MF 1st Drive: MINI Clubman Cooper S

The MINI Clubman is not the MINI reinvented. It’s not Americanized, supersized, or dumbed in any way. Instead what we have in the Clubman is the largest, most spacious MINI possible that still looks and performs like a MINI.

Yes the Clubman has more rear legroom and cargo space. 3.1 inches of extra legroom and 6.3 inches of extra storage space in the boot. That, along with various space saving nooks and crannies give the Clubman decidedly more versatility than the hardtop R56 MINI. But MINI was serious about creating something special inside the Clubman as well. The rear interior of the car (from the B-pillar forward it’s identical to the R56) was designed by the same interior designer who created the current interiors for Rolls Royce. While the quality of components may not be the same (no surprises there) the attention to detail and craftsmanship is obvious.

But there’s something else that is also evident in the design of the Clubman (or R55 as it’s internally referred to by BMW). It’s almost hard to put your finger on. The car has character (for lack of a better term) that seems to create an endearing connection the moment you open those rear doors. From the scale of the barn-doors to the finger action it takes to open them, there’s something uniquely MINI that’s hard to quantify about this car. Something that is truly different yet practical. It seems as if every unique feature of the car is almost unexpected and in turn creates special first experience.

The rear (or business end if you will) of the Clubman does have a few surprises for the uninitiated. For starters the cargo floor at first appears quite high. What MINI has done is raise the height of the floor to allow for a completely flat cargo bay when the rear seats are folded down. And under the floor is a surprising amount of extra storage. But the reveals don’t stop there. If you have a Clubman Cooper S (and in turn no spare), you can lift up the hidden compartment floor to reveal even more storage space. In fact this space is big enough to potentially fit a space-saver spare if you relocate the tool kit. One downside, the rear cargo cover is a little fussy to operate. It would appear that it’s as much production tolerances as it is the design however.

The club door on the right side of the car was also a pleasant surprise. While it’s surely going to help with getting people in and out of the car, I would guess that it would be used for accessing cargo as much if not more often. A notion backed up by MINI’s original plans for the door. And that being the case, I’m almost jealous of the UK owners who have the door on the driver side.

Operation of the door is second nature once you learn where the door pull is. Surprisingly I never had any issue with the seat belt getting tangled in my feet upon entry or exit as it’s pulled well out of the way once the door slides open. The Clubman also seems to be quite a bit more rigid than other cars with similar features. The RX8 comes to mind as one example where you slam the door and the entire side of the car seems to reverberate. While you do get a little of that with the Clubman, it’s dramatically lessened by the body’s reinforcements and already great torsional rigidity of the MINI chassis.

The Clubman is also endowed with all the things that make the current MINI coupe such a great car to live with. The perfect seating position and excellent visibility is here despite barn door pillar (something I zoneed out within minutes). And the rear seats are quite comfortable once you’ve made your way back there. The long lower cushion sucks you and offers surprisingly comfortable accommodations. However if you have to be in the back of the R55 for long periods of time I’d suggest the left seat. It has a bit more elbow room (the club-door encroaches on the right site) and an gorgeous panoramic view out the left side rear window.

Driving the Clubman is like driving a MINI Coupe with 160 lbs person next to you. Add in a dash of extra stability and you’re almost there. On the highway the Clubman has a better propensity to soak up road irregularities than the coupe. It’s also more stable and deliberate in it’s motion. All great attributes and surely welcome by more than a few would be Clubman owners. However it is those very characteristics that handicap the Clubman when it comes to matching the go-kart like feel of the coupe.

Taking the Clubman through a nearly empty Highway 1 (and Nacimiento-Fergusson Rd – a highlight of the day) south of Monterey exposed these differences between the two cars. Due to the extra weight and wheel-base length, the R55 has a tendency to lack some of the attributes that make the Coupe such a joy in the twisties. Specifically there’s a lack of immediacy that more than a few MINI enthusiasts will notice. It seems just slightly less eager and playful in the tight stuff than the R56 and in turn a bit more deliberate upon initial turn in. While the R55 unquestionably still feels like a modern MINI, it’s a little more grown up in it’s cornering attitude. Where the R56 (and certainly the R53) can feel light and twitchy, the Clubman seems to be just as fast while being a little more composed.

I think this slight tweak of character suits the R55 well though. With the Clubman you get almost all of the feel and performance of the coupe with added space for both passengers and luggage. Any performance disadvantage with the Clubman goes almost unnoticed on most roads. It’s only at the track, auto-cross or on demanding roads where the extra size and weight reveal themselves.

When you look at the numbers on paper, it gets even more impressive. The Clubman scores identical 0-60 times and MPG figures to the coupe. At around $2000 over the standard MINI, it’s hard to imagine the Clubman not being successful in the US market especially. Here you have a car that partially eliminates the single largest issue that keeps potential owners from away from a MINI – lack of space.

I drove both an automatic and manual Clubman S and, while the manual was clearly the more fun of the two, I found the auto to be surprisingly good on the road. The last time I had an auto Cooper S was at the coupe press launch last year at Firebird racetrack just outside of Phoenix. To put it bluntly, it was a complete disaster. The car wouldn’t downshift reliably and wouldn’t up-shift timely. But on the road (with the sport button on) I never once had an issue with the transmission. I still wouldn’t consider it over the manual but it’s nice to know that it can approach (gasp…) fun on public roads.

Throughout my time with the Clubman I had the opportunity to ask a number of questions of the Clubman’s exterior designer Markus Syring who was also my co-pilot for the day. I found Markus to be an exceedingly humble man who had an obvious passion for cars and MINI’s in particular. Here’s a man who has designed the Z3 M convertible, Z3 M coupe and E46 M3 who genuinely seemed to prefer designing for the MINI brand. Not only does he drive a Clubman himself but he also has a classic in the garage. This is the kind of designer that should make MINI owners feel good about the future of the brand.

Markus also shed some light on the development of the car. One of the most revealing facts; the Clubman was the easiest car he’s ever worked on. The BMW board loved the concept and approved it at record pace. The result is a car that hasn’t deviated from the original concept first sketched in 2000. And it’s a design that works exceptionally well in person.

Originally Markus created several different iterations of the Clubman with three distinctly different rear configurations. The version that won out and we see on the road today had the most luggage space and rear legroom. It also was the biggest departure from the shape of the MINI coupe with rear barn-doors and a completely squared-off rear.

It’s important to note what the Clubman is not. While I’d consider it ideal for a small family (one young child is probably the most you’d want to tote in the R55 long-term) anyone expecting to comfortably fit adults (or older children) in the back is in for a rude awakening. And while the car has a substantial more storage than the coupe, it’s still not at the level of utility of a four door Golf for example. It is however, more practical than the BMW 1 Series coupe. While it may have a touch less rear legroom, it has an enormous advantage in cargo space and rear seat accessibility.

Yet I can’t help but think of the car as an unqualified success. What MINI has done is create the largest vehicle they could that still handles and accelerates like the MINI we all know. They seemingly have pushed the chassis and the concept of a MINI to the limit in terms of what a MINI should feel like. And I’m happy to say it’s still a MINI

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Clubman Q&A

If there are further questions about the Clubman you’d like to see answered, ask them below and we’ll try to answer them in our upcoming R55 Q&A story later this week.

  • Vanwall

    Insightful and informative. Excellent review!

  • DB

    Excellent write up as usual. Didn’t think the floor in back folded flat tho, so that is very good to hear.

  • great review gabe – thanks. out of all the current gen MINIs this car is my fave. i had the honor of being part of a focus group nearly two years ago and got up close and personal with this car (albeit not drivable) and instantly feel in love with it. can’t wait to finally drive one.

  • Wonderful review! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    I think it’s worth mentioning/repeating your statement: “anyone expecting to comfortably fit adults (or older children) in the back is in for a rude awakening.” Truth be told- this is what I was the most interested in…how MINI designers/engineers utilized the space from the extended wheelbase. It appears that the space was geared (slightly) more towards useable (cargo) space and a little less “people-carrying.” I wonder if the MINI SUV/SAV will try to answer this on the other end of the spectrum?

    One question: Was the split in the window that noticeable/distracting? I’m sure that is another area of conern for many readers.

    As always, great job!

  • Jason

    Thank you for the review.

    Question: Any word if they ever plan on offering a white roof option?

  • Chris:

    One question: Was the split in the window that noticeable/distracting? I’m sure that is another area of conern for many readers.

    I test drove (and put an order in) this past Saturday. I literally forgot everything I read about the split. I had to remind myself later that it was a concern. It must have disappeared during the test drive.

  • c4

    Interesting that you did not make mention of the rear visibility with the barn doors closed. Perhaps it didn’t bother you at all. In all European reviews of the Clubman (Including those of your homologue over at MINI2, Paul Mullett) seemed to be bothered by the rear post dead smack on the center of the rear view mirror.

    I am also optimistic about your positive comments regarding the automatic in the Clubman S. In fact, this is the first time I read/hear you saying anything favorable about the AISIN slushbox.

    We are still confident this car will help accomodate the needs of our growing family. From here, I don’t see the Clubman having a problem handling the duties demanded upon a family “truckster”.

    Overall, enjoyed the review. I should be getting my Clubman by the end of the week.

  • Evan

    Thank you for your driving impressions. I’ll be going this week to drive it for myself.

    In reference to the rear cargo hold- the platform that allows a flat load space when the rear seats are folded is quite nice b/c 1) it folds up exposing a deeper cargo area and 2) it can be removed. The latter is the best because it opens up the entire well for the larger cargo area. Plus, as you mentioned, that spare tire well is huge. In person, the R55 seems to be able to swallow so much more. Plus, like the R56 the rear area is now fully carpeted- much more classy than my R50’s plastic.

    Rear seat space does seem to benefit from the full 3 inches in wheelbase for legroom. It is noticeably better than the standard coupe. But, it is still a MINI, so it’s no 3er or Civic back there.

    Question: Did you get to drive cars with and without sport suspension? I’m hoping to get a bit more of an edge over the standard without the good but expensive for my budget JCW suspension. I’ll never track the car, but do enjoy “spirited” back road runs….

    Thank you as always Gabe. Can’t wait to drive the R55 this week!

  • MeanMrMstrd

    Chris, I drove an “S” manual version this weekend out here in LA LA Land with the SoCal MINI Maniacs. I still dislike the Barn Doors, though they are cute, but a hatch would have been so much better. The center pillars are distracting and even claustrophobic but not as bad as I thought they might be vision wise. The vision out the back is no worse than my wife’s A4, well maybe a little.

    It felt like the steering was controlled by HAL/9000, of Space Odyssey fame, but I’d buy one if I needed a wagon, which I may. The power is so different from my ’04 MCS. Very, very smooth, refined and for a family wagon it would be fine, but if I wanted that MINI feel that I’m used to, R53 wise, it’s not there, for me.

    All my observations are from a short 10 minute drive and not a extended ride like Gabe got.

  • Ketan

    Great review. Do you know the timeline for Aero kit and stage 1 kit for clubman.

  • James

    Great review.

    We tested out a Britax Boulevard convertible child seat facing both forward and backward in the backseat of the Clubman last weekend. We also tested out an Evenflow bucket style (where the base stays attached to the seat). In our test, we used live, squirming subjects. Getting one kid in and out will be a breeze with the clubdoor. Getting two in and out won’t be as easy.

  • As James mentioned, the car seats fit fine. Ours was a Graco rear-facing infant seat. It was really easy to get in and out. The best surprise was that our huge BOB running stroller fit perfectly in the trunk. The Mini Pittsburgh sales guys were surprised, too. They came out and took pictures of us getting all this stuff in and out.

  • nuvolari

    My side by side comparison of a Clubman and R56 at the SF auto show led me to conclude that the Clubman really offered no significant imprpvement in terms of functional interior space. The additional seat/legroom in the rear was barely noticable, and I was hard pressed to imagine how I would use the extra few cubic feet of boot space. I’ve carried my two kids in MINIs since they were 1 and 3 (6 and 8 now) and found the R50/53 to be a perfect kid carrier. And because I can load skis or a full complement of windsurf gear in the back of my R53, I don’t see why I would want anything longer. Am I missing something here?

  • Greg

    Was prepared to hate it. Saw it, liked it. Was even surprised. Not for me but for alot of people it’s perefect.

  • J/C

    Okay, now I’m willing to take a second look at one of these, especially because of my road trips from SoCal to the land of aromatic wild onions.

  • c4

    Nuvolari. While I agree the R53 is a great kid carrier, you are missing the point in one very important aspect… Rear legroom. My 16 month old boy is a pretty tall toddler for his age (He can easily be picked for a 2-3 year old kid)and he already is kicking the front seat. The problem is only made worse by the fact that the car seat makes them seat higher over the rear seat cushion.

    When kids ride forward facing, and as they grow, their legs/feet begin to kick the back of the front seats. This, overtime, will drive you insane especially on long drives.

    Those extra few inches of rear legroom of the Clubman, will better accomodate for growing feet and make the ride more comfortable to all.

    In terms of cargo space, 5.4 Cubic feet can only give you so much. Even 9.2 cubic feet in the Clubman’s trunk, while pales in comparison to say a new VW Rabbit/GTI, is still a huge improvement IMHO.

    Every little inch of space that you can squeeze out of the MINI interior, goes a long way in making the car better suited for family duty.

    Lest not forget the longer wheelbase of the Clubman, makes it a smoother riding car, without the choppiness found in the standard hardtops.

    While I love my R53 and plan to hold on to it for a very long time, the Clubman is a welcome addition to the garage. As so eloquently put by Suni on an earlier post, the Clubman will allow my growing family to continue to experience the fun and thrills of the MINI brand.

  • c4

    Also the Clubdoor, makes rear access much more comfortable. My 76 year old mom, should be able to climb up to the rear seat more comfortably than ever before. (She is remarkably good physical shape for her age, you could never tell she is that old. She walks better than any 30-40 year old would. She climbs to the rear seat of my R53 with the flexibility of a young person.)

    There are advantages to the Clubman, no doubt about it. But if you are happy with your R53 and it serves you well, perhaps those $30K for a new Clubman can be better put to use elsewhere.

  • ontheroadagain

    I had just finished listening to White Roof Radio’s take on the Clubman MCS Auto (quite negative on the auto transmission), so it was great to find your review here – because it confirmed my own! What a difference a point of view makes, eh? Nice write up and interesting bit of behind the scenes history regarding design, etc.!

    I test drove the MC Clubman Auto on Saturday in Stamford and thought it was really quite wonderful. Not having driven the “new” automatic before, as I’ve got a CVT , I was very happy with this newer auto – no more hesitation from stand stills, etc. And unlike some others, I found the difference in legroom in the back to be quite worth mentioning. I’m 5’9″ and I am the driver of our current MC…either our 18 year old daughter or my husband gets to sit in the back if we’re all traveling someplace together, so one of the reasons I have been really interested in this car is the increased room it was touted to have. Setting my driver’s seat in my normal position, which in the MC makes it truly impossible for anyone to sit behind me, I then climbed in the back and found that I could easily sit behind the driver’s seat with plenty of room – the whole back seat area seemed much roomier, as well.

    Planning on going back for a second look with someone who’s not so ready to fall in love…but I have to say that I think that the Clubman is going to be very successful – for all the same reasons that Gabe has mentioned. It has just that bit of “more room” but it’s still very much a MINI.

    And here I was thinking of testing a Volvo C30. 😉

  • c4

    The Whiteroofradio guys are stick shift snobs 😉

  • lavardera

    You’re right, they are, and almost as bad as the R53 snobs – toohey!

  • GregW

    I have to agree with Gabe’s write-up, having just seen the real deal. I will forgive the design feature of the rear door in RHD markets. One thing I don’t like is the design of the roof with the raised edges. Overall it is a welcome addition to the MINI family.

  • c4

    Or the R56 snobs for that matter!

  • Glenn

    I finally got to see one in person at the DC Auto Show and I was surprised I liked the Clubman as much as I did. I’m almost ready to go drive one, but I wonder about its “parkability”. The reason I bought a MINI in the first place was to be able to squeeze it into tight spots on city streets. All that extra length sort of seems to defeat that purpose.

  • ontheroadagain

    Ah, thanks for the feedback about those “stick shift snobs”! 😉 I understand it. I am a recovered snob myself, but after tearing and repairing my rotator cuff I’ve been born again as a thankful auto driver. It’s such a great thing to be open to change, isn’t it?

    About that roof – in case anyone’s interested apparently the new roof rack does not have to be drilled in (no more plugs) but clips in…and is removable (according to the website, though one of the MAs at my dealership said they were not easy to remove??) perhaps that’s part of the reasoning for the roof line?

  • Matt

    Just test drove the car a couple hours ago… I think it has more “presence” that the normal cooper. It has a quirky, fun, and great look to it. I did not find the barn door rear visiblity issue to be a “deal breaker.” Yes, it does block visibility, but it’s not like you won’t notice a car behind you. I would say get park distance control and you’ve eliminated half of anyone’s concerns. Finally, like Gabe said, don’t expect to be amazed by the amount of rear legroom unless the front passenger or driver is moved well-forward. I will say that when they are, the back seat is very roomy.

  • James

    Sunil is right… our evenflo stroller fit, as well. We had to rotate it so it was on it’s side, but it fit nonetheless!

  • In our market, the flat loadbed will be an option, not standard.

  • Calogero

    Sounds really interesting. Not sure if I’m sold on it just yet.

    Will have to see how it plays out of the next year or so.

    Nice write up once again.

  • TC

    Good review. I must say I was pleasantly surprised when I got to see it at the Chicago auto show. I even liked the hot chocolate color. I cannot help but notice that the overall “tone” of the article isn’t nearly as excited as you were with the 135i. With the price of a very loaded JCW MCS hitting the 40 mark, it is going to be tough not to do the BMW.

  • agranger

    How long until someone builds a hidden subwoofer into the rear compartment under the floor?

  • c4

    Not long. I can see all sorts of wacky custom Clubmans popping up in the months ahead… Panel van replicas, rear seat deletes, Woody surfing nostalgia themed wagons, chrome hubcaps and whitewheel tires…Just kidding!

  • Vanwall

    Out of curiosity, what’s the Cx on the Clubman compared to the Coupe? Dr Kamm would love that rear-end, I think. Longer chassis should give it better aerodynamics, I seem to remember.

  • beken

    I took a Clubman out for a testdrive last weekend and was rather impressed. I think your review, especially your driving impressions were spot on, though I did not drive the automatic. My wife loves the barn doors and the clubdoor made ingress and egress to the rear seats workable without having to move the front seat forward.
    The seatbelt not getting caught was something I didn’t even notice. But once you pointed it out, I went “oh yeah!”. So they certainly paid attention to the details.

    One thing not mentioned is a bit of tunnelvision in the rearview mirror. Certainly not a big matter as it was nowhere near as bad as the convertible’s. In fact, though noticeable, I felt it rear visibility was even better than the Cadillac CTS’ gunslit view out the rear.

    The car also looked much better in person than in pictues. My general opinion was if the Clubman were available when I bought my 05 MCS, I probably would have bought a Clubman just for the increased versatility with very little sacrifice in handling agility.

  • Great review, can’t wait for another drive in mine!

  • billy

    I am taking delivery of my new MINI Cooper Clubman on Saturday. Can’t wait! Although I am sad to be trading in my MG ZR I was mightily impressed with the Clubman, and I agree with almost all your review. A lot has been said about the Clubdoor being on the “wrong” side (I am in the UK where of course we drive on the left), I see it as a great advantage to be on the drivers’ side: so convenient for getting your goods or bags in and out. After all, passenger access to the back seat is just the same as on the MINI Coupe, on the left hand side, so no problem.

    I predict that the Clubman will soon become the best selling of all MINIS.

  • Stuart

    This is a thoughtful and informative review. I had wanted a mini for two years but because I travel frequently with another person and a large dog I was reluctant to purchase one until the Clubman was announced. I take delivery in one week and am confident this car will be the perfect all rounder for my needs.

  • SFPhoto

    I second the comment about wanting a white roof. Would be nice to have Oxy Blue as a body color option too!


  • Alan

    Just for some balance here. Finally received my Clubman S 2 days ago (after months of waiting for special order, fully-loaded model – sport suspension, limited slip diff, leather, etc, etc). Well, to cut to the chase, I’ve driven it a couple of hundred miles and this afternoon placed an ad in the local paper to unload it. I really wanted to love this car but didn’t. The engines great; it handles nicely but, in my humble opinion, the ride is awful – it’s noisy (and I’m not talking about the sweet sounds from the engine, but road noise, tire noise), it acts like it came without shock absorbers at all (ride over a piece of thin cardboard and the rear end bounces 4″ in the air), it’s incredibly cramped (my fault, it IS a mini afterall), the transmission’s good but the throw between gears is way to long for me; the dash knobs look & feel & indeed are of cheap plastic, the fake wood on my dash would be at home in a seventies Buick; way too much electronic gizmo crap.

  • Alan

    Just for some balance here. Finally received my Clubman S 2 days ago (after months of waiting for special order, fully-loaded model – sport suspension, limited slip diff, leather, etc, etc). Well, to cut to the chase, I’ve driven it a couple of hundred miles and this afternoon placed an ad in the local paper to unload it. I really wanted to love this car but didn’t. The engines great; it handles nicely but, in my humble opinion, the ride is awful – it’s noisy (and I’m not talking about the sweet sounds from the engine, but road noise, tire noise), it acts like it came without shock absorbers at all (ride over a piece of thin cardboard and the rear end bounces 4″ in the air), it’s incredibly cramped (my fault, it IS a mini afterall), the transmission’s good but the throw between gears is way to long for me; the dash knobs look & feel & indeed are of cheap plastic, the fake wood on my dash would be at home in a seventies Buick; way too much electronic gizmo crap. On the plus side – it is a nice looking car (except for the really cheesy-looking black plastic honeycomb grille insert on the S version – a metal mesh would’ve been so much nicer). It is powerful – cruising in 6th gear at 60MPH you cab still step on the gas and have lots of acceleration even without downshifting). The leather is gorgeous, but the overall cheap-looking dash stuff really brings the interior down. Bottom line, for me – handles nice, looks good but too noisy and bouncy to live with every day.

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  • Billy

    I find Alan’s comments incredible, how can you properly assess the car in two days? And surely he’ll lose a lot of money selling it so quickly.

    I love my Clubman, best car I ever had, and that includes many premium marques such as Jaguar, Rover and Aston Martin! Of course, the MINI is not quite in the Aston league but at the age of 70 my needs have changed: now I want a high quality premium car but it has to be both small and economical but still fun.

    Only a MINI fits these requirements, just take a look at some of the Japanese and other far eastern horrors in this segment if you want proof!

  • DiggyDog

    I ordered mine last Saturday and I am eagerly awaiting delivery.

    I test-drove a MINI a few years back and you can imagine my disappointment when my little boy said “Daddy, I can;t put my feet on the floor!”.

    I looked back and, sure enough, his little feet wouldn;t fit between the front and back seats.

    I knew then and there that I could not get a MINI and I wondered why they couldn;t just move the back seat aft a few inches.

    I will miss my Maxima but all good things must come to an end.

    They say when one door closes, two barn doors open…

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  • Philm35

    I’ve test-driven the Clubman S twice now. Once with the sport suspension, and once without. The sport setup really enhances responsiveness and flatness through the turns, but it also adds serious harshness to the ride. The car jumps and jolts over road imperfections. Unless you are autocrossing your Clubman, I’d skip the sport suspension.

  • Jude

    I live in New England. How does it drive in the snow?

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