SAVANNAH, GA – Mini fans expected the new Clubman to be big, and to them it’s the biggest car in the history of mankind. Longer, lower and wider than a Mercedes Maybach, the rear seating area is roomy enough for passengers to swing from the chandeliers, if chandeliers were an option, which they unfortunately are not.
Okay, so maybe that’s only how long-time Mini enthusiasts will view the brand’s largest car ever.
The ’16 Mini Clubman, which began hitting dealer showrooms in January, actually is about the same size as a 5-door Volkswagen Golf. But that is huge by Mini standards.
The Clubman’s larger dimensions lead to the car being designated a compact, rather than a subcompact, marking a pivotal moment in Mini’s history as it seeks to widen its appeal.
Mini officials say they have lost thousands of potential buyers over the years who liked the brand’s design and performance but found the products too small to be practical.
Along with its substantial footprint, the new Clubman is being tasked with a more important role in the Mini hierarchy. Previously it was a slightly roomier variant of the Hardtop hatchback with unusual split doors in the back.
The new Clubman is billed as the marque’s flagship, and it is charged with taking the whole brand further upmarket in the premium small-car space. Mini officials say this segment is a key growth area.
Peter Schwarzenbauer, the top BMW executive responsible for Mini, says the premium compact segment will account for more than 27% of the total global passenger car market by 2020, and BMW wants to participate in that expansion.
The Clubman is based on BMW’s new UKL2 modular front-wheel-drive architecture, which also underpins the BMW X1 CUV and BMW 2-Series sold in Europe. It is much longer and wider than Mini’s models based on BMW’s smaller UKL1 platform.
To be exact, the new Clubman is 10.9 ins. (277 mm) longer and 2.9 ins. (74 mm) wider, and its wheelbase is 4 ins. (102 mm) larger than the new 5-door Mini Hardtop. It is even substantially longer than the Countryman CUV.
Pricing starts at $25,000 for the 1.5L Mini Cooper Clubman model and $28,500 for the 2.0L Mini Cooper S Clubman including dealer destination fees, but fully optioned models likely will exceed $40,000, especially when an all-wheel-drive option becomes available later this year.
That puts the Clubman into competition with a variety of people movers, from the Fiat 500L and several versions of the VW Golf to vehicles such as the Audi Allroad on the high end.
We drove a $33,450 Cooper Clubman and a $36,600 Cooper S Clubman for several hundred miles in the scenic lowcountry around Savannah, GA.
The Clubman uses the same engines as the rest of the Mini range. The Cooper Clubman is powered by BMW’s turbocharged 1.5L 3-cyl. making 134 hp and 162 lb-.ft. (220 Nm) of torque, and the Cooper S Clubman features BMW’s 189-hp 2.0L 4-cyl. turbo making 207 lb.-ft. (281 Nm).
The 1.5L was named one of Wards 10 Best Engines in 2015, and the 228-hp 2.0L in the high-performance Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop on the UKL1 platform was seriously in the hunt this year.
Both Cooper and Cooper S versions of the Clubman have a premium look and feel, with high-quality surfaces and finishes inside and out.
Most Luxurious Mini Ever
The first thing hardcore Mini fans will notice is the car’s strong presence, which makes it appear larger than it is. Inside, the interior materials, textures and upholstery are more luxurious and higher quality than found in other Mini products, plus there is a wider selection of interior colors and trim.
Behind the wheel, it is clear engineers did a lot of work eliminating wind noise and damping sound. Even though some road noise does creep up through the wheel wells and floor pan, we catch ourselves accidently slipping over 90 mph (145 km/h) numerous times on the freeway simply because the car is so tranquil while cruising, even with the 3-cyl. and 6-speed automatic under the hood.
Engines with only three cylinders used to sound cheap and run rough, but this BMW-designed gem can embarrass a lot of 4-cyl. engines with its power and smoothness. And by the way, it also is used in BMW’s i8 ultra-luxury plug-in hybrid.
The more-potent 4-cyl. in the Cooper S Clubman is even more entertaining, although the Clubman can’t quite match the reflexes of Mini’s smaller UKL1-based models. Mini aficionados will find the Clubman’s performance less like a go kart than most of its siblings, but newcomers will find performance and handling superior to just about anything they are cross shopping.
Even though Mini says style and performance is more important to its customers than fuel economy, mileage still is good, with the 1.5L rated at 25/35 mpg (9.4-6.7 L/100 km) city/highway with the 6-speed manual and slightly less with the 6-speed automatic. The 2.0L 4-cyl. is about the same with the benefit of an 8-speed automatic and 22/32 mpg (10.7-7.4 L/100 km) with the 6-speed manual.
Like all Minis, steering is very precise, and the car feels glued to the pavement. Probably because it is so much longer and wider, dynamically the Clubman feels more like a small BMW than a big Mini. But that won’t be a negative for the car’s target audience.
The upscale aspirations of the car can be found in the sophisticated human-machine interface and wide array of advanced driver-assist options available, including help parallel parking and smart cruise control. Collision and pedestrian warning systems with automatic emergency braking also are available.
Mini styling always is polarizing. Brand loyalists complain the design is straying from the purity of the first-generation Mini Cooper and desecrating the brand heritage But these are the same ostriches that attacked Porsche’s move into CUVs and now are wringing their hands over Bentley and Jaguar expanding their portfolios into CUVs.
Like living organisms, cars and brands mutate and evolve in order to survive. Mini has been doing it successfully for 15 years.
Mini’s tiny B-Car Hardtop model debuted in the U.S. in 2002, when gas was cheap and General Motors’ Hummer was the hottest brand in the industry. It wasn’t given much of a chance, but it became an overnight sensation. Likewise in 2010, Mini introduced the Countryman CUV, which became an instant hit. Most recently, the 5-door Hardtop punched up sales.
Overall, Mini’s U.S. deliveries were up 4.3% in 2015, up from a 16% deficit in 2014; not a bad showing given the current sad state of small-car sales.
The Clubman is a stylish, fun-to-drive Mini that finally is big enough for mainstream consumers and luxurious enough for upscale buyers. It couldn’t be coming at a better time for the brand.
'16 Mini Cooper Clubman Specifications
|6-door, 5-passenger front-wheel-drive car
|1.5L DOHC direct-injected all-aluminum 3-cyl.
|Power (SAE net)
|134 hp @ 4,400 rpm
|162 lb.-ft. (220 Nm)
|105.1 ins. (2,670 mm)
|168.3 ins. (4,275 mm)
|70.9 ins. (1,801 mm)
|56.7 ins. (1,440 mm)
|3,150 lbs. (1,429 kg)
|25/34 mpg (9.4-6.9 L/100 km)
|Fiat 500L, VW Sportwagen
|Big enough for families
|Still fun to drive
|More BMW DNA than Mini