MINI has been getting a lot of flak from enthusiasts and press for tiptoeing away from the business of making cars that are, well, mini. The critics have a point: today’s MINI Hardtop is 2,625lbs, which is some 310lbs heavier than the 2001 MINI Cooper that rebooted the brand. It’s not apparent when viewed on its own, but park them side-by-side, and you’ll see what’s happening. Pedestrian safety standards have raised the profile of the nose, and consumer demand for more comfort and features have contributed to a scale that grows larger with each iteration.
It’s happening across the industry. The new Audi A3 Sedan is the size of the original B5-chassis A4. The new Honda Civic is significantly larger than an 80’s Accord. A VW Jetta is the size of the classic B3 Passat, while the Passat has ballooned to Buick Regal proportions. Automakers seem find it more profitable to redefine each model as a larger car with each generation, than to introduce a new, larger model that meets the market’s needs. I’ve got some opinions on this which I will share in another post.
And so, like everyone else, MINI is scaling up to stay competitive. The 2016 Clubman is significantly larger than the outgoing model; the longest and widest vehicle ever to wear the MINI badge. The logic behind the move is to give MINI a car to sell to the person who had a Hardtop 10 years ago, but now needs something more practical.
MINI didn’t start with aspirations for a full line, at least not out of the gate. In the early days of MINI’s renaissance, BMW Group viewed the Cooper as a car they could sell you until you could afford a BMW. It was an incubator; a feeder marque. But the brand has developed a cult following over the last fifteen years, and its identity couldn’t be farther from that of BMW. If you’re a MINI enthusiast, there’s probably not a single BMW model that will be of any interest to you. It’s just the wrong image—too mainstream, too pretentious. Fortunately, the overlords at BMW have given MINI the leeway to explore what it wants to be, and what it wants to be is a full line of cars for quirky, design-conscious driving enthusiasts.
In person, this F54 Clubman looks big, long and wide. It is. The asymmetrical rear-hinged access panel from the previous R55 has been jettisoned in favor of a pair of front-hinged doors for easy access to the rear sear. The new model has grown from 155.9″ long, to 168.3″. 4.8″ worth of the extra length is between the axles, where it adds to rear seat leg room.
With the driver’s seat set for my 5’-8” frame, the rear seat was legitimately spacious. MINI says that a 6’ passenger can sit comfortably behind a 6’ driver. In the passenger seat on my test drive, my partner David (a 6’3, 270lb beast monster) was able to sit comfortably without feeling cramped. In the standard hardtop, his head grazed the sunroof and our shoulders touched in the middle when seated side by side.
The dashboard is an upscale riff on the traditional MINI stack, with a big round center display and lots of toggle switches. The speedometer has moved from the top of the stack to a small cluster on the steering column which moves with the tilt-and-telescoping wheel. It’s a nice touch, and it means the gauge is visible to all drivers regardless of wheel position. The large center display is now the size of a dinner plate and contains the display for the MINI Connected + Navigation system. Not sure what a switch does? There’s a menu option which plays a small video explanation for every switch and system in the car. The system is fast, intuitive, and makes basically every other infotainment system look like it’s running Windows 3.1.
My Canadian-spec Cooper S Clubman test car was outfitted with the John Cooper Works appearance package, which features Chili Red Paint, unique 18” wheels, and a bespoke interior trim package with leather and cloth seats. It also had the Loaded Package and the upgraded Harman Kardon stereo.
I flicked the toggle switch to start the motor, and the 2.0 Liter, 189hp twin-scroll turbocharged four cylinder engine greeted me with a gentle purr. The shifter is precise, with short throws, and the clutch has a nice, natural weight to it. At city speeds, the Cooper S Clubman is a sweet, playful little kitten. When the road opens up ahead, kitty shows her claws.
Acceleration to 60 mph is a respectable 6.9 seconds. Honestly, it didn’t feel quite as brisk as I was expecting, even with the ECU in sport mode, but it sure sounded great. As I tore along drove at or below the posted speed limit on a wet service road in Oakville, ON, the grin on my face widened. I realized that I didn’t need the car to go any faster to enjoy myself. Cornering is flat, with just the right amount of understeer. The ride is remarkably compliant and comfortable, even with 40-series tires that come with the JCW Package.
This car is a different experience altogether from the Cooper Hardtop. It’s a more refined, grown-up take on MINI’s much-touted “go-kart style” handling. I could have flogged it all day on backroads and onramps, but what really struck me was how much fun it is to drive lawfully, under normal circumstances.
Brand purists grouse about how MINI has lost the script, that they’ve become the fat ex-track-star at the high school reunion. MINI has put a lot of effort into expanding its selection of cars for grownups, at the expense of their hardcore enthusiast base. MINI owes them a new model; a truly mini MINI. Production models based on the Rocketman and Superleggera concepts will shore up the other end of the product line, though those models are still a couple of years away.
Think of your favorite pair of jeans: you wore them for years, and now you’ve outgrown them. Do you just give up, go to the mall, and get some Dad Jeans? Hell no, you don’t. You go and you get the same jeans in a larger size. With the Clubman, MINI is now selling your old favorite jeans in a size that you can actually wear.