How is it possible, you say, that these two cars — the 2008 BMW 128i and the 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman — find themselves facing off in a comparison test? One is rear-wheel drive, the other a front-driver. One is motivated by a 3.0-liter inline-6 aspirated entirely by Mother Nature, while the other finds power from four furious cylinders totaling 1.6 liters and, of course, a turbocharger. One has two doors, the other has five. What gives?
Using those criteria they should go together about as well as Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell. But wait, there's more.
Season the Mini with a few options and it costs about the same as the BMW 1 Series. Both are known for being fun to drive and both are designed to hold two people comfortably but can accommodate four if the need arises. Both have usefully large cargo areas — the rear seats in each folds flat to enhance capacity. And both come standard with a six-speed manual transmission.
For many drivers, these criteria are more important than which wheels do the driving or how many cylinders make the power. So we've got a genuine shoot-out here. Front drive vs. rear drive. Six cylinders vs. four cylinders. Quick, practical and stylish vs., well, quick, practical and stylish.
More Cost, More Car
The 2008 BMW 128i's base price is $28,600. Our test car, outfitted with $4,500 in options including the Sport package, Gray Poplar wood trim, heated front seats and the iPod and USB adapter totaled $32,125, including destination.
Two hundred thirty buttery-smooth horses and 200 pound-feet of torque flow from the 128i's 3.0-liter inline-6 to the rear wheels via its six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic is optional.
But hold on there, Pops — quick, practical and stylish also comes in retro flavor. Here's the longitudinally well-endowed 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman. Like a conventional Mini Cooper S on Enzyte, it's the naturally enhanced way to have your Mini and still carry your bicycle. Ours happened to be fitted with $5,600 in options ranging from the genuinely functional limited-slip differential to the heat-soaking dual-pane sunroof (part of the Premium package). Also present are the Sport package, blue-leather-and-cloth interior, blue metallic paint, white turn signal lights and two separate occurrences of chrome-line trim (interior and exterior).
These enhancements jack up the Mini's price to $29,700, including destination, which seems fair considering it's packing 3.2 extra inches between its wheels and one extra door (anybody remember the Saturn SC?).
The S-trim level Clubman like this one features the same turbocharged, direct-injected 1.6-liter inline-4 as the mini Mini. The mill is rated at 172 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque — unless full throttle is demanded, in which case the boost peaks slightly higher and permits a brief hit of 192 lb-ft. Our Mini has the standard manual transmission, but a stellar six-speed automatic is optional.
Get out your yardstick and you'll see that the 128i is 17.2 inches longer than the mega Mini. But thanks to the way the wheels of the Mini are pushed to the extreme ends of the car, the BMW has a wheelbase that's only 4.4 inches longer (100.3 inches for the Clubman vs. 104.7 inches for the 1 Series).
We enjoy a good old-fashioned throw-down here, and these two machines both seem willing and able to provide just that. Using our elaborate sliding scale of vehicle evaluation criteria, we've adjusted this test to represent the needs and desires of those shopping for a small premium car.
This means performance (25 percent) ranks highest among the five categories we use for comparison. Price and fuel consumption are next (20 percent), followed by feature content (15 percent), subjective evaluation scores (15 percent) and editors' picks (5 percent).
The Unseen Advantage
It isn't easy to excel in a segment where buyers value style as much as practicality. What's more, wagering the company balance sheet on style is a risky move, yet Mini built its reputation by delivering on the promise made by its brilliantly styled small car. The 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman takes that promise a step further.
Retaining the basic Mini Cooper proportions while adding the practicality of a real backseat and usable cargo area seems an unlikely achievement, but we found ourselves enjoying both this car's shape and its functional space. The increased wheelbase affords two benefits. Of course there's the added legroom in the rear seat. However, the unseen advantage comes from added stability. Or, if you prefer, reduced nimbleness.
Normally we crave nimbleness, but the Mini has always seemed a bit eager to change direction and as a result its transitional stability suffers. Ultimately, the Clubman's slalom speed isn't as quick as its shorter brother's, but drivers without hands as quick as those of Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton will appreciate its attitude adjustment. We clocked 67.7 mph in the slalom, which is slower than the 128i's slalom speed by 1.4 mph.
Ultimate grip goes to the Mini by a small margin. Its 0.85g performance on the skid pad noses out the 128i by 0.01g. With its 0.84g performance, the 128i is still in the ballpark, but it lacks the Mini's steering feel at the limit. Nevertheless, front-wheel-drive cars almost always suffer heavy understeer at the limit and the Mini is no exception. Overwhelm its front tires and all you'll get is squeal. Back out and you'll get less, but forget about rotating this car by dropping off the throttle — a task the Bimmer has nailed. It remains more willing to make adjustments during cornering even though you have to call the comparison a wash on the skid pad.
With deceptively quick, ribbon-smooth power delivery, the 2008 BMW 128i makes the Mini's surge-filled acceleration seem almost laughable. Not that there's anything wrong with a turbocharged-4 in a car hauling around only 2,843 pounds (the 128i weighs 3,198 pounds), but back-to-back driving serves to highlight the weaknesses of an engine as small as the Mini's. Neither car is slow, but consider that the Bimmer conquers the 1320 almost a full second quicker and the difference is too big to ignore.
A 14.3-second quarter-mile performance at 96.5 mph puts the 128i in considerably quicker company than the Mini, which cranks through the quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds at 91.9 mph. Holeshot acceleration goes to the BMW as well. Its 5.9-second sprint to 60 mph is well ahead of the Mini's 7.2-second effort.
Both cars exhibit excellent brake feel and fade resistance. From 60 mph, only 3 feet separates their braking performances. At 113 feet the 128i stops slightly shorter than the Mini, which requires 116 feet.
On the Road
In the world of instrumented testing with its limited perspective, where cars live and die by hundredths of a G and tenths of a second, the 128i seems the superior machine. But on the road the case isn't so clear.
It's here that many buyers have fallen for the Mini's more immediate steering response and snappier road feel, which is attractive. Still, if one more person tells us the Mini handles like a go-kart we're going to kick them in the groin (right after we unload our mountain bike from the Clubman's hatch). This car is sharp, most of its controls provide immediate response and its suspension is taut. But go-kartlike? Come on. Next thing you know they'll feed us that old "handles like it's on rails."
In fact, one of the Mini's downsides is that its 1.6-liter engine feels like, well, 1.6 liters. It has admittedly rapid boost response, but it's still a small engine. Combine this fact with 90-degree weather and you'll notice its throttle response goes from giddy-up to glacierlike. Forget to push the "Sport" button and throttle response is intolerably lethargic on hot days.
The 2008 BMW 128i will hold its own in any contest of speed and does so without the Mini's busy ride. Its chassis is perfectly matched to its unassuming styling, although it lacks the Mini's instant reactions. But there are few other sacrifices. Drive it hard and the 128i is the quicker — and more comfortable — machine.
The Practical Argument
The brass tacks here are easy to understand. The Mini has a third door, which makes accessing its rear seats from the passenger side easier than shoehorning between the 128i's seat and door sill. Plus, once inside, the BMW's rear seats offer laughably little legroom.
The Mini also has a shape that we prefer for hauling large cargo. In practice, however, we found the BMW to be a solidly usable machine. We jammed large mountain bikes in the cargo areas of both cars and found, surprisingly, that the fit was much less difficult in the BMW with its rear seats folded. The Mini's barn doors serve little function other than to enhance the image of a car sold almost entirely on image. A conventional top-hinged hatch requires half the effort to open, weighs less and costs less to build.
Up front the contest gets tougher for the Mini. For some, its throwback style offers the novelty to overcome its functional deficiencies. Not for us. Even with automatic climate control, the Mini manages to be difficult to use.
The most awkward controls are the two-way buttons that adjust fan speed and temperature. They look like rollers but only move up or down one click. We also found ourselves scrolling through preset radio stations when trying to adjust the radio volume because, well, the knob controlling presets is larger and more prominently located on the audio system than the volume knob, which hides inconspicuously lower on the dash. This problem, like others inside the Mini, is one the driver will adjust to over time, but we'd prefer simple, functional controls over the Mini's form-first design.
Secondary controls in the 128i, while certainly not perfect, are more intuitive. Two knobs control temperature in each climate zone. The BMW's conventional instrument panel is easier to read than the Mini's and its overall design is simply less gimmicky.
Fuel consumption easily leans in the Mini's favor. EPA combined numbers for the 128i and Mini are 21 mpg and 29 mpg, respectively. Our measured driving proved marginally better for the BMW at 22.4 mpg and marginally worse for the Mini at 28.5 mpg.
Boil it down and the contest isn't close. The 2008 BMW 128i wins thanks to superior features that heavily outweigh its higher cost. It also performs better, scores higher in our subjective evaluation and is the choice of more editors at the end of the day.
Put simply, there's little to the personality of the 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman that can't be had in the 128i, but without the tiresome retro design. The only thing the BMW lacks is the scorching blast of B.S. that accompanies the Mini in the form of retro pap. In its place is an honest car — a fundamentally better machine — which some might find less visually dazzling.
We don't care.
BMW's 128i is exactly what it's supposed to be. It offers the personality and performance of a 3 Series with less space and less cost. And we like that better than pap.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.