On the Road Review: Mini Cooper Clubman — The Six-Door Mini

For a small subcompact wagon, the Mini Cooper Clubman (in sportier S trim) sure packed an action-filled visit. Every road trip was an adventure; unfortunately, not each memory was a fond one.

Day One

After swapping the previous Jeep Cherokee with my delivery driver, the Clubman immediately feels smaller, and more intimate — because it is a much smaller and more intimate vehicle than the Jeep crossover. Tall drivers will fit in the Mini, yet the four doors mean a smaller access point up front — which forces some anatomical contortions to enter that perhaps most Mini buyers really never face. The seat is smaller, yet good enough for adult duty, while the rear seating is laid out for three, but really supports two adults in comfort. Visibility to the rear is stinted; the three rear headrests, the low backlight panel, plus the split rear doors (no hatchback) combine to produce some visual penalties. The lack of a back-up camera further complicates the situation.

Yet all is forgiven as you apply the throttle, twist the steering wheel and enjoy the baked-in goodness of the Mini’s agile chassis and robust power. Power here is supplied by a twin-turbo 2.0-liter four making 189 eager horses. Backed by a new eight-speed automatic transmission, the front drive Clubman is swift like few small cars are today. BMW’s ownership stake is clearly more evident as time marches on; this powertrain is a perfect example of the trickle-down effect from BMW.

With Mini coupe pricing starting at around $20,000, the Clubman’s $27,650 entry point seems quite reasonable with all of this new BMW hardware.

Day Two

After pursuing business interests along the southern Maine coast, darting in and out of coastal retreats and small villages for a day, the Mini is pressed into more mainstream driving for the daily commute and the grind along local thoroughfares. It is immediately apparent that the Mini likes to run, even in the “normal” operation mode provided of three options, including Sport and Eco. In Sport, the huge center panel screen displays the enthusiastic message “Let’s Drive Hard!” Shift points change, throttle responses are crisper and the little Mini puts on its Superman cape and dispatches slower traffic with glee.

A rural driver takes exception to my rapid squirt around him, after he pulls out directly in front of the Mini — with no traffic behind me. He pulls to the right, making me think he recognizes his indiscretion behind the wheel, and we make a safe pass and motor on. Down the road, this driver displays an out-of-body displeasure with my efforts and launches a verbal tirade that would embarrass his own mother, or maybe not. Other drivers gawk at the intersection demonstration as this protracted mental meltdown baffles everyone, including me. Small car passes big SUV that doesn’t follow rules of the road; get over it, fella.

Day Three

Other traffic entering the roadway directly ahead of the diminutive Mini became an expected occurrence during our time together; do other drivers fail to see the compact car coming — with its daytime lamps brilliantly lit? I switched over to full headlamp operation after a few such events, pretending to be dual motorcycles coming down the road in hopes that I would not need to use the brakes for other un-yielding traffic. The headlights-on helped, but it is curious to see how many other drivers are so shortsighted in their vision. Apparently, this is the same segment of the driving population that does not recognize the need to turn their headlights on in pouring rain, heavy fog, or falling snow. Folks, turning your headlights on isn’t meant to improve your own visibility — it’s to help everyone else see you in low-light situations!

By now, I am settled into the Mini’s performance — and interior. Traditional Mini buyers will find the usual array of round gauges, round handles, toggle switches, and other cues that have pretty much been design staples since the brand’s 2001 debut in America. Critics will criticize, but the irrefutable fact remains; the Mini Cooper series, in all of its iterations, has been THE most successful small niche car over the last 15-years. VW’s Beetle, not so much. Fiat 500, please. Nissan Juke and Toyota Scion; Scion models are being integrated into the mainstream Toyo lineup and the Juke needs an adrenaline injection. Smart Car; what a joke. The Mini leads them all in sales as well as positive public perception.

Day Four

How many six-door vehicles can you name? You can find six-door Cadillac XTS livery sedans (seen three over the past two months) plus the former Tahoe/Yukon/Suburban series used to feature rear barn doors, but unless someone is making an aftermarket Hummer or Suburban with six doors now, the Mini is in a really small class of wagons — and we’re not talking just dimensions.

The rear doors are a design concession; they look cool, they work differently, and a hatch would have been a low-obstacle panel creating rear access issues due to the car’s height. I wish the rear doors worked smoother; they displayed a lot of hinge stiction that required determined effort to open and close these small panels. Flip the rear seats forward and you gain a versatile cargo hold like a sub-compact crossover — all at a lower height than even small conventional station wagons.

Day Six

After a day of rest, the Mini went back to work displaying its eager and pleasing driving portfolio. A non-conformist will readily embrace the unconventional controls (like the red toggle switch ignition in the lower dash and the huge round gauges) but there is no mistaking the car’s performance. The turbo engine runs hard, with little provocation. You glance at the speedometer and see unbelievable numbers — the car does not feel like it is going that fast because the handling is so astute, so calm. Even when prodded, fuel economy for the Clubman came out to 32 mpg for the week; very close to the EPA highway estimates of 24/34/27 mpg. Premium fuel is recommended, regular fuel was used and the car apparently was unaffected in the daily grind of life.

One feature of the eight-speed and the S trim level in the Mini — paddle shifters for sporty driving. A show of hands please; how many of you are using your paddle shifters on a daily basis in your “sporty cars”? The premise that buyers who don’t want a manual shift transmission will substitute steering wheel paddle shifters for manual transmission engagement seems flawed to me, a big marketing gimmick. Sure, today’s automatic transmissions are excellent, and produce acceleration that is quicker than with manual stick-shifts, however that doesn’t mean that drivers are capable of mastering using their hands to paddle shift their way to sporty performance when the cupholder is squeezing cell phones, lattes and whatever else travels with us every day.

Final Day

It is a clear, bright spring day. The road is empty for the morning commute, amazing all by itself. The radio is off and the mind is contemplating events ahead when a white crossover fills the bend in the road ahead. Bang, that sinking sensation that arrives when you realize what that vehicle really is, glance at your speedometer and see that he is pulling to the shoulder in preparation for you to pull to the shoulder of the road.

Officer Killjoy finishes his job while I lament the total absence of common sense to the current state of traffic laws, many of which were enacted when we drove vehicles with drum brakes, no ABS, no traction control, no airbags, no radial tires, and none of the handling and steering advances common today. Life has changed dramatically, our cars have improved dramatically but speed limits and rules of the road do not reflect these advances. Data suggests that speed limits are one of the most disregarded laws in the country, with over 85 percent disobedience rates common for the majority of posted limits. Spend lots of time on the road, and you’ll witness firsthand that the majority of American drivers operate at a safe, comfortable speed that equates to line of sight, volume of traffic, weather conditions, and surfaces that allow traffic to move along safely — regardless of what the white signs say.

Maybe that is the Mini’s cause too. It moves along smartly, despite what the critics say. The car is fun to drive, fits individual lifestyles with aplomb, and in the six-door Clubman body, becomes a versatile Mini that retains all of the features that Mini buyers seek without penalty. Road noise could be less, but equipment levels are good. The car needs a back-up camera, yet the Boot-to-Bonnet no-cost maintenance plan helps buyers overcome perceived shortcomings.

The Mini Clubman S: Go-kart handling, MINImalism performance and Drive Hard fun.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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