MF Vault: The MINI Clubman First Drive

Welcome to MF Vault. Where we bring you the best of vintage MotoringFile in an effort to look back and maybe even re-evaluate. Five years ago there was no Clubman. There was no Countryman, Paceman, Coupe or Roadster. There was just the MINI and the MINI Convertible. With the addition of the Clubman MINI was dipping its toe in the water and seeing how far the brand could grow – literally. This is the first drive of that car in January of 2008.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

  • ulrichd

    Unrelated to subject, but Autoblog just scooped an undisguised F56.

    http://www.autoblog.com/2013/07/01/2014-mini-cooper-rockets-into-view/

  • John McLauchlan

    Thanks for the look back. The R55 is still a great and versatile MINI. I wonder what some of those early sketches and variations looked like, and if they were based on the R53 body at the time.

  • Frank Granados

    We have owned ours since Feb of 2008, likely, among the very first R55 US deliveries. We still love the car but the N14 prince Turbo engine has been very problematic. Its issues have been sorted for the time being and now we are sticking to strict 5K oil and filter changes. The car is comfortable, handles great and provides a superb level of practicallity among its other MINI peers. We plan to keep it another couple of years and hopefully trade it in for a new F60 based Clubman S.

  • Steven Diver

    Fitting timing in this look back considering I just picked up a 2013 Clubman on Tuesday.