2008 Mini Clubman
2008 Mini Clubman. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Peter Bleakney

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Madrid, Spain – Since launching the New Mini in 2001, BMW has mined this particular heritage-rich vein to great success – more than a million cars and worldwide sales are still strong.

First to skitter from the factory in Oxford, England were the Cooper and supercharged Cooper S, followed by convertible variants of each, the hot John Cooper Works car, the base Mini One (not sold in NA) and numerous special trim editions.

Then, for 2007, BMW completely redesigned their little icon, bringing us the new New Mini – a slightly larger and more refined version that to the casual observer looks no different than the old New Mini. Clever.

So where to go from here?

For those of us old enough to remember the original Morris Mini-Minor Traveller and Austin Seven Countryman, a modern iteration of that diminutive wagon is a bit of a forehead-slapper. After all, the current Mini’s only real, er, shortcoming is its dearth of space to stuff your stuff.

Say hello to the 2008 Mini Clubman – a Mini that gains 24 cm in length and a tres chic backpack. Wheelbase has been stretched by eight cm, giving a corresponding increase in rear leg room, and with the split rear seats folded, luggage capacity stretches to an accessible 930 litres. You can shove your mountain bike in there or enough beer for a month at the cottage.

2008 Mini Clubman
2008 Mini Clubman
2008 Mini Clubman
2008 Mini Clubman. Click image to enlarge

Think of it as the Mini Mullet – business in the front and party in the back.

Although not a traditional five-door, the Clubman does indeed have a unique configuration of five hinged portals. Opening the passenger door gives access to a small rear-hinged “club” door (a la Honda Element) that makes accessing the roomier back seat less of a chore. Rounding out the count are two van-style rear doors – just like the ones on the original Traveller. I must confess, seeing those cute doors swing open for the first time had me flopping helplessly on the deck of Mini nostalgia.

A neat design feature is the rear door surround that is painted to match the roof, which, as any Mini-phile worth his Tetley’s knows, should always be a different colour than the body. Personalization is a big part of the Mini strategy, and with the new hues available for the Clubman, there are over 30 possible colour combos.

The Clubman inherits all the Mini’s mechanical bits, and will be offered in both Cooper and Cooper S trim when it goes on sale in Canada in the first quarter of 2008. The base Cooper is motivated by a smooth 118-hp 1598 cc four which BMW co-developed with Peugeot. The S gets the same engine with direct fuel injection and a twin scroll turbocharger, upping the pony count to 172 and generating 177 lb-ft of torque from 1600-5000 r.p.m. An overboost function briefly delivers 192 lb.-ft of torque. A six-speed manumatic will be optional.

The interior of this new generation Mini is a riot of circles, dominated by a Frisbee-sized central speedo. The funky retro toggle switches are carried over, and perched on the steering column is a big tachometer.

2008 Mini Clubman
2008 Mini Clubman
2008 Mini Clubman. Click image to enlarge

Whether you love it or find it overdone, you could never call the Mini’s cabin boring, and the quality execution and soft-touch surfaces give it a premium ambience that elevates the Mini above the entry-level crowd.

I got to fling a Clubman Cooper S over some lovely mountainous roads north of Madrid. Despite the wagon’s extra 80 kg and longer wheelbase, there seemed to be no loss in the Mini’s trademark agility and gleeful ability to unravel a twisting stretch of tarmac.

My tester was fitted with the optional sport suspension (10% stiffer springs, thicker anti-roll bars and revised dampers) and a front limited-slip differential, giving it an even more athletic disposition. The Clubman was remarkably neutral when pressed, showing little body roll, and, thanks to the limited slip, it pulled smartly out of the bends without running wide. Mini hasn’t decided yet on whether to make the limited slip dif standard on the Clubman Cooper S. Yes, please.

The turbo engine in the S felt willing, offering up a strong and steady surge of torque above 3000 r.p.m. There is a bit of turbo lag below that, but the close ratio six-speed manual helps keep things on the boil.

2008 Mini Clubman
2008 Mini Clubman
2008 Mini Clubman. Click image to enlarge

Canadian pricing for the Mini Clubman has not been set, but to quote a Mini rep: “It’ll be more than the hatch, but not by much.”

So who’s going to buy the Mini Clubman? Calling it a family vehicle might be a bit if a stretch – manoeuvring the progeny through that fussy suicide door on a regular basis would get old in a hurry. No, I expect the Clubman will appeal more to the urban trendoids who want a dash of utility to go with their funk and cheek. I have several musician friends who are chomping at the bit for this one.

If BMW were really on the case, they’d mine that retro vein a little deeper and bring us a panel van, a pickup and a woody wagon.

How cool would that be?

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