This review was original published on our sister site, MotoringFile. For all the dedicated BMW fans, consider it a glimpse into a different yet strangely similar world.
The idea of bigger MINI can seem like an anomaly. For those not familiar with the car, the entire concept seems at odds with the brand. Why would anyone want a slightly larger MINI. At what point does a larger MINI become just another car? And if a larger MINI doesn’t reflect the character of the brand, how does BMW expect this car to be successful?
Luckily BMW had all this in mind (along with some good instincts) when designing and engineering the car. In my week with the Clubman I found that it does the unthinkable by offering more space but retaining 90% of what auto enthusiasts love about the MINI. The handling and feel that have always made the MINI feel so special is almost all there. And to anyone but the enthusiast, the difference is probably barely noticeable.
In return the Clubman offers up both extra space and a unique character that the MINI coupe doesn’t have. There’s a whimsical feel to the Clubman from the rear wipers to the hidden handle on the 3rd door. It’s the kind of car that you feel connected to on a level that belies what it really does – get you from point A to point B.
During my week with the Clubman S it was easy to forget I was in anything but a standard MINI coupe. Granted the press car supplied by MINI USA didn’t have many of the options I’m used to on my ’07 MINI Cooper S (Nav and the JCW goodies being the biggest omissions) it was still easy to forget about added size and extra doors. So close is the Clubman’s performance to the coupe that the extra size and heft isn’t really obviously in day to day city driving.
The doors themselves are probably what most people think about when they see car. The side door (or “Club door” as MINI calls it) is a fantastic addition as it makes the back seat much more usable. And when you introduce the concept of a full size adult sitting in the back, it becomes invaluable. Suddenly you have a MINI that is serviceable as a four seater. While it’s not a set-up that I would recommend for a cross-country trek from NYC to LA, it’s more than adequate for a night out or a quick trip across town.
The rear doors are probably a little more form over function. But the design and the look they give the car completely makes up for the fact that a normal hatch would have been a more efficient choice in terms of everyday use. In regards to design and character, this car would not be what it is without the barn doors. And once you get comfortable with their day to day use, you quickly forget about any other option.
One thing that does take some getting use to (from a MINI Coupe owner’s point of view) is how high the rear floor initially appears. While there are two levels of hidden storage areas, upon initial view it seems as if you were seriously short-changed some boot space. However all it takes is one long trip to learn to how to make use of it all.
All that aside this particular Clubman wasn’t perfect. For one, our press car came with one option that did a lot to make the experience less than ideal: an automatic transmission. As much as I feel it’s important to test an auto now and again, I couldn’t help but find the experience lacking in regards to the MINI experience. While the performance wasn’t terrible, it’s neither a dual clutch transmission nor a true manual. And unfortunately anything less in the mind of this enthusiast is a huge disappointment and (to put it plainly) a fun killer. We’ve written about our issues with this transmission in the past (and even did a podcast while on the track with an auto MCS) so I’m not going to repeat it all here. But the long and short of it is the character of the MINI is at odds with a torque converter style automatic.
Another issue I found with this example was a very obvious squeak coming from the “Club door” on the right side. It was an intermittent issue but noticeable enough to have several people comment on it from the passenger seat. Granted anytime you’ve got a press car with over 5,000 miles on it (I ended the test with around 5,500 on the odometer) you’ve got to expect some small issues here and there. These cars are beat to death by magazines and random unqualified journalists alike. And in general it’s worth noting that this car was probably the best built MINI I’ve ever spent time in.
Our Clubman S press car also came with the sport (with the sport suspension), premium, cold weather and convenience packages. It was an interesting combination in that it felt loaded but still had leatherette and no navigation present. Not my ideal spec but it offered up a good collection of options to consider.
The most useless option (yes this is IMHO) has to be the convenience package. I never really got use to the idea of not using a key to unlock or start the car. I tried to embrace the concept but it simply didn’t makes sense on any level. As a guy I have to put my keys somewhere and it’s not going to be in my pant’s pocket. Since I don’t carry a man purse I’m left with a jacket pocket (which I may or may not be wearing) or the cup-holder. And if the fob is sitting in the cup-holder why would I not just put it in the slot where it belongs? That said for someone who does carry a purse (most likely a women but I’m not here to judge) I can theoretically see how this concept could be valuable.
More than any other test car I’ve ever had I wanted to get feedback from non-MINI owners on the concept and the design. It’s unusual for a car-maker to bring something like the Clubman to market. It’s a low profit product that takes risks in both design and concept and I was curious how the public at large would view it. Generally speaking opinions were positive. There was a real curiosity with the doors and the space inside. While there were the expected (and in some ways just) “looks like a hearse” comments, it generally got favorable reviews for it’s design and utility. In fact it was that utility that seemed to pique the interest of more than a couple people who would have never seriously considered a MINI previously. And it’s that market that MINI is clearly aiming for with the Clubman.
So yes I’m a fan of the Clubman. It’s manages to be almost everything the MINI coupe is with more space and utility, not to mention a bit more funkiness. While the car is a success in the eyes of this enthusiast, it does something else that’s could be considered more important. The Clubman broadens the appeal of the MINI brand to a larger audience who demand more space and utility while not forsaking the core attributes of the brand. Ultimately more cars and models offered by the MINI means more a more financially stability and a potential for more reinvestment in the brand. Let’s just hope that any future MINI models can live up to what the Clubman has achieved.
For further thoughts on the 2008 MINI Clubman check out our initial review (where we go into detail on performance) below:
+ MF First Drive: MINI Clubman / MotoringFIle