Mini Clubman Airier, But Still Pretty Tiny

Sept. 3 (Bloomberg) — Up, up, up we go, our bodies tossed side to side. This is a real-world roller-coaster ride, a road with more twists than Coney Island’s Cyclone. Happily my car is up to the task. And unlike the carnival equivalent, there will be no waiting in line: I won’t need to fill up the tank for some 400 miles.

Such is the pleasures of a Mini. In this case, though, we’re talking about the “big” Mini — the newer, longer and roomier Clubman.

Not so long ago, I was unsure about the expansion of the Mini Cooper line. A more capacious Mini seemed like the answer to a question that nobody had asked. Now it’s looking pretty prescient.

The Cooper has long been the most stylish small car on the market, yet it doesn’t serve many potential drivers’ needs — namely, those who want to haul more passengers or cargo.

Minis are made by BMW, and essentially the designers added 9-plus inches to its length, mostly in the rear, with 3 more inches of back legroom. The Clubman hatchback will somewhat reasonably seat five, compared with four not-so-comfortably in the regular Cooper.

With the rear seats down, the Clubman has 32.8 cubic feet of cargo space, versus 24 cubic feet for the Cooper. With the back seats up, there’s 9.2 cubic feet back there.

The manual-transmission Clubman gets 37 miles per gallon on the highway, 28 in the city. It has 118 horsepower. The turbocharged “S” version, with 172 horses, makes 34 highway, 26 city. That’s a nice balance of power and gas economy. Prices start at about $21,000 and $24,350, respectively.

Suicide-Style Door

Minis are known for clever design, and that’s most obvious in the arrangement of the Clubman’s doors. It gets a second right-side door for better backseat ingress. This is what Mini calls a club door, and it opens “suicide” style, with the hinges toward the back. To prevent it from opening while the car is moving, the front passenger door must be opened first to unfasten the club door. There is no exterior handle.

The rear hatchback is actually two small doors that open like shutters. This is a design cue from 1960s-era Morris Mini Traveller, and it gives users a big mouth to shove stuff into.

Otherwise, the rather quirky interior is very familiar to anyone who’s been in a Cooper, including the massive center speedometer the size of Flavor Flav’s clock necklace, the toggle switches and the start-stop button. A bit tiresome, actually.

Big Sur Curves

I test drive the S Clubman on the central coast of California, around Big Sur. If you can avoid the traffic it’s always a fun road, and the turbocharged engine buzzes like an angry bee as I bomb down the long sweeping curves. The longer wheelbase substantially helps ride quality, especially on bad asphalt. This also translates to a better ride over the shorter Mini Cooper at highway speeds.

Yet the regular Cooper comes alive on windy tracks, where it tucks and ducks into corners with a rally car’s aplomb. (It’s a favorite in autocross racing, where cars race through flat obstacle courses marked with rubber cones.)

To see how the Clubman compares, I put myself on the narrow, coiling Nacimiento-Fergusson Road — the aforementioned roller coaster. It intersects with Highway 1 and runs over the Santa Lucia Mountains to the Army’s Fort Hunter Liggett. The tight corkscrews would make driving a longer-wheelbase vehicle a chore, but it’s the kind of road where the Mini excels.

With the turbocharged four-cylinder above 1,600 rpm, the Clubman’s 177 pound-feet of torque gives you plenty of uphill grunt. On this road, the front-wheel drive is an absolute blast, quickly heeding every mad twist of the steering wheel — enough to sicken a temperamental passenger. (Electronic stability control is standard, as are six air bags.)

Extra Capacity

Is it as quick around curves as the Cooper? I’d say no, but just barely. (The extra length also means you’ll lose the ability to parallel park in some tight spaces.) Yet that extra carrying capacity more than makes up for the incremental lack in handling.

I enter the Army base and am cautioned to keep my speed down. I do, for a while, then find myself zipping through a series of S curves. A big SUV turns out to be military police and I’m given a warning whoop of the siren. Mea culpa, gentlemen.

Mini has been one of the few European carmakers to be ahead of the small-car curve in the U.S. and will release a battery- powered version of the Mini, probably by mid-2009. It also has plans for a small SUV.

In the meantime, even the Clubman’s revised shape seems a bit familiar. It won’t electrify crowds like the still-novel yet somewhat problematic Smart Fortwo.

No matter. In terms of practicality, gas mileage and ability to spiral up, up, up winding roads, Mini has another winner. And now you can bring extra friends.

The Mini Cooper S Clubman at a Glance

Engine: Turbocharged 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder, with 172 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic with paddle shifters.

Speed: 0 to 60 in 6.7 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 34 highway; 26 city.

Price as tested: $27,100.

Best feature: Extra stowage with minimum downside.

Worst feature: The standard Mini interior is starting to look tired.

Target buyer: A style lover looking for gas mileage without sacrificing a good time.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)