Automotive enthusiasts have been grumbling about the current MINI brand for some time now. The original MINI from the 1960s remains an icon of British motoring culture, and today, under the leadership of BMW, they’ve become further and further from what they used to be. In short, every MINI you can buy today is physically much larger than those cars used to be. It has to be understood that people, in a general sense, are resistant to change for a variety of reasons. The reality is, the cars needed to get bigger in order to meet today’s safety requirements – crumple zones, airbags, and simply just more crash area. In addition, today’s expectations for efficiency, emissions compliance, and feature sets needed to be accommodated for.
The MINI Clubman of the past was also a unique model, but the Clubman as we know it today was more like the original Countryman. Heritage design cues that have been carried over are the rear “barn” doors that are split vertically in the middle, rather than being a traditional hatch seen on other MINIs. The current second-generation MINI Clubman was released for the 2016 model year, further adding to the already comprehensive brand lineup. We were sent a Melting Silver Metallic 2017 MINI Cooper Clubman, well-equipped with an automatic transmission.
Between the standard three-door MINI Cooper, the MINI 5 Door, and now the Clubman, there are a lot of choices interested customers can look at, all with their own unique identity. The Classic MINI 3 Door comes closest to the original, and the MINI 5 Door (reviewed here) gives you two more doors, and a bit more wheelbase for passengers in the second row. The MINI Clubman takes this one step further, with a longer body and a wheelbase that’s an additional 103mm longer, and a vertical rear tailgate, which really helps square off the cargo area for maximum space efficiency. BMW and MINI go as far as describing the Clubman as a wagon, and we’re inclined to agree. It just so happens that this one has six doors, in total.
This particular tester came equipped with the available LED headlights, which are a significant upgrade from the bog-standard halogen reflector units that come with the Clubman by default. The LED daytime running lights also form a ring around the circular headlight, and certainly add a distinct look to the Clubman’s front end. Out back, the barn door is easily the defining design cue, and it adds a genuine quirk to ownership – when sitting in the driver’s seat, you can’t actually see straight through the rear glass, as there is a pillar in the way that dissects the rear in half. You quickly learn to adapt by slightly leaning to one side to change your angle of view out the rear window. This Clubman comes equipped with available 18-inch wheels from the John Cooper Works package, with 225-section winter rubber.
Because the two rear doors can be opened 90-degrees, MINI had to move the brake light function to the rear bumper. The turn signals and tail lights remain on the rear hatch doors. However, if you have the lights on, and open the rear hatch, the tail lights and turn signals move down to the rear bumper cluster. This is to ensure visibility for drivers approaching the Clubman from behind. One thing we couldn’t “un-see” was the similarity of the Clubman’s upper tail light housing to the tail light design of the first-generation Buick Enclave, pre-refresh. If design quirks and “personality” are important to you, MINI delivers it in spades.
Inside, the Clubman continues the quirky MINI design continues, with the circular centre infotainment interface that houses a MINI-customized version of BMW’s iDrive operating system. Circling the screen are a set of multi-coloured LEDs that are contextual – they light up and respond to the inputs you provide to the system. Otherwise, the LEDs act like a tachometer, rising and falling as the engine’s revs rise and fall. In a departure from the original “new” MINI, the speedometer and tachometer are situated in front of the driver, and not where the iDrive infotainment lives, and the power window switches live on the actual doors, rather than the centre stack.
Part of the MINI experience is the ability to customize the car with various options – packaged and standalone. The $1,800 “Essentials Package” gets you a panoramic sunroof, heated front seats, a front centre armrest, and a rear fog light – consider these essential items in 2017. The $1,800 “Loaded Package” adds power seat adjustments, more sport bolstering in those seats, keyless access, and dual-zone automatic climate control. The $1,150 LED Lights Package upgrades the halogen headlights and fog lights, and the $1,000 Wired Navigation package adds satellite navigation and a larger 8.8-inch iDrive screen.
Under the hood of base MINI Cooper models is a new 1.5L turbocharged “Twin Power” three-cylinder gasoline engine. Smaller in size and with less cylinders, this engine is a marked departure from the naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engines in base MINIs of previous generations. Technically known as the BMW B38 engine, this little three-cylinder engine features direct fuel injection and a single-scroll turbo (its housing is crafted from aluminum – an industry first). Power figures are quoted at 134hp from 4400RPM to 6000RPM, with torque figures at 162 lb-ft from a low 1250RPM to 4300RPM.
These numbers are nothing to sneeze at, but 134hp is just enough to get the Clubman up to speed. What’s more practical in the real world is the 162lb-ft of torque. Thanks to the small, low-inertia turbocharger, full boost is available just off engine idle, which helps the car accelerate smartly without having to wind out the engine to its high-rpm range, as seen with previous-generation naturally-aspirated four-cylinder Minis. The quoted 0-100km/h time is a leisurely 9.1 seconds, but the three-cylinder Clubman feels faster, in practice. If you still desire more power, the MINI Cooper S Clubman is available with its 2.0L four-cylinder engine and 189hp output.
This particular tester was fitted with an optional six-speed automatic ($1,500), supplied by Aisin. Normally, the automotive enthusiast in all of us would opt for the six-speed manual transmission (stick-shift wagon!), but this automatic transaxle fires off firm gear changes and makes use of the broad torque curve to good effect, minimizing unnecessary shifting. Power is sent to the front wheels by default, but for those who want it, MINI’s ALL4 all-wheel drive system is available, and it also comes with an optional eight-speed automatic transmission to sweeten the deal. The key takeaway: you can still get a six-speed manual with ALL4 all-wheel drive. Stick-shift all-wheel drive wagon lovers, rejoice!
Behind the wheel, the MINI Clubman’s handling does remind you of its go-kart reflexes. Even though size and heft have continued to climb, year after year, steering turn-in is still immediate. Actual fine steering feel still isn’t great, but enabling the Sport mode (the ring around the gear selector) increases the weighting to a more palatable level. You sit low to the ground, and the upright glass all around you certainly imparts a unique experience that few brands can match. Unlike in the standard MINI Cooper, space for five average-sized adults is totally reasonable. The second row is surprisingly roomy, and the long roofline enables generous headroom as well as space for taller items in the cargo area. Folding the split 40-20-40 rear seats allows for an almost-flat load floor and even more space for large items – up to 1250L worth.
People may assume that a small car, with a three-cylinder engine with 134hp would lead to excellent efficiency. Thanks to the turbo boost coming on so early, fuel consumption takes a bit of a hit as you ride that wave of torque. MINI rates the base front-drive Clubman with the automatic transmission at 9.5L/100km in the city, 7.2L/100km on the highway, and 8.4L/100km in a combined cycle. During my week of mixed wintertime driving, I managed to hit an indicated average of 9.4L/100km. It is a somewhat disappointing figure, considering the modest power output. Adding the ALL4 all-wheel drive option will likely further affect your real-world results. The MINI Clubman asks for 91 octane fuel (recommended), and the tank will accept 50L.
The base MINI Cooper Clubman starts a base MSRP of $24,990, with front-wheel drive and manual transmission. Adding in the various option packages sees the price climb, quickly: the Essentials Package ($1,800), the Loaded Package ($1,800), LED lights package ($1,150), Wired Navigation Package ($1,000), Style Package ($650), Cargo Package ($650), Automatic Transmission ($1,500), Melting Silver Metallic paint ($590), Rear Park Distance Control ($500), and black roof and mirror caps (no cost!). It’s safe to say this is a fully-loaded MINI Clubman (save for the missing reverse camera) – its price as tested rings in at $35,280.
MINI likes to talk about the sheer configurability of all their cars. When you combine the option packages (and standalone options) with all the different colour combinations (for the body as well as for the roof/mirrors), there are a ton of unique permutations for how you can get a very specific car with a very specific colour combination. Some of the option packages could be dropped in order to bring the price down, namely the automatic transmission, navigation package, style package, and cargo package.
There’s no question that all of MINI’s cars chase a premium customer, but it’s hard not to ignore the value factor. Honda’s new Civic Hatchback (reviewed here) is proving to be an excellent car, with a strong feature set, manual transmission availability, but all-wheel drive is not available. The Volkswagen GTI (reviewed here) gives you similar dimensions (overall length between it and the Mini Clubman are only 20mm apart), but a lot more horsepower (from 25% more cylinders!), sporting hardware, similar fuel economy, and a similar price depending on equipment. On the downside, the GTI won’t give you the same sort of quirky character, and it’ll blend in more with traffic. This latter item may be a good or bad thing, depending on what you’re looking for in a practical, everyday vehicle.
It comes down to whether you purchase a car with your brain, or with your heart. The brain may gravitate to something that offers more value and understated polish (as seen with the GTI), but the heart may go towards something that is more unique, more interesting, and unconventional. The 2017 MINI Cooper Clubman is definitely a purchase made with the heart, and in my books, it is the best MINI in the lineup. This isn’t to suggest that it is an impractical car (quite the contrary), but you do pay for that charm and personality.