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MF Full Review: MINI Clubman Cooper S

The idea of bigger MINI can seem like an anomaly. For those not familiar with the car, the entire concept seems at odds with the brand. Why would anyone want a slightly larger MINI. At what point does a larger MINI become just another car? And if a larger MINI doesn’t reflect the character of the brand, how does BMW expect this car to be successful?

Luckily BMW had all this in mind (along with some good instincts) when designing and engineering the car. In my week with the Clubman I found that it does the unthinkable by offering more space but retaining 90% of what auto enthusiasts love about the MINI. The handling and feel that have always made the MINI feel so special is almost all there. And to anyone but the enthusiast, the difference is probably barely noticeable.

In return the Clubman offers up both extra space and a unique character that the MINI coupe doesn’t have. There’s a whimsical feel to the Clubman from the rear wipers to the hidden handle on the 3rd door. It’s the kind of car that you feel connected to on a level that belies what it really does – get you from point A to point B.

During my week with the Clubman S it was easy to forget I was in anything but a standard MINI coupe. Granted the press car supplied by MINI USA didn’t have many of the options I’m used to on my ’07 MINI Cooper S (Nav and the JCW goodies being the biggest omissions) it was still easy to forget about added size and extra doors. So close is the Clubman’s performance to the coupe that the extra size and heft isn’t really obviously in day to day city driving.

The doors themselves are probably what most people think about when they see car. The side door (or “Club door” as MINI calls it) is a fantastic addition as it makes the back seat much more usable. And when you introduce the concept of a full size adult sitting in the back, it becomes invaluable. Suddenly you have a MINI that is serviceable as a four seater. While it’s not a set-up that I would recommend for a cross-country trek from NYC to LA, it’s more than adequate for a night out or a quick trip across town.

The rear doors are probably a little more form over function. But the design and the look they give the car completely makes up for the fact that a normal hatch would have been a more efficient choice in terms of everyday use. In regards to design and character, this car would not be what it is without the barn doors. And once you get comfortable with their day to day use, you quickly forget about any other option.

One thing that does take some getting use to (from a MINI Coupe owner’s point of view) is how high the rear floor initially appears. While there are two levels of hidden storage areas, upon initial view it seems as if you were seriously short-changed some boot space. However all it takes is one long trip to learn to how to make use of it all.

All that aside this particular Clubman wasn’t perfect. For one, our press car came with one option that did a lot to make the experience less than ideal: an automatic transmission. As much as I feel it’s important to test an auto now and again, I couldn’t help but find the experience lacking in regards to the MINI experience. While the performance wasn’t terrible, it’s neither a dual clutch transmission nor a true manual. And unfortunately anything less in the mind of this enthusiast is a huge disappointment and (to put it plainly) a fun killer. We’ve written about our issues with this transmission in the past (and even did a podcast while on the track with an auto MCS) so I’m not going to repeat it all here. But the long and short of it is the character of the MINI is at odds with a torque converter style automatic.

Another issue I found with this example was a very obvious squeak coming from the “Club door” on the right side. It was an intermittent issue but noticeable enough to have several people comment on it from the passenger seat. Granted anytime you’ve got a press car with over 5,000 miles on it (I ended the test with around 5,500 on the odometer) you’ve got to expect some small issues here and there. These cars are beat to death by magazines and random unqualified journalists alike. And in general it’s worth noting that this car was probably the best built MINI I’ve ever spent time in.

Our Clubman S press car also came with the sport (with the sport suspension), premium, cold weather and convenience packages. It was an interesting combination in that it felt loaded but still had leatherette and no navigation present. Not my ideal spec but it offered up a good collection of options to consider.

The most useless option (yes this is IMHO) has to be the convenience package. I never really got use to the idea of not using a key to unlock or start the car. I tried to embrace the concept but it simply didn’t makes sense on any level. As a guy I have to put my keys somewhere and it’s not going to be in my pant’s pocket. Since I don’t carry a man purse I’m left with a jacket pocket (which I may or may not be wearing) or the cup-holder. And if the fob is sitting in the cup-holder why would I not just put it in the slot where it belongs? That said for someone who does carry a purse (most likely a women but I’m not here to judge) I can theoretically see how this concept could be valuable.

More than any other test car I’ve ever had I wanted to get feedback from non-MINI owners on the concept and the design. It’s unusual for a car-maker to bring something like the Clubman to market. It’s a low profit product that takes risks in both design and concept and I was curious how the public at large would view it. Generally speaking opinions were positive. There was a real curiosity with the doors and the space inside. While there were the expected (and in some ways just) “looks like a hearse” comments, it generally got favorable reviews for it’s design and utility. In fact it was that utility that seemed to pique the interest of more than a couple people who would have never seriously considered a MINI previously. And it’s that market that MINI is clearly aiming for with the Clubman.

So yes I’m a fan of the Clubman. It’s manages to be almost everything the MINI coupe is with more space and utility, not to mention a bit more funkiness. While the car is a success in the eyes of this enthusiast, it does something else that’s could be considered more important. The Clubman broadens the appeal of the MINI brand to a larger audience who demand more space and utility while not forsaking the core attributes of the brand. Ultimately more cars and models offered by the MINI means more a more financially stability and a potential for more reinvestment in the brand. Let’s just hope that any future MINI models can live up to what the Clubman has achieved.

For further thoughts on the 2008 MINI Clubman check out our initial review (where we go into detail on performance) below:

+ MF First Drive: MINI Clubman / MotoringFIle

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Written By: Gabe

  • http://vinreddy.blogspot.com vin.

    Nice write-up. As a former ’04 and current ’07 MCS owner and soon to be father, I find the Clubman very intriguing.

    I fear my MCS coupe may not last very long in our garage once the baby arrives and I’d love to be able to stay within the MINI brand. Did you get a chance to test-fit a baby seat during your time with the car?

  • http://www.smartboxusa.com/chicago GSKChicago
    The most useless option (yes this is IMHO) has to be the connivence package. I never really got use to the idea of not using a key to unlock or start the car. I tried to embrace the concept but it simply didn’t makes sense on any level. As a guy I have to put my keys somewhere and it’s not going to be in my pant’s pocket. Since I don’t carry a man purse I’m left with a jacket pocket (which I may or may not be wearing) or the cup-holder. And if the fob is sitting in the cup-holder why would I not just put it in the slot where it belongs? That said for someone who does carry a purse (most likely a women but I’m not here to judge) I can theoretically see how this concept could be valuable.

    I decided to go with the convenience package on my new 1er. Hopefully taking delivery this weekend I’ll get to see what it’s like. I have no doubt it will take getting used to – but I chose it mostly for the “convenience” it will provide in the winter not having to dig in my pocket for keys with gloves on, etc. Minor detail, but that’s when I expect I’ll be glad I have the feature. Spring/Fall/Summer – probably won’t care either way. We’ll see.

    Great review – as usual, great perspective!

  • http://widepipe.org Sunil
    The most useless option (yes this is IMHO) has to be the connivence package. I never really got use to the idea of not using a key to unlock or start the car. I tried to embrace the concept but it simply didn’t makes sense on any level. As a guy I have to put my keys somewhere and it’s not going to be in my pant’s pocket. Since I don’t carry a man purse I’m left with a jacket pocket (which I may or may not be wearing) or the cup-holder. And if the fob is sitting in the cup-holder why would I not just put it in the slot where it belongs? That said for someone who does carry a purse (most likely a women but I’m not here to judge) I can theoretically see how this concept could be valuable.

    I had this on my previous 3 Series and absolutely had to have it with my Clubman. After you get used to not ever taking out your keys, you can’t go back.

  • Vanwall

    Excellent write-up, Gabe, and an honest appraisal is worth much more than flack-speak. You’ve hit on the key point for me, tho – this iteration of MINI is as over-engineered as the original Mini, in a great way. It’s got amazing mileage combined with the kind of fantastic handling, a combo no other car has right out of the box. A buyer of a base Cooper, Clubman or otherwise, get’s a helluva deal in my opinion. As a tall person, I was big proponent of the barn doors from the beginning, having a lot of experience with them, and I’ll be appreciating them more than most, I suppose, but they are a useful alternative to ducking under a hatch. Again, great review!

  • Jon

    Great review Gabe.

    Think Mini is spot on with the Clubman, while I do understand the right hand club door may not be perfect for all markets it really does great things for the usability of the car. Think Mini also kept historical perspective while developing this car, which I do consider to be a very important consideration.

    I have no issues with BMW/Mini growing the brand. The Clubman is a unique design in the auto market, which continues what the Coupe has used to carve out its niche.

    Your last line is still my greatest concern with the brand, future models.

  • Drill

    Great review Gabe. Like vin., I’d also like to hear your impressions of the added space the Clubman provides over the Coupe when a baby/child enters into the equation.

  • http://www.motoringfile.com/ Gabe

    Great review Gabe. Like vin., I’d also like to hear your impressions of the added space the Clubman provides over the Coupe when a baby/child enters into the equation.

    Thanks. I didn’t try a baby seat but there’s little question that the Clubman could handle a one much better than the standard two-door let alone a MINI Coupe.

  • C4

    Gabe, excellent write up. I agree on all counts, except your views on the AISIN automatic. Granted, is not a DSG setup but it does work very well with the dynamics of the engine and I don’t find it to be a “fun killer” or the huge compromise you are making it out to be.

    It is OK not to like automatics. Some of us embrace them, some of us don’t. That is perfectly fine.

    Put in better words… It is OK to be a defacto “Stick shift snob” :)

    No problems here with the Club door in terms of squeaks or noises.

  • http://www.gominigo.com GoMiniGo

    As we are fortunate to be a two MINI family, my 02 MCS with 100k on it and the wife’s new Clubbie, I cannot help but to compare the two. Our Clubbie is almost exactly like the one Gabe reviewed, all four packages and auto. My thoughts are:

    The clubbie does much better gas mileage than my MCS. Yes, I have a pulley so mine is down a little but the Clubbie was doing 32+ at high middle-of-nowhere-Nevada speeds. At normal highway speeds, it was superb.

    The ride is much more refined and softer in the Clubbie. My 02 was built before the softening of the shocks. Mine takes bumps with a thud and jolt. The Clubman is smooth.

    Handling – I do not know if this is a R56 thing or not, but even with the sport suspension, the Clubman leans a LOT more than mine going around a corner. Enough that I feel a rear sway bar upgrade is mandatory which is something I have not done on mine.

    Space – wow. You can actually have adults in the back without sitting on their feet. The flat floor is very nice. Also, being able to hide things in the two lower areas is great. Plus, you can actually get something that is long into the back. The down sides – It is a long reach in to pull up the seats from the back even with helper straps. The flat floor can sag a little in the middle back because there is not enough support for it there when you have something heavy in the center back.

    Rear view with the split is a none issue. Yes, you do notice when first get in the car but it soon disappears from your mind.

    Acceleration – It is hard to tell but I think they are close to the same. The reall issue is noise. With my intake and exhaust, I hear supercharger whine and exhaust noise during acceleration which is pleasing notes to my ears. The clubman exhaust is fairly quiet so you hear engine noise. This is a harsh noise too. Not a turbo noise but more of a thrash noise. This is one area I am fairly disappointed in the car. Looks like an exhaust upgrade is in the future of the clubbie.

    Overall fit and finish – the Clubman is much tighter than mine. everywhere.

    I like the sport seats in the clubman better. They seem to fit me better. Same with the steering wheel.

    I wish the rear tailights were bigger on the Clubman. They just seem too small. I do like the barn doors and the split rear exhaust. These work very well with the rear end design.

    I tought I would hate the roof ridges but they too are a none issue.

    The Cluman is Laser Blue with Black roof and dark tinted windows. Looks very nice!

  • C4

    The Clubman can handle “larger” baby car seats because there is more shoulder room in the back and the roof is a bit taller. I can fit a Britax Boulevard in the Clubman, but the same seat would be a very tight fit in the back of the hardtops.

  • nuvolari

    Vin and Drill – Standard wheelbase Minis and kids mix just fine. I did two kids from 2/0 years through their current 6/8 and they are still perfectly comfortable in the R53. Access to carseats is no problem with the long doors and sliding front seats. My kids are self-servicing now, but back in the day I would just climb in facing back and sit on the folded seat back while adjusting straps and such. Really quite comfortable. I don’t see the extra 3″ of legroom or the suicide door being much help at all in dealing with car seats.

    And Gabe – nice write up, but you’re no Ezra Dyer. Loosen up, man! :)

  • C4

    Nuvolari, the R53 gets tight after a while.

    On roadtrips, the Clubman is better for the family handsdown.

    And the huge door opening in the Clubman does make a difference with carseats.

    All of the above is just an opinion.

  • gokartride

    I think the rear doors are a very nice feature on the Clubman and I find them easier/less cumbersome to operate than a hatch, which presents more difficulty for some to close given it’s height when open and weight. It’s quite a bit to handle for many. The Clubman’s rear doors, by contrast, are light and low and easier to use on a daily basis.

  • Drill

    My problem is that I get to the point where I say to myself, “Self, that Clubman S sure would be a great car for our growing family…” and then I see a 135 go down the road and it’s back to square 1, lol. :-) I’ve only had one test drive in a Clubman S but found it to be very well built with a much more compliant ride than my R53 and altogether an uninspiring drive. Can there really be THAT much difference between generations?

  • Drill

    gokartride just reminded me of something I noticed with the Clubman… the split doors helps eliminate an issue I have with my R53 where stuff in the back leans against the hatch and you have to open it slowly and stick your arm underneath to prevent everything from falling out, lol. With the split doors you just have to be sure to load the tall/wobbly stuff on the left side.

  • Jon

    Drill not sure if you have experienced the back seat of the 135i, have to say personally if I were in the backseat I would take a Clubman over a 135i any day. Took a 135i for a test drive, awsome car from the drivers seat, although the car needs a serious diet. The club door on the Clubman really transforms the usability of the rear seats to my 6′ frame.

  • Drill

    Yup, been in the back of both and while the Clubman wins in that regard it looses as soon as you pop the trunk on the 1er. Oh, and I’m only 5’6″ so I’ve done MY part for passenger convenience, lol.

  • Holly Aldis

    The Clubman does open up a new market. I was on the wait list for 2 years for the car. After I got it I knew right away I wanted a Mini Cabrio, too. So I have my BMW 330 convertible up for sale to hopefully get the 2009 Cabrio. The BMW only has 5,750 miles on it, so you know I had to really love the Clubman performance to give up my garage queen.

  • Jon

    Came out of a spirited drive in a 135i and wanted to check out the rear seats, still have a large lump on the top of my head from the car. I have a lot more head room in the Clubman. The trunk is nice, but then again its not like I use my Mini as a hauling tailer so a large trunk is something that just adds weight in my world (like rear seats heh)

  • Mowse

    I glad MF did a Clubman review. The other 50 reviews posted just didn’t sate my thirst for information on this really cool car.

  • nuvolari
    Drill: I’ve only had one test drive in a Clubman S but found it to be very well built with a much more compliant ride than my R53 and altogether an uninspiring drive. Can there really be THAT much difference between generations?

    Yes.

  • PhilG

    I wanted to point out that the convenience package is more than the keyless entry. It also includes the multifunction steering wheel, bluetooth/ipod, auto dimming rearview mirror, rain sensing wiper and the garage door opener.

    For me, I want enough of that stuff that I am happy to put up with the keyless entry, although it does make me nervous: my sister-in-law has that on her car, and has gotten stuck places when the batteries in the fob have died.

  • Ken E.
    Great review Gabe. Like vin., I’d also like to hear your impressions of the added space the Clubman provides over the Coupe when a baby/child enters into the equation. Thanks. I didn’t try a baby seat but there’s little question that the Clubman could handle a one much better than the standard two-door let alone a MINI Coupe.

    I too own a clubman and an “03″ MCS, younger passengers will find more leg room in a Clubman. Good fit for a small family.

    PhilG May 30th, 2008 Link I wanted to point out that the convenience package is more than the keyless entry. It also includes the multifunction steering wheel, bluetooth/ipod, auto dimming rearview mirror, rain sensing wiper and the garage door opener. For me, I want enough of that stuff that I am happy to put up with the keyless entry, although it does make me nervous: my sister-in-law has that on her car, and has gotten stuck places when the batteries in the fob have died.
    I am learning to like the entry portion of the convenience package. We opted out of the mirror stuff. No need. Let us not forget that all BMW keys have a brass back-up integrated into the fab. You lock the car by pressing the little button. The same one that lets you in. So get the convenience entry and live a fuller richer life for it.
  • Drill

    And to add to Ken E.’s comment, once you use the “hidden” key to unlock the door, I think you can still insert the fob and start the car as if you didn’t have CA.

  • GregW

    BMW have re-engineered the word “Mini” to mean a car that is a medium sized model. The only place MINI looks small is in the USA. I worry that future models will keep growing and growing just like the BMW 3 series which got so big they had to make a smaller 1 series. MINI is BMWs way around their philosophy of “a BMW will always be rear wheel drive”. For better or worse, let’s face it, MINI is a small BMW with front wheel drive, in a different body form even down to the convenience key.

  • GregW

    The rear seats in a BMW 1 series offer less room than the Clubman, and the four door 1 series rear door access is not user friendly to elderly people. The new X6 will have a label above the rear doors with a warning “When entering – mind your head”. This model is strictly a four seater which seems to be generic to BMW models these days.

  • Robert

    I am also glad to see the review here…

    Since you had the car for a week and we all are curious about the largesse or lack therein of the new Clubman…

    Would it be too much to ask for some photos of actual people and stuff in this car you drove around for a week? Every site under the sun has the promo/beauty shots of the car solo in modeling pose. It’d be tremendously useful to see stuff in the car!

  • BobS

    I recently had a ’08 Cooper automatic as a loaner and found it quite useable, even for sporting driving. Move the trans into the M/S (manual/sport) position and you have full control over which gear you are in. Then use the gear shift lever or the paddles to change gears. No, it’s not as good as a manual and is more difficult to match revs but it is a serviceable option for those who just cannot/will not use a manual. And yes, the Cooper with automatic is not a stoplight terror; it does require some planning to pass other cars and set up for accelerating out of turns or up hills. I also found the ’08 to be more neutrally balanced than my ’06 R53 in stock form. The R53 had unnerving understeer until I added a bigger rear bar.

    Finally, with the R56 it is easy to hear the engine “thrashing” sounds. After nearly 40 years of driving Alfas, classic Minis, Cortinas, Lotuses, and Hondas, I can easily tell by the sounds of the engine how fast it is turning and how hard it is working. That makes shift points and down shift rev matching a piece of cake. My R53 has a CAI, pulley, and JCW exhaust that makes it hard to know what the engine is doing. The S/C whine drowns out all other engine noise and its pitch is not proportional to engine speed.

  • http://northamericanmotoring Scott

    Sorry Charlie, IMHO, Conveninece Access is the greatest optional feature offered on the R55/R56 models. Imagine NOT having to use keys to unlock/start a car.
    Wanting to use car keys is so 1980′s. If you have Convenience Access, you may: 1) Leave the keys in your pocket. 2) Put your keys on a carabiner and hook it to your belt loop.
    3) Your car knows you’re legit and will let you unlock/drive away. What else could a guy want.

  • ontheroadagain

    “Another issue I found with this example was a very obvious squeak coming from the “Club door” on the right side.” May I ask are you talking about that high pitched whining sound while driving (which I hear all the time IF I have the club door side’s window even cracked open? If so, I’d like to know what is causing it. Or did you mean upon opening and closing the club door?

  • Chris

    Gabe here is a video link to your demo being driven by cars.com

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3RlYUnUFqI

  • Ken E.

    One thing that was changed on the car that I do not like, the controls, the new switches are of a poor design when compared to the originals.

    Also, I am not liking the climate controls. I didn’t like them when I first tried them and after owning the car, I still think they are well, sucky. If it aint broke don’t f@*^ it up!

  • Doug

    Great writing Gabe.

  • Greg Epperson

    I love my 2009 Clubman S, I do like the MINI brand but, I wanted more space than the hatch offered. The Clubman S fit that bill nicely!! I love the handeling , and while I’m not a racer, it still offers fun to drive feature not matched from the cars that I owned in the past. The Clubman S is perfect for my needs, and still returns around 30 MPG !!!! Just so you know I was able to get a 6 foot ladder in my Clubman S and still closed the back doors!! I did have to let down the back seats and move the passenger seat as far forward as it could go and folded the passenger seat forward to the dash, but it fit and the rear barn doors closed !!   Golf clubs would not be a problem. This is the most practle MINI made to date. My friend has 2 count them 2 car seats in the back for his kids!!


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MINI Model Cheat Sheet

1st Gen MINI
R50: One & MC Hatch
R52: All 1st Gen MINI Convt.
R53: MCS Hatch
2nd Gen MINI
R55: Clubman
R56: Hatch
R57: Convertible
R58: Coupe
R59: Roadster
R60: MINI Crossover
R61: MINI Crossover Coupe
3rd Gen MINI
F54: Clubman
F55: Five Door Hatch
F56: Hatch
F57: Convertible
F60: MINI Crossover
F58: Traveller

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