Lest it go unnoticed in these pages, we’re pausing to take a brief look at the new Mini Clubman. Judging from the attention this small four-door wagon has drawn in the automotive press, it represents a minor note in automotive history. But the Clubman is significant actually because it is a small wagon – a segment as underserved in the U.S. as it is sensible. Small wagons are very popular in Europe and the rest of the world, because they make so much sense. But they’re barely thought of here any longer, victims of the dread Compactus crossoverus.
Any Mini is significant, I would argue. Quite apart from its wagonosity, this one is a product of the brand that in 2002 first broke the link between size (length, width, height, weight) and cost, being a not inexpensive small car, a radical deed by industry standards. The primal connection in the human mind between size and price has been pursued, accentuated and enflamed by the auto industry to the detriment not only of the environment – those SUVs and crossovers we Americans love are by definition less efficient than the cars they are based on but the linkage also hurt the carmakers themselves. Just when federal fuel economy requirements demand more efficient cars, the industry again finds itself not just dabbling but majoring in the heavy end of the field, where pricing can be more aggressive. As if on a Jetstream wind, sales of SUVs, pickups and other weighty and pricey models are being floated ever higher on a celestial cushion of cheap gas. It’s never pretty when the wind dies down, as history suggests it eventually must.
Maybe it’s because so many cars are heavier these days that Mini found the need to upsize its Clubman variant, which debuted as part of the second series of modern Mini in 2007. In Series 3 form, like all its Mini brethren, this Clubman is now based on BMW’s new-ish 1-Series platform, meaning it’s a perfectly competent, mildly amusing driver that does zero to forward the Clubman’s Mini-ness. Quite the opposite. Minis were known for a giddy, almost hysterical alertness of steering, but that was watered down in their last series and it’s gone now. BMW doesn't build cars that are go-cart fun to drive anymore and neither does Mini.
I say this as the former owner of the first modern Mini, a 2002 Mini Cooper S. The car’s compact dimensions made city parking magically easy, a joy that new Cooper drivers won’t experience. And it was possessed of the razor sharp steering and hilarious handling qualities its makers continue to claim today, only with a lot less foundation. The new car is better in countless ways, but the third generation Mini (b.2013) whose family the Clubman joins finally lost the plot the second generation (b.2007) started losing, and the new Clubman underscores the fact. The newest Mini is a much bigger car than either of its predecessors, considerably more refined and quite a bit more expensive, though that’s not surprising when you recall that today’s Minis are based in the name of cost-efficiency on the underpinnings of a BMW.
An all-wheel-drive version of the Clubman debuted at the New York Auto Show. But having just put 700 miles on a front-drive example with my family in tow, along the winding lanes and choked superhighways of Southern California, that’s the one I’ll talk about. It’s bigger, it’s slicker and it’s undoubtedly safer than earlier Minis, which surely offers peace of mind.
And here are my other findings:
- Rides and handles well
- Seats more comfortably than before
- Material qualities seem improved
- Dash design less self-consciously quirky, though still wanting
- It’s fast, eight-speed auto helps to wring all the power out of 2.0 liter turbo four
- Considerably more useful interior space, for passengers and luggage
- Four doors certainly more livable, sensible in family use
- The previous model would’ve been a stretch for a family of four; this would work
- It’s not mini, it’s maxi, 168.3 inches in length, more than a footlonger than the car it replaces: parking advantage lost
- Feels heavy, and it is –at nearly 3400 lbs., almost 900 lbs. heavier than the original Mini and now classified by EPA as mid-sized
- Lots of tire noise on certain road surfaces
- Not as abstemious with fuel as one might hope –35mpg was the best I could achieve with the new Clubman, while 40 was once an achievable bogey
- Looks goofier, less cool than previous Minis
- Expensive – despite $26,000 base price, $40,000 as tested without going crazy on options list
While it’s hard not to understand the reasoning and impulses behind BMW’s decision to make bigger Minis, we’d end this review saying that the company’s original insight with Mini – that top economy cars shouldn’t only be the province of cheapskates and those on restricted budgets – is just as true as it ever was and should be revisited. A truly safe, high performing model that was really fun and really was mini, that’s what Mini needs.