We come to the 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman with more than the usual sense of curiosity. After all, the Mini is a great car, but it's also not a car for everybody.
Now Mini has brought us an even stranger version of an already eccentric car, a stretched-out model with three doors for people and two doors for cargo. And yet Mini expects the new car to eventually account for more than a quarter of all its sales worldwide.
The crucial question is: Has Mini managed to preserve the qualities that have made its standard model such a hit even as it reaches out to a broader audience with this stretched version of its iconic small car?
The Traveller in Madrid We drove the new 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman around the sprawling Spanish capital of Madrid earlier this week. Gert Hildebrand, Mini's design boss, says the idea for the stretched Mini did not stem from the marketing department but rather his own design team. "When we set about designing the second-generation model we laid down a few sketches on how we thought its appeal could be extended," Hildebrand says. "We then presented it to the board members of BMW, and they decided it had potential."
The Clubman got its first public view at the 2005 Frankfurt Auto Show as the Mini Traveller, although by then it was already well on the way to production. While the elongated shape might not ignite wild passions, the detailing and engineering are hugely impressive.
Though the wheelbase has been stretched 3.1 inches, the changes over the standard Mini begin at the trailing edge of the front doors, helping to preserve the car's flagrantly retro lines. The narrow club door is mounted on the right-hand side. Just like the Honda Element, Toyota FJ Cruiser and various pickup trucks, you have to open the front passenger door and then release a lever to get access.
The Back Door While the club door provides the Clubman with a modern twist, its rear barn doors are a clear nod to the past, having first appeared on the original 1950s Morris Mini Traveller. A lovely pair of horizontal chrome handles unlatches the doors, and they eagerly spring outward on gas struts.
Hildebrand comments, "We wanted to offer the widest possible opening. After trying many different setups this is the one we finally arrived at. It's a complex solution. To fulfill all the various legal regulations, the rear lights need to be fixed to the car, not to the door."
The Mini two-door's simple hatchback arrangement is far easier to operate and a good deal more practical in everyday use. But there is something special about the Clubman's barn doors that will draw prospective buyers to the car.
The overall design of the Clubman's rear end also attempts to mimic the exposed wooden trim of the original Traveller, as the corner panels and rear bumper carry a contrasting color. It's a nice touch that further gives the Clubman its own unique identity.
Not so Mini That said, Mini is not really an appropriate name for this car, because plainly it isn't mini at all. It's still small, but its overall length of 155.8 inches represents a stretch of 6.3 inches, enough to push the Clubman into an altogether different class. Aside from the 3.1 inches added within the wheelbase, the front overhang has been extended by 0.6 inch and the rear overhang goes up by 3.5 inches.
Get behind the steering wheel and it's all familiar territory. An almost comically oversize speedometer dominates proceedings from the center of the dashboard, which is otherwise detailed with a mixed assortment of contemporary rotary dials and ye olde world toggle switches.
The real changes are concentrated out back, where that additional wheelbase is used to extend rear-seat legroom, making the rear of the Clubman a more enjoyable place to be than any standard Mini. The rear seat remains reasonably snug, but you no longer need the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast to remain there for any length of time.
The longer rear overhang also sees cargo capacity increase by 3.5 cubic feet to 9.1 cubic feet. With the split-fold rear seats tucked away, overall cargo capacity grows to 33.0 cubic feet.
Let's Motor The Clubman will be sold in North America with a choice of the Mini's two existing four-cylinder engines. The Cooper S we drove in Spain has its direct-injection, turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-4, producing 175 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 177 pound-feet of torque from 1,600 rpm. The Cooper version, meanwhile, gets a naturally aspirated version of the same engine, developing 120 hp and 118 lb-ft of torque.
The Cooper S Clubman's engine is hugely flexible around town, even at small throttle openings. The electrically operated power steering surprisingly combines light effort with highly direct action. The Clubman's wheelbase has increased the turning circle slightly over the standard Mini, but we hardly noticed.
Just as you'd expect in a Mini, you can nip in and out of tight spaces in traffic with ease and a great deal of confidence. One downside of the new car's barn doors, however, is the center pillar running through the middle of the rear windows, which obscures rear vision so much that you have to rely on the exterior rearview mirrors.
On the go, the Cooper S Clubman's engine impresses with effortless pull. There's minimal lag from the turbocharger, seamless power delivery through the midrange and then serious punch close to its 6,500-rpm redline. The standard six-speed manual gearbox helps you stir it all up nicely with well-chosen ratios, slick action between the gates and a firm clutch action.
At 2,712 pounds, the Clubman weighs 143 pounds more than the standard Mini Cooper S, but we hardly noticed any dent in its performance profile. Mini claims 100 kph (62 mph) comes up in 7.6 seconds, some 0.5 second slower than the standard Cooper S. The top speed of the Clubman is rated at 139 mph.
No Personality Deficit At this point in our drive, we learned the reason why our drive through the Spanish countryside favored some magnificent winding roads and avoided long stints on the highway.
Despite the clear emphasis on versatility from its larger footprint, the new Clubman manages to retain all the sporting fun of the standard two-door. Our only real criticism involves the torque steer that's apparent while accelerating hard from low speeds. Part of the reason can be found in the additional weight at the back of the car. Second, the front wheels now carry a brake-regeneration system to produce electrical power for the battery, so the alternator is disengaged from the engine during acceleration. (This brake-regeneration system will not be available on U.S. models until later next year, however.)
The way the Clubman rides really got our attention. The longer wheelbase not only liberates more space inside, it also provides the Mini Clubman with a smoother and more controlled ride. There's less flutter in the suspension over rough pavement, and once ruffled by large bumps, the suspension tends to settle faster.
The long wheelbase also enhances high-speed stability. The Mini Clubman tracks with greater authority on the highway and proves far less prone to being thrown off line by nasty camber changes than its standard sibling. Only the car's occasional sensitivity to crosswinds can be criticized.
For tackling long distances, this is probably the Mini to have. It's less frenetic than its popular stablemate and the added layer of comfort soothes the miles away, making it surprisingly mature.
Still Unconventional The 2008 Mini Cooper S Clubman is not a car you can easily pigeonhole. This in itself might be its biggest asset.
The Clubman's unconventional five-door layout will no doubt appeal to a lot of people who have tired of the familiar hatchback theme served up by just about every small car on the road today. It's not the roomiest car in its class by any stretch of the imagination, yet the addition of the small club door lifts the Mini's appeal greatly.
And what the Clubman lacks in space, it more than makes up for in driving enjoyment. That's the clincher for us.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
† Edmunds.com received the highest numerical score in the proprietary J.D. Power 2014 Third-Party Automotive Website Evaluation Study℠. Results based on responses from 3,381 responses, measuring 14 companies and measures third-party automotive website usefulness among new and used vehicle shoppers. Proprietary study results are based on experiences and perceptions of owners surveyed from January 2014. Your experiences may vary. Visit jdpower.com.