overall length: 155.8 inches
EPA fuel economy (premium only): 34 miles per gallon highway, 26 city
Final thoughts: Hitching a wagon to a star