The problem with the Mini is that it's so, well, mini. That has been addressed, to some extent at least, with the newest member of the Mini family: the Clubman, which is just now reaching dealers.
Which is not to say that anyone will be trading in their Chevrolet Suburban on a Clubman. At 155.8 inches long, it's 9.4 inches longer than the regular Mini, but 13.1 inches shorter than a Chrysler PT Cruiser. Still, it's certainly bigger than a Mini, and -- this is the surprise -- no less fun to drive.
As you might expect, Mini has one of its irreverent advertising campaigns waiting in the wings to introduce the Clubman which, says the company, "looks odd. It runs on irregular. It is the brown sheep of the family." See? Cute, but not precious.
As if Mini will need a big ad campaign to sell the Clubman: BMW, Mini's parent company, is one of the few major corporations rich enough to actually build fewer Minis than they can sell. This keeps the transaction price high, resale value even higher.
Under the station wagonlike body, the Clubman is pretty much a regular Mini, with the wheelbase stretched by 3.1 inches. Like the Mini, it comes in two basic flavors: the regular, and the S.
The regular Clubman has a 1.6-liter, 118-horsepower four-cylinder engine, with a standard six-speed manual transmission, or a six-speed automatic offered as an option. The Clubman S has that same engine and transmission choice, but the engine is turbocharged, meaning that a fan powered by escaping exhaust gas forces air and fuel into the engine under pressure, resulting in more horsepower -- 54 more horses, for a total of 172.
Mini says the regular Clubman will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds, and the S takes seven seconds. The Clubman S gets you more than just the turbocharged engine: You also get 16-inch tires and wheels, instead of the regular 15-inchers. You get different seats, different interior trim, a different exhaust system, and the S is also heavier -- it weighs 2,855 pounds, compared to 2,723 pounds for the regular Clubman.
The Clubman S is undeniably more fun to drive, as that extra horsepower makes highway passing much easier, and winding backroads just that much more interesting. But given the difference in the base price -- $20,600 for the regular Clubman, and $24,100 for the Clubman S -- I'm not sure the S is $3,500 more fun. Around town, you barely notice the difference. Fuel mileage suffers a little with the S: It's EPA-rated at 26 mpg city, 34 mph highway, compared to the regular Clubman at 28/37.
As far as the Clubman compared to the standard Mini Cooper: From the driver's seat, you can barely tell one from the other, which is very good news. Handling is as crisp and precise as ever, steering is almost telepathic: All the things Mini owners love about their cars, they'll love about the Clubman.
And there is more to love, of course. Rear seats are still quite tight, but since the Clubman has a half-door on the passenger side, it's much easier to climb into the seat, or just put cargo there. As with other such three-door vehicles, including some pickup truck models and the old Saturn coupe, that third door can't be opened from the outside, and the front passenger door must be open before the third door can be opened. There is, I suppose, a safety aspect to this: Kids in the back seat can't get out until you let them out, and when they do get out, it's on the curb side, as opposed to the traffic side of the car.
The rear hatch is two-piece, configured like a side-by-side barn door. (Mini calls it a "Splitdoor," and calls the third door on the side a "Clubdoor," which actually is a bit precious.) There's decent space behind the rear seats for some luggage or groceries, or you can fold the rear seats flat for even more room. Those rear doors each swing out wide, past the taillights, making for easy access. Mini engineers agonized over this rear hatch configuration, considering a more conventional flip-up window and drop-down tailgate, but this seems like a pretty good solution.
Inside, the Clubman cockpit is pretty much Mini, with some instruments and controls designed and configured more for looks and symmetry than function. Options include a navigation system, Sirius satellite radio with a lifetime subscription (for the car, not the driver), a parking distance alarm, xenon headlights, Blue-tooth, a huge glass sunroof, a roof rack and lots of the expected personalization-type features, such as a Union Jack or a checkered flag on the roof. Lots of safety features are standard, including stability control and six air bags.
The Clubman, says Mini, "is the oddball member of an already slightly eccentric family." Really? I think it's the most sane, makes-sense member yet.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smithcan be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.