Our view: 2009 MINI Cooper Clubman

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Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price. Email Kelsey Mays

Editor’s note: This review was written in May 2008 about the 2008 Mini Cooper Clubman. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2009, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.

It seems fitting that the Mini Cooper, a British hatchback that’s more fun to drive than any 37-mpg car deserves to be, would get a stretched Clubman sibling with a third door and kookier rear-end styling. The extra length allows two medium-sized adults and a few grocery bags to fit in back, but it doesn’t exactly bring the automaker to the forefront of small-hatchback roominess — it’s still small, just no longer unbearably so. Other changes are minimal. All the regular Cooper’s quirks remain, for better or worse, so if you’re a Mini fan who needs some extra trunk for your junk, the Clubman might be just the thing for you.

This review provides an overview of what sets the Cooper Clubman apart from both the regular Cooper and the Cooper S Clubman. 

Clubman Driving
Like the recently redesigned Cooper, the Clubman uses a 118-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder that can provide engaging power when revved hard. My test car came with a standard six-speed manual transmission whose firm gates never left me wondering which gear I was in. The shifter itself has longish throws, but over time it encourages the same yank-it-into-gear playfulness that makes the regular Cooper so fun. Keep the tachometer above 3,000 rpm — it can take awhile in second gear, which seems unnecessarily high — and acceleration can be entertaining.

Though the Clubman lacks the exhilarating rush provided by the Cooper S Clubman’s 172-hp turbo four-banger, it’s certainly sprightlier than its quoted 8.9-second zero-to-60-mph acceleration suggests. Mini says the Cooper S Clubman does the sprint in 7.0 seconds. Those figures are for cars with the manual transmission; a six-speed automatic is optional for both.

Like all Minis, the Clubman could drive circles around most front-wheel-drive cars on any sort of handling course. The steering wheel’s turn-in precision begs for winding roads, or at least rapid lane changes — just be sure to warn your passengers. My test car had an optional sport-tuned suspension; it also swapped the base Clubman’s 15-inch P175/65R15 all-season tires with 16-inch rims and P195/55R16 summer tires. Equipped as such, the chassis serves up excellent resistance to body roll and easily controllable, go-kart-like understeer. Hit a bump mid-corner, and lateral wheel hop — typically felt through the steering wheel as a brief sensation of floaty response — is well-controlled. I noticed only a hint of it over the front axle, while the rear wheels stayed remarkably planted. If you’re serious about track performance, the Cooper S Clubman has an optional limited-slip differential.

Ride quality is so-so. The suspension responds noisily to highway bumps, and road noise at 70 mph is loud enough to compete with the radio. Wind and other ambient noise seem comparatively quieter. My test car’s optional panoramic moonroof had only a mesh-like screen to dim the sunlight, but overhead noise wasn’t bad; I wasn’t left wishing for a more substantial sunshade. Several other editors found the base Clubman’s suspension much more livable than the sport-package-equipped Cooper S Clubman we had in our fleet around the same time, so if you’re deciding between the two, be sure to test their ride quality over bumpy pavement.

Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard. Their grabby response brings things to a stop fairly quickly, and I never felt ABS kick in too early.

Clubman Looks
From the front, there is little to distinguish the Clubman from the regular Cooper, but things change radically in back. A strip of contrasting paint offsets the C-pillars, and the color wraps around the bumpers, too. If you want, it can match the roof and side mirrors. Rather than use a conventional hatchback, the Clubman employs saloon-style rear doors that flip out to either side. There’s a center pillar when the doors shut, though, and it hogs a good chunk of the view out back.

Relative to the regular Cooper, the Clubman’s length is up 9.4 inches — about 6 percent — with the wheelbase extended 3.2 inches. Width remains the same, and height is up less than an inch. The extra length translates into a wider turning circle: It’s 36.2 feet, versus the Cooper’s 35-foot circle. Both figures are competitive with hatchbacks like the Volvo C30 and Mazda3.

Like the Mazda RX-8, Toyota FJ Cruiser and most extended-cab pickups, the Clubman gets a rear-hinged access door to aid backseat entry. It’s on the passenger side, and it blends in well with the car’s styling.

Not so well-integrated is the sheet metal itself. I grade fit and finish inside much more harshly than I do outside, but here it’s hard to ignore: Our test car had noticeable gaps where the C-pillars met the body of the car, and the contrasting paint scheme made them really stand out.

Four-Cylinder Efficiency
Like its Cooper sibling, the Clubman’s naturally-aspirated engine ekes out impressive gas mileage: With the manual transmission, mileage is 28/37 mpg city/highway; the automatic returns 26/34 mpg. (The Cooper S Clubman sacrifices 2 to 3 mpg across the board.) Unfortunately, the Clubman recommends premium gas, something many of its competitors don’t. Here’s how it compares with similarly priced models:

Mileage Compared
  City/hwy. mpg, manual City/hwy. mpg, automatic Recommended fuel
Mini Cooper Clubman 28/37 26/34 premium
Saturn Astra 24/32 24/30 regular
Mazda3 hatchback 22/29 22/29 regular
Volkswagen Rabbit 22/29 21/29 regular
Volvo C30 19/28 19/27 premium
Source: EPA data for 2008 models.

As of this writing, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not crash tested the Clubman. Standard safety equipment includes side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags for both rows and antilock brakes. An electronic stability system — a $500 option on the base Cooper — is standard here.

Child-seat accommodations include Latch child-seat anchors with clearly marked plastic covers in the rear seats. Top-tether anchors are behind the seats in the cargo floor — not the most convenient location.

Without the destination charge, the Clubman starts at $19,950, which is $1,900 more than the Cooper. The Cooper S Clubman starts at $23,450 but includes features, like 16-inch wheels, that are optional on the regular Clubman. An automatic transmission on either car runs $1,250.

Power windows and locks, keyless entry with push-button start, A/C, and a six-speaker CD stereo with an auxiliary MP3 jack are standard. So is faux leather upholstery; cloth and leather are optional. Also optional are heated front seats, a panoramic moonroof, a navigation system and a litany of cosmetic accessories. The add-ons can really bump up the price; I loaded a Clubman on Mini’s website to well past $40,000.

Clubman in the Market
I have no doubt the Clubman will expand Mini’s appeal; it addresses one of the Cooper’s chief shortcomings, its lack of room. Should you think Mini has suddenly built a regular car, though, you’ll find the Clubman is just as much an acquired taste as its Cooper sibling. This is no Mini-turned-mainstream — it’s simply a longer version of what’s already on the road.

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