For last week’s inaugural “Buy This, Not That” column, we took a look at the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ, two nearly identical sports cars save for some minor styling and interior details. In the end, it was so close that we went with the Subaru based on, um, color. This week’s column won’t be as much of a toss-up. In fact, it might even raise a few eyebrows.
Like the FR-S and BRZ, the BMW 328 Sport Wagon and Mini Clubman S are related, but on the surface these two couldn’t be farther apart. The Bimmer is part of the 3 Series family, the gold standard by which all other premium sport sedans are judged, and it’s about as German as a Kraftwerk concert on Unity Day in Berlin. In contrast, the Clubman looks like it should come with a bust of Winston Churchill as a hood ornament — a modern ambassador for Alex Issigonis’s iconic space-saving design that gives car buyers plenty of style and substance while representing Old Blighty proudly.
But underneath the Mini’s made-in-Oxford exterior lies engineering perfected by parent company BMW in Bavaria. And by perfected, we mean the current model (introduced in 2015) has come dangerously close to offerings by the mother company.
Tale of the tape
The 328 Sport Wagon is one of the last compact longroofs available in the U.S., and as such, BMW has made it into something special. Available in two variants, the 328i and diesel-powered 328d, the former has a 2.0-liter inline-four good for 240 horses, and 280 pound-feet of torque, while the latter has a 180-horsepower mill. Zero to 60 comes in 6.0 and 7.6 seconds, respectively. And while both cars come standard with BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive system, neither are exactly cheap, with the 328i starting at $42,650 and the 328d at $44,150, and that’s just the beginning.
BMW has always been fond of á la carte-style options, and these wagons are no exception. Goodies like aero kits, M-Sport rims and steering wheels, leather and wood trims, and revised suspension packages are available, which can bring the cars dangerously close to the $60K mark. For that kind of coin, you could buy the all-new BMW M2 or, if you’re still looking for a luxury hauler, the larger, more powerful Mercedes-Benz E-Class Wagon. And in what may be a deal-breaker for performance-focused buyers, the Sports Wagon is only available with an eight-speed automatic transmission — no manual option is offered.
Because at the end of the day, there isn’t much reason to take any 3 Series north of $50K unless it’s an M3. Lucky for us, BMW offers an alternative to the 3 Series wagon, albeit in a Saville Row suit.
If the 328i is a Middleweight champion, then its challenger, the Mini Clubman S All4, is a promising Welterweight. Right off the bat, there are a few things that jump right out: The Mini also has a BMW-designed 2.0-liter turbo four, but this one only makes 189 horsepower and 207 pound-feet, making it considerably down on power. At 3,445 pounds with the standard six-speed manual transmission (the same eight-speed automatic found in the BMW is also available), it’s lighter than the 3,800 pound Bimmer, and its 6.6 second zero to 60 time splits the difference between the gas and diesel-powered BMWs nicely.
Surprisingly, the Mini would win in a war of attrition. With a top end of 140 miles per hour, it easily tops the BMW’s 130 mile per hour ceiling. And with its engaging sport mode, manual transmission, famous go-kart handling, and power going to all four wheels, the Clubman S All4 is likely to deliver as many driving thrills as its Bavarian cousin, if not more.
Then there’s the question of interiors. For decades, BMW cabins were unparalleled in their perfect blend of luxury and sportiness, but with the latest 3 Series, it seems to have lost the plot a bit. In fact, despite the comparatively bargain-basement buy-in ($29,450 before destination), the Mini can easily be made to feel as nice as its Bavarian cousin. The brand has done a fantastic job shedding its too-cute-by-half interiors with this latest generation, and while its hallmarks remain (large center-mounted information display, toggle switches, body-colored accents), the Clubman S’s interior is one of the best in the business, period. Its rich, quilted leather seats with contrasting accents are comfortable, well-bolstered, and wouldn’t look out of place on a Bentley Continental GT. You’d be hard pressed to find a nicer cabin for the price. Oh, and speaking of cabins, the Mini’s can hold more too, with 17.5 cubic feet out back with the rear seats up, compared to the BMW’s 17.3.
The 328 Sport Wagon is first and foremost a BMW, so you know what you’re going to get: an engaging driving experience, well-earned luxury credentials, and high resale value. But there’s a dichotomy to the BMW brand that it’s begun to exploit over the past two decades or so, and it’s this: Most people don’t want the Ultimate Driving Machine; they want the badge. The 328i Sport Wagon is a plenty capable hauler that more than lives up to its name, but unless you need to have a wagon with the blue and white roundel on the nose, you’d be a fool to buy one of these in top spec.
As a result, this week’s head-to-head is like Rocky beating Creed in the rematch, Dempsey defeating Tunney, or Wepner knocking down Ali: We’ve got to give it to the Clubman S All4. For the price of an entry-level 328, a top-spec Clubman offers nearly as much performance, a manual transmission, a little more room inside, and manages to stand out from the growing flock of kidney-grilled cars that populate well-to-do suburbs across the country. If you’re looking for a luxury compact wagon (and really, we hope you are), it’s hard to do better than the Mini Clubman S All4.