First Impressions: The 2016 MINI Clubman

Walking into the depths of BMW’s secretive training center is a surreal experience. Cameras are bagged and iPhones pocketed. And yet there are things that are seen that are asked to be unseen. There are naked engines, pieces of Rolls Royce hardware and plenty of carbon fiber everywhere you look. In short this is an auto enthusiast’s dream. But we’re not here to poke and prod at battery packs or take apart engines. We’re here to see MINI’s latest and largest product ever – the 2016 MINI Clubman.

Finally we turn a corner and into a bay where an all black MINI Clubman is sharing space with a yet to be released plugin-hybrid BMW. And wow. It is stunning. Finished in triple black this particular F54 has a much different feel than the launch color combos we’ve seen thus far. The darker color visually shortens the car and makes it a bit sportier. Further the 18” wheels look perfectly proportioned on the car and finished in black, perfectly the menacing feel.

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The MINI Clubman isn’t big. Sitting next to a large BMW (that we can’t talk about) you realize that MINI’s largest vehicle is actually fairly svelte in comparison. Inside it’s a different story however. The new Clubman has a full 2″ more shoulder room and 6 more cubic inches of trunk space than the Countryman. Yet despite new pedestrian impact standards (that dictate empty space behind the front bumper – something Countryman doesn’t have) it’s only 6″ longer in total. The rear dimensions are all about .5″ to an 1″ greater for the new Clubman while the overall height is (as you’d expect) lower by over 4″.

The numbers tell a story of a larger car. What they can’t quite describe is comfort. The front seats are identical to the F56 seats and thus have a much longer lower cushion that makes them distinctly more comfortable than before. The rear seats are now set at an angle that feels more natural and would likely be infinitely better for road trips than what MINI offered in the Countryman.

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Once you’re over the size of the car you’re struck by the design and quality. Everywhere you look there are exceptionally high levels of fit and finish we’ve never seen in a MINI before. While much of the switch-gear is shared with the F56, everything is housed in a design that feels a touch more grown-up than the F56.

Getting into and out of the Clubman is obviously easier than before given it’s four doors. But it’s also noticeably easier than the Countryman or four door F55 MINI. the doors are larger and the angles of entry easier than either of those two cars. And with the seats having longer bottom cushions the process is less of a exercise in precision than before.

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Speaking of doors MINI thankfully kept the Clubman’s signature “club doors” in the rear of the car with this new iteration. They operate the exact same way as before however with a bit more resistance from a small strut that lives in each door. MINI also offers remote opening via either the key fob or a foot gesture below the license plate.

Unfortunately our plans to drive the Clubman fell through due to the one press car MINI had available in the US being out of the area. And torrential rain kept us from taking the pre-production prototype out around BMW campus. So we decided to grab the keys to something fairly similar, BMW’s new X1. The main thing we wanted to experience was the new Aisin 8 speed automatic transmission that will come with the Cooper S. In the X1 (also a UKL2 based vehicle) it’s paired with the B48 found in the JCW pumping out 228hp through all wheel drive. This combination is something we expect MINI to look at very seriously as it rolls out more Clubman variants. But more on that later.

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As much as MINI has improved the 6 speed auto in the F56 and F55, this new 8 speed is in a different league. Shifts were both quicker and smoother. Manual override felt even more natural than the 6 speed with quicker re-action times and rev matching that felt almost like a dual clutch transmission. In short this is the automatic many of us have been waiting for. It brings the benefits of the auto in efficiency and comfort while delivering performance that seems impossible just a few years ago. And the best part? Despite the addition of two more gears, weight is only barely up.

One last thing to note about the new transmission. Make sure you opt for the “Sport” auto if you’re going to get the automatic transmission. Not only does it come with shift paddles behind the wheel, MINI has also altered the software to allow for quicker shifts and even a version of launch control. Additionally they’ve beefed up some of the internals to deal with these increased mechanical stresses.

MINI USA will be offering the Clubman in 134 hp Cooper and 189 hp Cooper S models. While there is no word on either a JCW model or all wheel drive variants, we’ve been reporting on both for years and expect at least one of them sooner rather than later. We also couldn’t help but notice the size of the fuel cap and the addition of what looked to be second fuel filling spot. From what we gathered, that’s for urea injection for a future diesel drivetrain. The official line is that it’s meant for use in Europe. However given urea injection will be required for Europe (to mean the new Euro 6 environmental guidelines), it’s easy to imagine it would be more cost effective for MINI to certify a clean diesel solution for the US. Stay tuned.

In so many ways the Clubman is what the market has been asking for. It’s a MINI with four doors, five seats and a trunk that is entirely usable for a small family. It’s also a handsome car with the highest levels of quality we’ve ever seen in a MINI. You don’t have to make apologies for rattles or an odd angle or two. This is a MINI that’s easy to live with as much as it is easy to love.