First Drive: A Long Flight for a Short Drive of the Big Mini Clubman

Source: Mini
Source: Mini

A little over a year ago, I found myself out West driving a Mini Cooper S from Grand Junction, Colo., to Dallas, Texas, on the semi-annual Mini Takes the States rally. It was quite an adventure, and for my first time behind the wheel of a Mini, it served as a perfect crash course in what it is that makes people love the brand so much.

Driving through the Rocky Mountains, I had the opportunity to enjoy just how much fun even the three-cylinder Cooper Hardtop is through the curves. Honestly, it’s almost inappropriate how fun-to-drive the base Mini is. It’s a $20,000, front-wheel-drive hatchback, for Pete’s sake. That’s the kind of car that’s supposed to be practical and economical, not giggle-inducing and a hoot to drive.

As we made our way into Texas, I got to see how comfortable the Cooper Hardtop could be on long drives. Considering its size, I would never have expected to be able to effortlessly drive it halfway across Texas, and yet that’s exactly what I did. You can credit the exceptionally-comfortable seats and the well-tuned suspension for that one. Even at triple-digit speeds, it was calm and collected, shrugging off gusts of wind and swarms of giant grasshoppers like it was nothing.

At the time, I came away impressed with how fun, well-rounded, and premium the Mini Cooper felt – even going so far as to suggest that people considering buying an entry-level luxury car like the Audi A3 look at a well-optioned Cooper S instead. I have no idea if anyone ever took my advice, but Mini’s sales have been strong enough that there are clearly quite a few people being wooed by the little hardtop.

The Mini Cooper Hardtop’s design is iconic and sells well, and yet you can’t build a brand on a single vehicle. It’s even more of a challenge when you have a name like “Mini” that limits what they can do to expand the brand. Sales of previous attempts like the Mini Roadster and Mini Paceman never really took off. The company realized it needed to pare down its lineup and take another, more focused shot at expanding the brand.

With the current Mini Cooper Hardtop already selling quite well, this attempt to reinvigorate the brand is being launched on the back of the brand new, six-door 2016 Mini Clubman.

Source: Mini
Source: Mini

The knee-jerk reaction of a lot of fans is going to be to write off the Clubman for being too big to be a Mini and to make jokes about how it should be called the “Maxi” instead, but the Mini Clubman actually goes back all the way to 1969 as part of the early Mini lineup. The new Clubman also allows Mini to compete in the compact category for the first time. While the new Clubman has moved up into the compact segment, that doesn’t mean it’s humongous. It’s still the shortest vehicle in its class.

If you’re willing to let go of the notion that the Cooper Hardtop should be the only vehicle in Mini’s lineup, the new Clubman actually makes a lot of sense in theory. People who love the idea of a Mini can’t always justify driving a two-door subcompact, but if you take what makes the Cooper Hardtop great and make it longer, you can still give them the Mini experience but with the benefit of a bit more practicality.

The question is, though, does that idea actually work in practice and not just in theory? To find out, I headed to Stockholm, Sweden, to get a preview behind the wheel of the Euro-spec Mini Clubman before the U.S. version drops later this year.

Source: Mini
Source: Mini

Although I wouldn’t get any time behind the wheel until the next day, one of the most important tests of the Clubman came right as I walked out of the airport. We had to fit four people and three suitcases into the car for the drive to the hotel – a drive that would take nearly an hour.

On the Mini Takes the States rally, I spent a few hours in the back seat of a Mini Cooper Hardtop, so I know it’s technically possible to fit more than two people in there, but it wasn’t what I would call a pleasant experience and I couldn’t imagine making that drive with four people. The Clubman, on the other hand, swallowed our luggage with ease and comfortably accommodated the four of us the entire drive.

If the other journalist in front of me hadn’t been approximately the size of a gorilla, I would have been perfectly happy to ride in the back seat even longer.

The split rear doors certainly had the potential to be nothing more than a novelty, but I have a feeling owners will actually find them useful instead of being different simply for the sake of being different. As low and small as the Clubman is, a traditional hatch would likely have not been nearly as convenient and it would have also required significantly more space to open.

The sensor that automatically opens the doors if you kick the bumper might prove convenient if your hands are loaded down with groceries, but my suspicion is that the convenience will mostly be found in being able to open the rear doors like regular doors.

Source: Mini
Source: Mini

You’ll definitely get more room in other compact hatchbacks like the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen, but the nearly 11 extra inches of length that the Mini Clubman offers over the Cooper hardtop does offer enough room to comfortably transport four people and their stuff. You could argue it needs to be bigger to compete in the segment, but for Mini, it works. The new Clubman is as big as it needs to be and no bigger.

If the designers got the practical side of redesigning the new Clubman down, the next-most important question is if it still feels like a Mini. Do you still get the Mini experience, or has the added length ruined it?

From the outside, I think the designers nailed the look. It’s very clearly a longer Mini Cooper with more doors, but a few subtle design elements – other than the split rear doors – help differentiate the Clubman. Personally, I think the horizontal taillights look great, and while all the badging can make the back look busy, you can have the Mini logo and “Cooper” removed if you would prefer to clean up the look.

The inside is also pretty typical Mini fare, and while the Clubman gets its own cabin layout to help it feel distinct from the rest of the lineup, nothing in the cabin felt out of place for a Mini. If you like the interior of the current Mini Cooper Hardtop, you’ll like the interior of the Mini Clubman. If you don’t, then you’ll probably be disappointed here as well.

Minis are just as much about being fun to drive as they are about being small, though, and if the added length killed the fun, the Clubman could rightfully be called a mistake. In fact, you can call me crazy if you’d like, but I’ll even go so far as to say that a smaller Mini that’s boring to drive would be less of a Mini than a larger Mini that’s a blast to drive.

Source: Mini
Source: Mini

Luckily, at least “S” trim, the new Clubman still had that Mini edge. The handling and steering weren’t quite as sharp as the Cooper Hardtop, but at the same time, if you’re shopping for the Clubman, you’re probably not quite as focused on hard-edge performance. If you are, though, the sport package will likely narrow the gap, and the likely John Cooper Works version may even end up cross-shopped with vehicles like the Ford Focus ST.

The manual transmission paired perfectly with the character of the Clubman, but when I drove the eight-speed automatic, it was hard to find complaints. Drivers who aren’t as committed as I am to shifting my own gears will likely find themselves perfectly happy with the automatic Clubman, and I can’t exactly blame them.

Prices for the three-cylinder version will start at $24,100, but the more powerful S will be another $3,550. For an additional 55 horsepower, I say it’ll probably be worth the premium, but without having the opportunity to drive both, that’s purely speculation.

If it sounds like I don’t have any major criticisms of the new Mini Clubman, it’s probably because, as I’ve already admitted, I’m a fan of the Mini Cooper Hardtop. Whether you want the extra doors, the new Clubman feels nearly as engaging to drive while offering significantly more practicality for drivers who need to be able to carry a few extra passengers.

Yes, it’s larger than its three-door sibling, but drive one of the new Clubmans when they go on sale in January, and I suspect you’ll end up leaving your, “You call that a Mini? You should have called that a Maxi!” jokes at the door.

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