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2016 MINI Cooper Clubman Test Drive Review
Eventually, people grow up, start families, and need a bigger car. With the redesigned 2016 Clubman, MINI also grows up and builds the biggest car in its history, one that can theoretically serve as family transport. In the process, it seems that a few important ingredients have been left out of what ought to be a deliciously satisfying recipe.
Look and Feel
MINI’s redesigned 2016 Clubman is bigger, better, and all grown up. Classy instead of sassy, you might even say, more along the lines of tea and crumpets than jolly good fun.
For proof, look at MINI’s new website, a study of clean, minimalistic design with lots of white space and a serious, serif font style. It’s like some kind of a digital museum now—look, but don’t touch. Gone is the whimsy, the attitude, the cheeky good humor. You know, the brand identifiers that helped to make MINIs special, even lovable, and which also made their flaws easier to forgive.
I was eager to review the new MINI Clubman for two reasons. First, I wanted to see if it might be the first MINI that can be used to transport an American family. Second, I wanted to see if the Clubman’s standard turbocharged 1.5-liter 3-cylinder engine is up to the task at hand.
The short answers? Yes to both, but with caveats.
My standard Clubman test car was optioned with a 6-speed automatic transmission, Blazing Red metallic paint, 17-inch aluminum wheels, a Technology Package, and several other upgrades that brought the price from $24,950 to $31,750. That’s a big chunk of change to pay for a little car, amounting to nearly what a more powerful and roomier Volkswagen Golf SportWagen equipped with every option would cost.
But hey, the MINI is more stylish than the VeeDub. From the outside, you can instantly identify the Clubman as a MINI, one stretched like a dachshund. One might expect the elongated bodywork to look awkward and ungainly, but MINI has carefully ensured that the car’s width, height, and other dimensions complement the longer wheelbase. Horizontally oriented taillights help, too.
As has always been true of MINIs, the Clubman can be painted in a variety of colors, with or without contrast-color roof and mirror paint, and shod with numerous wheel designs. Buyers can add unique lighting, chrome, stripes, and decals to tailor the car to very specific preferences. This ability to personalize a MINI has always been one good reason to pay a premium for the car.
Inside, the Clubman gets a new, but familiar, interior that retains key design cues popularized by other MINI models. The control layout itself leaves something to be desired, and the quality of the materials does not always reflect the price premium that the Clubman commands, but a range of seat coverings, interior colors, trim pieces, and lighting schemes ensures that buyers can create a custom look and feel.
Two versions of the Clubman are on sale: the Cooper and the Cooper S. Cooper S versions are more powerful and more fun to drive, and can be optioned with an all-wheel-drive system.
Cooper models? Well, let’s just say they exhibit spirited adequacy.
What’s important to know is that the standard turbocharged 1.5-liter 3-cylinder engine is strong enough to carry a family of four, accelerate out of its own way, merge safely onto highways, zoom along freeways at 80 mph or more, and maintain speed up mountain grades.
Is the car powerful? No, it’s not, given that it makes 134 horsepower at 4,400 rpm and weighs a minimum of 3,160 pounds. But its 162 lb-ft of torque are available starting at just 1,250 rpm, helping to get the Clubman to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds by MINI’s stopwatch.
Green, Mid, and Sport driving modes change the Clubman’s driving character. In Green mode, the Clubman behaves as though it has just downed a shot or two of Nyquil. In Sport mode, the car is genuinely lively. Naturally, then, in Mid mode it lands somewhere in between. I used all three modes while driving the various sections of my test loop and averaged 29.6 mpg, beating the EPA’s estimate of 28 mpg in combined driving.
When driving the Clubman in the city, it takes time to get used to the swell of low-rpm engine torque. Occasionally, depending on traffic patterns and how the 6-speed transmission is operating, you’ll land right in the thick of it and surge forward faster than you might expect.
Still, the automatic works well and offers a Sport calibration along with manual shifting. Too bad the manual shift pattern is counterintuitive, though I assume that you eventually get used to remembering that in order to downshift you push forward, or up, on the gear selector, and vice versa.
As far as driving dynamics are concerned, MINI gets the suspension tuning exactly right. This car is taut, athletic, and enjoyable to toss around. The ride never feels stiff, though sharper impacts are reported to the cabin like rifle shots. The driver also has a clear line of communication with regard to road-surface texture, the tires delivering different levels of sizzle that are sometimes accompanied by various buzzes from within the cabin.
You’re not going to gather much information from the Clubman’s numb and resolute steering, though. Gratefully, it doesn’t exhibit loose play or excessive resistance to inputs, which makes it much easier and more pleasurable to drive this MINI, but not quite fun.
Similarly, the brake pedal feels a little bit hesitant right at the top of its travel, but this characteristic is inconsistently present. Otherwise, the pedal feels natural, and the brakes are easy to modulate, bringing the Clubman to a speedy stop.
So, does the Clubman drive as promised, like a go-cart? Most of the time, on most of the roads you’ll travel, no, though selecting Sport mode sure makes it more enjoyable. I’m assuming you would need to get a more powerful Cooper S if you really wanted to plaster a smile across your face.
Form and Function
Moving on to the main reason I wanted to review the new Clubman, I learned that this is a MINI that can serve a family. Know, however, that you’re probably going to need to get a car-top carrier for road trips.
The front seats are small but supportive and prove comfortable on longer trips. My test car’s black leatherette doesn’t breathe well, though, so on hot and sweaty summer days, you should plan to remain that way, especially if you opt for the panoramic sunroof, which bakes the cabin with solar heating.
The rear seat is snug for adults, but the cushion sits up high off the floor, and MINI softly pads the front seatbacks to improve comfort for knees and shins. There is enough room for kids, though I suspect that fitting a rear-facing child seat could prove just as challenging as stuffing a stroller into the cargo area does.
Contributing most to rear-seat discomfort is the hard, thinly padded cushion and the lack of thigh support. Adults sitting in this location will find comfort levels akin to sitting on the rental cushions provided by the Hollywood Bowl for the cheap seats, the wooden benches ringing the upper half of the venue. In other words, after a short time, your butt will hurt.
Around back, MINI retains the Clubman’s barn-style cargo doors, and you can pop them open using the key fob. Press once to power open the right door, and press again to power open the left door. A hands-free function is an option, and don’t forget that when closing the doors, the left one always goes first.
Behind the rear seat, the Clubman offers a total of 17.5 cubic feet of cargo space, a measurement that includes the storage tray beneath the trunk’s load floor. That’s more than any midsize sedan, but less than a Kia Soul, let alone a VW Golf SportWagen, which swallows 30.4 cubic feet of cargo behind the rear seat. If you fold the Clubman’s rear seats down, it can accommodate 47.9 cubic feet of cargo. That’s still less than a Soul and far short of a VW Golf SportWagen, which supplies 66.5 cubic feet of volume.
A 40/20/40-split folding rear seat is an option and proves a useful one if you plan to carry anything long in the car. You might also find it helpful for carrying a stroller, because even the compact folding kid-carrier that I normally use as a photo prop didn’t fit that well into the Clubman’s trunk.
MINI’s previously whimsical image made its hallmark instrumentation and control layout a design quirk inherent to the car’s identity. Now, what with MINI all grown up and mature, the controls come across as a jumbled mess.
Too often, I needed to look away from the road to find and use something. Too often, I needed to consciously think about how something worked, adding to driver distraction. Even something as simple as using the washer jets to clean the windshield turned into a comedy of errors.
Previously, MINI’s undeniable charm and cheekily humorous branding made it hard to criticize the car for such failings, because MINI clearly did not take itself all that seriously. Now, MINI’s maturation forces closer consideration of the Clubman’s ergonomic foibles, of which there are several.
MINI Connected is basically a stylized version of parent company BMW’s iDrive infotainment technology.
The controls are tucked down on the center console, and they provide access to the system’s main menu, supply short cuts to commonly used sub-menus, and facilitate both menu-item selection and command execution. The primary control knob even has a flat surface that supports handwriting recognition technology, or you can provide voice commands to control the system.
Over time, you get acclimated enough to use this setup without looking down and away from the road, using your fingertips to identify the knob and buttons by touch and your memory to recall which button does what. This takes awhile. Given how close the display screen is to the driver, it sure seems as though MINI Connected ought to employ a touch-sensing display in addition to hard keys, handwriting recognition, and voice control.
My test car had the upgraded 8.8-inch display screen and a navigation system but lacked Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone projection technology. It resides in the space once reserved for MINI’s gigantic center-mounted speedometer, a plate-size thing of beauty. Technological requirements have forced out that retro-themed identity mark, but I can’t help but think that MINI is missing an opportunity to use the large, round center-dashboard design element in a more creative manner.
Given the Clubman’s potential role as a family vehicle, MINI doesn’t tout the safety features that are increasingly expected by modern car buyers. In fact, it took me a long time to figure out that this car is offered with a forward-collision warning system with automatic emergency braking. Perhaps that’s because it will cost you $6,250 to install it.
Using MINI’s website, spec the Clubman with the Fully Loaded Package (a prerequisite for the important safety stuff), and then skip the Safety & Handling menu and go straight to Technology for the nebulously named Active Driving Assistant. This isn’t some Tesla-style AutoPilot thing. Click the little “i” to get more information, scroll down, and you’ll eventually find this little nugget of wisdom: “If you somehow do get too close to an obstacle ahead, a warning will automatically be triggered—and then your brakes.”
Given how automatic emergency braking technology has demonstrated its effectiveness at preventing collisions, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, you’d think MINI might want to call greater attention to the system’s availability.
What you can’t get (as far as I can tell) is a blind-spot warning system, rear cross-traffic alert, or a lane-departure warning system with lane-keeping assist. I also could not find any evidence of connected services such as automatic collision notification or safe teen-driver features like speed, curfew, and boundary alerts. But hey, MINI offers an optional parking-assist feature that autonomously steers the still diminutive car into a space for you. So there’s that.
If you’re hoping that crash-test ratings will convince you that it’s cool to put your kids in this car, you’re going to need to wait. Neither the federal government nor the IIHS has run a Clubman into barriers in order to see what happens. The MINI Hardtop’s impressive performance does point in a positive direction, though.
When you buy a MINI Clubman, you’re paying for style and for heritage. As such, any value ascribed to the Clubman is mainly related to how it looks, how MINI allows buyers to custom-tailor the car to specific preferences, to the image associated with the MINI brand name, and to the car’s nimble driving characteristics.
Practical considerations do make somewhat of a traditional value case for the Clubman. Scheduled maintenance is free for the first 3 years or 36,000 miles of ownership. The Clubman effortlessly returned 29.6 mpg in combined driving, besting its official EPA rating. Also, this MINI is bigger than any to come before it.
Nevertheless, parent company BMW is pushing the MINI brand firmly into a premium position. That’s the reason for the new grown-up-and-serious marketing approach, one that could be backfiring given that MINI is discounting the 2016 Clubman by as much as $2,500 as this review is written.
The reason could also be that the Clubman doesn’t resonate with the very audience that should be crazy about the car. I’m a big MINI fan. I’m also a family man. I should adore the new Clubman. But I don’t.
From the company’s shift away from its smart-aleck brand position emphasizing fun and good times to this car’s apparent lack of key infotainment, connected service, and safety technologies, the new, grown-up, and more mature Clubman is a disappointment. And this disappointment makes it harder to accept any MINI’s inherent flaws, from its haphazard control layout to its lack of interior space.
Still, this new Clubman is undeniably stylish, is actually somewhat practical as a family car, and as a week spent with the base trim’s turbocharged 3-cylinder engine has proven, it is no longer necessary to upgrade to the Cooper S in order to experience something resembling acceleration.
Is MINI’s new recipe right for you? That likely depends on the importance you place on style and heritage.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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