First drive: 2016 MINI Cooper Clubman [Review]

We drive MINI\'s not-so-mini Clubman.

At first glance, it's not so MINI anymore. The 2016 MINI Cooper Clubman returns after a year's hiatus and this time it pushes and exceeds the limits of what most people consider a small city-style car. MINI took us to the setting of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to find out about the compact that thinks it's a go-kart.

Stretched outBuilt on parent company BMW's modular UKL platform that it shares with the BMW X1, the Clubman has been stretched almost eleven inches longer than the MINI five-door hatchback and a foot more than the standard MINI Coupe. Compared to the last Clubman, which appeared in 2014, it has grown an additional four-inches, with the bulk of the increase happening in the area of the MINI's wheelbase. That results in improved ride quality and handling, not to mention the addition of extra sound damping material that contributes to a much better ride than the previous version.

The new Cooper Clubman gets its motivation from a couple of BMW-family engines that are making news in other vehicles throughout the brand. The base Clubman is offered with the 1.5-liter three-cylinder TwinPower Turbo engine that also has a place as the range extender/power generating engine found in BMW's i8 sportscar, as well as the mill found under the hood of the BMW 218i that's sold in other global markets. A stout performer, it delivers 134-horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. The EPA says mileage ratings are 25 city / 34 highway (35 with a manual transmission) from this little dynamo that hits 0-60 in 8.9-seconds and tops out at 127 mph.

For power users, the MINI Cooper S Clubman is equipped with the parent company's 2.0-liter TwinPower Turbo four-cylinder which is also seen in the BMW 3-Series and others throughout the brand. In the case of the Cooper S Clubman, it produces 189 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque, with a 0-60 time of 6.9-seconds and a top speed of 142 miles per hour. EPA ratings come in at 22 city/32 highway with 27 combined from the six-speed manual transmission, while an available eight-speed automatic transmission (with Paddle Shift levers) comes in at 24 city/34 highway, 27 combined. This MINI Clubman competes against the likes of Volkswagen's Jetta SportWagen and Fiat's 500L in this segment.

Incidentally, company officials tell us that manual and automatic transmissions will be available on every model within the MINI lineup.

Zooting upmarketThe MINI Clubman is at its limit as to what can truly be called MINI, er mini. Any larger and you venture into maxi territory. So where does MINI go from here? Upmarket. For 2016, the MINI Cooper Clubman and Cooper S Clubman venture into Premium Compact segment. Its stretched wheelbase uses improved suspension geometry with electric power-assisted steering for improved high and low-speed feel. Standard dampers can be replaced with an optional dynamic damper control system which switches on the fly between comfort and sport setting for sophisticated "enthusiast style” handling. As sophisticated as the MINI Cooper Clubman is, it still maintains its go-kart tossability.

New attention to details abounds, including an extremely quiet interior, except on the roughest of road surfaces. Wrap-around leather bucket seats held us firmly in place on drives through Georgia Low Country, near Savannah. We noticed a more relaxed feeling throughout the cabin which is now large enough for five-passengers. We don't think the rear seat would be the place we would like to cruise cross-country, but with the newly stretched platform that the Clubman rides on, we definitely think we could hang there for up to four hours.

Our drive samples were equipped with a Dual Pane panoramic sunroof, a 12-speaker, 410-watt harman/kardon audio system, which was part of the Premium Package, an 8.8-inch high-res display, navigation and MINI Connected app portfolio, and rear-view camera and rear parking sensors that are part of the Technology Package. LED mood lighting makes its way into the cabin as well, both with user configurable diodes in panels that change according to mood or programming and a light ring around the display surround that changes according to what happens. For instance, a blue ring lights to let you know of an incoming phone call, while red displays an alert such as time to brake.

Let's Motor…hardThree is a strange number, especially when it refers to how many cylinders are under the hood. So honestly our expectations were not too high when we heard what powered the base Clubman. But fear not. Its 1.5-liter TwinPower turbo three-cylinder engine with automatic transmission impressed us with all the power we could have hoped for, and seemed as strong as many previous-generation four-cylinder engines. The six-speed automatic transmission offered sure-footed gearing throughout the range, and we were never given the impression that the Clubman was struggling during our time behind the wheel.

The two-liter TwinPower turbo four-cylinder engine of the Cooper S Clubman displayed a willingness to just get up and go. With serious pulling power in all six gears, both cars displayed the trademark go-kart style that encouraged a determined enthusiasm behind the wheel. Enhanced sound dampening techniques, made the Clubman extremely quiet in most situations, while an aggressive tap on the accelerator allowed the engine to truly raise its voice.

The comfort/sport/eco mode selector on the center console allowed us to change up the drive parameters through a dial that instantly kicked up throttle response and flashed the message "Let's Motor Hard,” while depicting the image of a go-kart on the 8.8-inch display. On the other hand, if green is your favorite color, the combination of changing to ECO mode, and aggressive driving techniques will set off an alert to the driver to perhaps consider slowing down.

Leftlane's bottom lineAccording to customer wish lists, MINI needed a bigger player. The 2016 MINI Cooper Clubman is their answer and with what the company says are over 10-million ways to order one, no one should go away unhappy. If they are, a few minutes behind the wheel should cure them of those feelings.

2016 MINI Cooper Clubman base price, $24,100. 2016 MINI Cooper S Clubman base price, $27,650. Destination and handling fee, $850.

Photos by Mark Elias.

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