Pros: Excellent engines; attractive fuel economy; sharp handling; very versatile for such a small car

Cons: Polarizing styling; ergonomically adventurous design; stiff ride with sport package; base engine feels a bit taxed

The 2012 Mini Cooper Clubman puts the Cooper's inherently endearing personality to a stiff test. On one hand, the Clubman's extended wheelbase takes virtually nothing away from the driving experience. Aside from being a little harder to park and a little chubbier at the scales, the Clubman is every bit a Mini Cooper from behind the wheel, showing the same energetic character and sports-car-like agility. But on the other hand, the Clubman looks kind of like a hearse. Sorry, but it does. Styling matters when it comes to cars, and most would agree that the Clubman is just not as cute as the regular Mini, regardless of its added practicality.

Let's talk more about that practicality, though, because it's pretty special. Whereas the regular Mini has a tiny back seat and can barely swallow a golf bag even with its rear seatback folded down, the Clubman is a genuine four-seater with real cargo space. The Clubman's back seat isn't just larger, by the way; it also has easier access, thanks to a nifty reverse-opening third door on the passenger's side. We're less convinced that the barn-style dual cargo doors are a practical solution, but they certainly give the Clubman an extra dose of character.

In short, the Clubman is a true Mini that just happens to be a lot more useful-and a little heavier-than the regular hatchback. So we have to come back to the styling issue. Do you like the Clubman's distinctive shape? If so, great; buy one and don't look back. For drivers who don't require maximum cuteness, the 2012 Cooper Clubman might be the best Mini of all.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Mini Cooper Clubman is a three-door wagon with a rear-opening "club door" on the passenger's side. It's offered in three trim levels: base, S and John Cooper Works.

Standard features mirror those in the regular Cooper lineup: the base Cooper Clubman includes 15-inch alloy wheels, ambient interior lighting with variable color, height-adjustable front seats, leatherette upholstery, power accessories, a leather-wrapped tilting and telescoping multifunction steering wheel, keyless push-button ignition, a sport button that enhances steering and throttle response, a trip computer and a six-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input and HD and satellite radio.

The Cooper S Clubman has 16-inch alloy wheels and adds a turbocharged engine, a hood scoop, a black mesh grille, foglamps, a rear spoiler, dual exhaust pipes that are split to the sides rather than center mounted as on the regular Cooper S, sport front seats and alloy pedals.

The John Cooper Works Clubman features numerous performance-oriented upgrades, including a more powerful turbocharged engine, 17-inch alloy wheels, Brembo brakes, a special sport-tuned suspension and various exterior and interior styling flourishes. Its standard electronic limited-slip program, called Electronic Differential Lock Control, is an option on lesser Clubmen.

Mini is basically the Dell of the automotive world, meaning that you can personalize your Clubman to your heart's content, and Mini will happily build it to spec. Some highlights from the dizzying options list are 17-inch alloys, a sport package with a stiffer suspension, xenon headlamps, a panoramic sunroof, Bluetooth and iPod/USB connectivity, a navigation system with a 6.5-inch display, leather upholstery, Recaro sport seats and a premium Harman Kardon audio system. There are also seemingly endless potential combinations of colors, special trim items and wheel designs.

The base Clubman's standard front seats are rather flat. (We suppose that's why there are optional contoured sport seats, which are standard on the Cooper S Clubman.) Nevertheless, we love the chairlike driving position, which gives the driver a remarkably grand view of the surroundings. As in the regular Cooper, the pedals are perfectly placed, and the tilting and telescoping steering wheel is low and straight, right where you want it. Mini's wonderful website calls this the Alert Ergonomic Driving Position. And, you know, that's exactly how it feels.

Alas, we can't keep our thumbs up for the audio and climate controls, which are laid out haphazardly and many of which employ stylish yet frustrating toggle switches rather than proper knobs or buttons. Materials quality is also spotty. We enjoy the enormous center-mounted speedometer, though, and we don't understand why there's so much hate for it out there. Do people really want a Mini with a boring BMW-style interior? Careful-wishes like that just might come true.

Compared with the regular Cooper's back seat, the Clubman's is a revelation. It still only seats two, but those passengers can be a pair of six-footers, no sweat. The front passengers probably won't even have to slide their seats forward to free up more legroom. The bottom cushions are low, so those six-footers may find their knees pointing skyward, but the Clubman is still a genuine four-passenger vehicle, which is remarkable for something so small. Access through the reverse-opening club door isn't as simple as using a regular door, but reasonably limber passengers shouldn't have a problem.

Open up those delivery-van-style barn doors at the back, and you'll find just 9.2 cubic feet of cargo space, though that's a more than 50 percent improvement from the regular Cooper. Similarly, the maximum of 32.8 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded down is significantly more than the regular Cooper's 24, although the Clubman's cargo bay still isn't exactly commodious.

Technology

Perusing the Clubman's features list, we're disappointed that Bluetooth and iPod/USB connectivity still cost extra in this day and age. We're also unimpressed by the sound quality of the upgraded Harman Kardon stereo, although the base stereo is much worse. In brighter news, there's a nifty option called Mini Connected that adds an attractive information and entertainment display in the center of that massive speedometer. Moreover, it gives iPhone users access to an app that can integrate Facebook, Twitter, Internet radio and a variety of other services.

Navigation can be added to Mini Connected if you want, but in our minds, if you've already got a smartphone that works with Mini Connected, you already have access to Google Maps and the like, so you probably don't need to pay extra for Mini's maps and directions.

Performance & Fuel Economy

All Mini Cooper Clubman models have front-wheel drive and start with a six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic is optional on all but the John Cooper Works, which is manual only.

The base Cooper Clubman is powered by a 1.6-liter inline-4 rated at 121 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque. This is a surprisingly entertaining engine in the regular Cooper, but the Clubman weighs another 150 to 200 pounds, and you can tell that's putting extra strain on those 121 horses-especially with the power-sapping automatic transmission. We still like this engine a lot, but we think the Cooper S Clubman's turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-4 makes more sense. With output ratings of 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque-192 during temporary "overboost" full-throttle acceleration-the little turbo 4 punches well above its weight, and the twin-scroll turbocharger makes sure you always have torque on demand. Also, thanks in part to that healthy torque, the Cooper S Clubman's extra weight is less apparent.

Fuel economy is 27 mpg city/35 mpg highway for all Clubmen except the automatic Cooper S, which gets 26/34 mpg, and the John Cooper Works, which is rated at 25/33 mpg. Yes, that means the manual Cooper S Clubman gets the exact same fuel economy as the non-turbo models. That's all the more reason to upgrade if you can.

Safety

The 2012 Mini Cooper Clubman comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and six airbags (front, front-side, full-length side-curtain).

The Clubman had not yet been crash tested stateside as of this writing.

Driving Impressions

The Mini Cooper Clubman is certainly bigger than the regular Mini, but let's not get carried away; it's only longer by about a foot. So although the Clubman may look like something out of a funeral procession for little people, it handles almost identically to the taut, eager Mini Cooper Hardtop. That means it has the same hyper-responsive steering and throttle when you hit the Sport button next to the shifter, which we recommend doing every time you start the car. Unfortunately, it also features the same firm, noisy ride. If you specify the even stiffer sport suspension and/or the 17-inch wheels, don't say we didn't warn you.

Other Cars to Consider

Audi A3 - If your Clubman's projected price is creeping into the high $20,000s or above, consider the base A3, which provides satisfying turbo power in a premium but more traditional package.

Volkswagen GTI - Featuring basically the same engine as the A3, the GTI is another enticing option among premium hatchbacks. It has less adrenaline in its veins than the Clubman, but the overall driving experience is more refined.

Kia Sportage - Technically a compact crossover SUV, the Sportage has crisp new duds along with an available 260-horsepower turbocharged inline-4 that'll knock the Clubman's socks off.

AutoTrader Recommends

As with the regular model, our choice would be the Cooper S Clubman with the standard suspension, the 16-inch wheels and the manual transmission. That turbocharged engine really puts the Clubman in its element, but we could do without most of the optional goodies.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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