By Chris Haak
Would you pay $30,000 for an economy car? How about $30,000 for a small car that happens to be economical? The 2008 Mini Cooper Clubman that I’ve spent the past week with had an MSRP of $29,700, but unlike most small cars, had very few parts inside that I’d call ‘cheap.’ In fact, it had some features that I’d call upscale, such as leather seats, an oversize sunroof, and LED accent lighting.
In our current environment of unprecedented (until this year) high fuel prices, with new car buyers in the US suddenly considering small cars (and trading in full-size pickups and SUVs to buy one, in some cases), it stands to reason that buyers accustomed to luxury features such as leather seats, navigation systems, and premium stereos will not want to forego the availability of those options when downsizing their daily driver. Premium small cars are probably one of the next big growth segment, on the heels of the compact luxury crossover segment (Acura RDX, Mercedes-Benz GLK, BMW X3, Infiniti EX35, etc.) that has grown briskly as buyers have migrated from larger crossovers and SUVs.
The Mini Cooper (and its Clubman variant, which I tested) obviously has a unique shape. It is yet another neo-retro tribute to a successful older model, such as the VW New Beetle, the Ford Mustang (and earlier Thunderbird of the late 1990s), and Fiat 500. Like these other re-born classics, the new Mini is far less mini than its predecessor. It’s still a compact car (though not a subcompact, according to the EPA), and doesn’t have the park-anywhere convenience of the Smart ForTwo or the original Mini, but the Clubman is larger inside than most people expect. Parking it in my garage’s normal spot, there’s far more room to maneuver around the car than there is with most vehicles I park there, including a typical midsize sedan. I really liked the looks of my test vehicle, thanks to its tasteful color combination. The main color was Hot Chocolate Metallic (a $500 extra), with silver accents on the C-pillar and roof. It took the tone of a more mature Mini Cooper, which seemed appropriate for an “old” 33 year old guy like me, married with two sons. The Clubman is still a “coupe,” but there is an extra Saturn Ion-type half-door on the passenger side to allow easier ingress/egress for rear seat passengers. It’s difficult to access the rear seat even with the extra half-door, and impossible to open that door without first opening the front door. Cargo access occurs via two side-hinged rear panel doors fitted with hydraulic assists, which keeps them from slamming shut unexpectedly. Although each door has its own handle, the right door must be opened before the left door, and the right door will not latch without closing the left door first (the left door latches into the floor, while the right door latches into the left door). My test car was fitted with 16″ aluminium wheels and performance tires, which look bigger than 16 inches on a small car, and also had chrome exterior mirrors, a chrome grille, chrome trim around the headlights and foglights, and a chrome exhaust tip. Overall, the exterior was a blend of sporty, cute, and glitzy – it worked for me, though it’s not exactly what I’d call a “manly” ride. The Mini Cooper S or John Cooper Works probably fit that bill better.
The interior isn’t large, but it’s more than large enough for someone without children, or with small children who don’t need convertible car seats or boosters.I had a few friends comment that they don’t see how I can fit into the car (I’m 6’4″), but without anyone in the back seat, there is plenty of headroom and legroom for people of my height or even taller. When a finite amount of legroom has to be shared between front and rear passengers, it was just possible for me to “sit behind myself” in the back seat after adjusting the front seat to a position with my knees just about touching the dash. While it would be an uncomfortable ride and I wouldn’t want to do it for a long trip, it is possible – and that’s something not possible for me in a standard-length Mini Cooper. For reference purposes, I can do this in a Honda Fit (both 2008 and 2009 models) and several other small cars as well.
The interior was probably the best and worst part of the car. On the plus side, the extra money that Mini charges for its cars (about $3,500 more for a 2008 base model Clubman against a 2008 base model Honda Fit when using TrueDelta.com to account for feature differences) gets a soft dashboard and door panels, chrome trim, and a unique design. My test vehicle was equipped with several expensive option packages that (in true BMW fashion) really rang up the price, but managed to make the car a more comfortable vehicle in which to spend time. These included $2,000 for Leather Lounge Hot Chocolate seats – also heated, $1,500 for the Convenience Package (leather wrapped steering wheel, rain sensing wipers, Bluetooth phone integration, and iPod interface), $1,500 for the Premium Package (dual pane panoramic sunroof, automatic air conditioning, and upgraded stereo), $1,500 for the Sport Package (16″ alloy wheels, sport suspension, sport seats, and fog lamps), $500 for Xenon headlamps, and a few others here and there. The bottom line was an un-economy car-like $29,700 including destination. The interior was really nice, though – very comfortable seats, nice, thick steering wheel, programmable LED lighting behind the door pulls and above the center console, and nice colors and textures throughout. I’ve driven more expensive cars that didn’t have the quality of materials that the Clubman did.
The downside, though, is that with this being Mini, the high style (as well as a hat-tip to the original Mini’s quirks) seemed to win over sound function and ergonomics in most battles inside the car. For instance, the ridiculously large speedometer (about 9″ diameter) is ridiculously far from the driver, smack-dab in the center of the dash. Further, it only has 10 mile per hour increments, with only 20 mile per hour numbering intervals (most cars have increments twice as frequently). The tachometer is seemingly attached to the steering column, again, old-school style, and also has a small configurable LED display showing distance to empty, fuel economy (I averaged a respectable 30.0 miles per gallon during my week with the car with no highway driving; the car is rated at 28 city/37 highway), ambient temperature, and time of day. The display can also, helpfully, display the current speed digitally, which is far easier than looking away from the road at the center-mounted speedometer. Other ergonomic foibles include the placement and operation of audio controls (the display is at the bottom of the speedometer readout; the volume knob is about six inches below the display on the center stack, and the tuning knob isn’t really a tuning knob) and the operation of the parking brake, which crashes into the optional armrest when applying it. Further, the traditional toggle switches for so many functions (fog lights, dome lights, power windows, door locks, etc.) aren’t very conveniently located. Speaking of power windows, like many vehicles with frameless windows, the windows drop down about a half inch when opening the door, then go back the same distance when the door has been closed. Most of the time this worked as designed, but at least four or five times, I mysteriously noticed that the driver’s window was cracked open when the car was parked and locked in the driveway. After a half hour of sitting in the car and trying to get the window to index itself upward as designed, I gave up and ended up clambering out of the car from the passenger side (the power window functionality never stopped working). The next morning, when I expected the window not to index, it worked perfectly, and did all subsequent times.
Driving the Clubman was about the easiest experience I’ve ever had behind the wheel. My six-speed manual-equipped test car would probably be the perfect vehicle for a new driver (or at least one new to three-pedal driving) to learn the craft with. Clutch action was light, the takeup point was exactly where you’d expect it to be. Further, although shift throws were slightly longer than expected, the gearbox shifted more smoothly and accurately than any front wheel drive car not called a Honda (and Honda’s six-speed manual has taken a few black eyes – third gear pop-outs, anyone? – lately anyway). Having a small, efficient car equipped with a six-speed manual helps both performance and fuel economy, and probably adds only a small cost penalty. I was shocked to see that the Clubman only has a 1.6 liter, 118-horsepower four cylinder; from the seat of my pants, it felt far quicker than a Corolla with the 132-horsepower four and four-speed automatic that I drove a few months ago. Part of that is probably due to the Mini’s lightweight mantra, while part can be attributed to the six-speed transmission. I won’t use the “driving a go-kart” cliche, but – especially with the sport button pressed, which sharpens both steering and throttle programming – the car was a hoot to hurl around my favorite back road haunt, as long as the engine was above 3,000 RPMs and happily humming along.
So, is America ready for an expensive compact car? Mini sales still aren’t strong in terms of absolute numbers, with just 36,932 sold through August 31 (compared to 209,554 Corollas and 56,853 Fits), but Corolla sales are down 12.4% year to date, while Mini sales are up 32.3% during the same period. With some of the fastest sales growth rates in the industry, plus a great-driving, fuel efficient, safe, comfortable (if small) car, it appears that Mini may be at the leading edge of a new trend. One thing is for sure, I’ve never had more fun with a car, yet still returned 30 miles per gallon. Maybe that’s not worth $30,000, but it’s sure worth something.
COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved