Review: 2008 MINI Cooper Clubman
New style and a touch of practicality.
After selling more than a million copies of the born-again MINI in hatchback and convertible form since 2002, the BMW-owned brand adds a third body style to its portfolio. With its tiny rear doors and angular bodywork, the Clubman evokes classic Mini models such as the Traveller, the Countryman and the Clubman Estate. The Clubman rides on a longer wheelbase that provides notably better rear seating and a tiny bit more practicality than its siblings.
Like its counterparts at MINI, the Clubman is offered in the now-familiar Cooper and Cooper S trims. The primary difference between the two is that the former is powered by a naturally-aspirated 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine, while the S gets a turbocharged version. The vented front disc brakes are 11.0 inches in diameter on the Cooper and 11.6 on the Cooper S. The rear brakes are solid 10.2-inch discs on both.
The Cooper and Cooper S are also set apart subtly by a number of exterior details, such as a functional hood scoop and larger lower air intake for the S. Its grille is also a matte black mesh while the Cooper’s has chromed horizontal bars. The sportier Cooper S also flaunts specific badges on the front fenders and right rear door, a chromed fuel cap, two chromed tailpipes. Full xenon headlights with pressure washers are a $500 option.
The most fundamental difference between the Clubman and other MINI models is a 9.45-inch gain in overall body length, on a wheelbase stretched 3.15 inches. The increase creates a substantial improvement in rear legroom, while the longer body and near-square shape in the back yield a larger cargo bay. Cargo volume ranges from 9.1 cubic feet when the rear seats are upright to 32.6 cu. ft. when they are folded (almost) flat. Access to the rear is by two small vertical doors that feel surprisingly substantial, each one equipped with its own power-release switch behind a nicely-sized chrome handle.
Under the Hood
The 1.6-liter 4-cylinder gas engines in the new Clubmans were developed jointly by BMW and French automaker Peugeot. The Cooper S engine develops 172 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque, thanks to a twin-scroll turbocharger and direct injection. The standard Overboost mode pushes the torque peak to 192 lb-ft briefly under full acceleration. As my test week in a Cooper S progressed, though, I grew weary of the jerk felt through the steering wheel as the turbo kicked in fully around 2500 rpm, even in normal acceleration. "Short-shifting" made city driving much more pleasant.
The naturally aspirated engine in the Cooper Clubman produces 118 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 114 lb-ft of torque at 4250 rpm. What it lacks in sheer numbers it more than makes up in flexibility and drivability, thanks to BMW’s award-winning Valvetronic fully variable valve control. The milder Cooper also does better at the pump, with EPA city/hwy ratings of 28/37 mpg, while the Cooper S nets 26/34 mpg. Both engines require premium fuel.
Both our test cars were equipped with the standard 6-speed manual gearbox, and a 6-speed automatic is optional. The manual box is quick, slick and precise, aided by a light clutch pedal with nicely progressive engagement. Unfortunately, it’s much too easy to catch reverse instead of first gear when moving the lever to the left and up. The lever needs a positive lock-out mechanism or at least a stronger detent for reverse.
From the B-pillar forward, Clubman models are identical to their counterparts. The bucket seats in the Cooper are almost a match in overall support for the sport seats in the Cooper S, and just as comfortable after a couple of hours. Driving position is impeccable in both, with pedals spaced just right for heel-and-toe maneuvers and a solid, flat dead pedal.
Dashboard design is all about style and borders on terminally cute and quirky, with its gigantic, center-mounted speedometer and myriad toggle switches. You get used to most of it with the possible exception of the vertically mobile climate control wheels in the Cooper S. The manual A/C system in the Cooper was much more livable. Controls for the audio and cruise control, mounted on a nicely shaped and textured sport steering wheel, are superbly effective on both models.
What Sets the Clubman Apart
Clubman models are set apart by their rear accommodations and cargo bay. In addition to providing much better legroom, the rear seats are easier to access thanks to the Clubdoor, a short, vertical panel that can be flipped open backwards once you’ve opened the right front door. It still takes work to get in, but once seated you’ll be comfy.
Behind the two miniature rear doors, the cargo area is just about perfect for typical errand running. And when you need more space, you can flip down both seatbacks in a snap. Even with the vertical bar in view where the rear doors join, when looking in the rearview mirror visibility is fine, combined with effective outside mirrors and large side rear glass areas.
In spite of the Clubdoor, MINI insists that Clubman models provide equal lateral crash resistance on both sides of the car. The Clubman shares the usual complement of airbags: two frontal, two mounted on the sides of the front seats and a pair of curtain airbags that extend farther back than in hatchback models. Both the Cooper S Clubman and Cooper Clubman felt impeccably solid, as if carved from the proverbial billet. Both also proved surprisingly quiet at normal highway speeds.
On the Road
In normal driving, both cars feel much like their slightly shorter and lighter hatchback counterparts. They display the agility and quick, precise steering characteristics for which the new MINI has become rightfully known. In tight corners, there is more rear body roll than on the hatchback. This seems to be the product of the additional mass of the "wagon" body at the rear, set higher and farther back.
The longer wheelbase also takes away a bit of the hatchback’s exceptional agility and eagerness to negotiate corners. Even MINI cannot cheat the laws of physics. In most circumstances, though, both Clubman models feel like their siblings. The ride is also a bit less harsh than in the hatchbacks, thankfully, but you should still watch out for potholes. Braking is also spot-on.
Right for You?
The new MINI is all about perfectly unique styling, unmistakable driving fun and cheeky design, sometimes at the cost of simple ergonomic efficiency. Solid and safe for such small cars, the new Clubman versions definitely have their place in the MINI line. The rear seat is much more useful and the additional cargo volume will come in handy. Plus, they go and handle just like the hatchbacks. Well, almost.
A professional auto journalist for more than 25 years and the founding editor of Sympatico / MSN Autos, Marc Lachapelle is a two-time winner of the Canadian Journalist of the Year award from the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, an accomplished photographer and licensed racer.