Metaphorically Mini: Compact Competitor Gets Bigger, More Worthy of "Premium" Label
Car manufacturers love finding metaphors for their new vehicles at press launch events. Want to highlight the modern design of your new sports car? Barcelona and its architecture! A rugged truck? Baja, California, or the Pacific Northwest! For the launch of the 2016 Mini Clubman, the company chose Savannah, Georgia, a “compact” (if you will) city with a deep colonial heritage, once isolated but now embracing growth via tourism and a large, successful art school.
No longer content to be the tiny rebel, Tom Noble, Mini’s GM for marketing, says the company wants you to think of the Clubman as the cool uncle.
Many Mini fans fervently embrace its British heritage. But to attract mainstream customers who aren’t brand loyalists, the automaker has to produce cars more users find friendly. One thing is for sure: They’ve had it with the “Mini became maxi” cracks that came with the release of the 2015 Mini Hardtop 4 Door. (One of our 2015 Car of the Year judges, Chris Theodore, said that that Mini kept becoming a “caricature of itself” with each larger iteration.) In the minds of Mini’s designers and their Bavarian overlords, their products must grow and evolve.
Enter the 2016 Mini Clubman with its signature elongated look and split rear doors. At 168.3 inches, the 2016 Clubman is a little more than a foot longer than the previous Clubman. It’s also 4.6 inches wider, and the wheelbase grows by almost 5 inches to 105.1. The only place it didn’t really grow was in height, where it sits at 56.7 inches.
Those new dimensions—it’s now only 7 inches shorter in length than the Mazda3 hatchback—make huge differences in perceived space, especially shoulder room and rear-seat space, and result in fewer of the overall compromises Mini has been known for.
We took an eight-speed automatic Cooper S Clubman and a six-speed manual Cooper Clubman from the moss-covered squares of downtown Savannah down through the scenic low country to grand Jekyll Island and back. The S wagon, powered by the 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo making 189 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, felt pleasingly quick. The eight-speed automatic was smooth and did a good job of finding appropriate gears without constantly seeking the lowest rpm possible.
Our Cooper Clubman’s manual had good clutch action and easy-to-find gates in the quiet, smooth shifter. It was well-matched to the 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbo that creates 134 hp and 162 lb-ft. If you’ve scoffed at three-cylinder engines before, this one may change your mind. It’s well-refined, and unlike some small engine/manual combos, this one doesn’t scream at you at speed. We were running at a quiet 2,000 rpm at 70+ mph.
Unfortunately, there was no three-cylinder/six-speed automatic vehicle present. Most buyers will choose between the manual and the eight-speed automatic.
Steering is up to Mini standards and feels firm but not heavy. They don’t exactly have mountain-style twisties in the low country, but the handling was precise and predictable. Weighing in between 3,100 and 3,300 pounds (1,406 and 1,497 kg) based on powertrain, the Clubman did not feel heavy, which was a common complaint about the 2015 Hardtop 4 Door.
The start/stop function on both powertrains needs to be improved if anyone is ever going to use it regularly. As we noted in our First Drive of the 2015 Hardtop 4 Door, the “stop” is fine, but the “start” is a bit rough, noticeable, and depending on your accelerator action can result in a jerky start. Another nod to the future: A new electric parking brake operated single-finger style.
The biggest improvement (that’s no pun on size) in the car, though, is the interior. Some have questioned the value proposition of the new Minis. The interior materials feel far more premium, a word used repeatedly by Mini execs, with better trim, softer plastic on the doors, and even an optional nifty ambient lighting system that shines through a specially mottled door panel. And it’s remarkably quiet inside. Even over rough pavement, conversations could be had at normal volume at speed. Finding a good driving position was easy, and the seats come with manually adjusted thigh support extensions.
The 2016 Clubman brings plenty of active safety tech to the table. With the Driving Assistant system in addition to the backup camera, the Clubman offers adaptive cruise control, collision and pedestrian warning with initial braking, high-beam assist, and road-sign detection. We doubt customers would prefer the side-view mirror logo projector (comes standard!) to a backup camera (still optional!), but it is a nifty nighttime conversation starter. It can also be had with the de rigueur but questionably useful gesture-controlled opening of the rear doors.
Mini is pressing ahead with its quest to produce more cars sized for the mainstream. No longer content to be the tiny rebel, Tom Noble, Mini’s GM for marketing, says the company wants you to think of the Clubman as the “cool uncle” in the family. The 2016 Mini Clubman lives up to the promise of being a full-blown compact car and seems to be the one that would fit the bill for lots of people. A big question with Mini’s previous offerings has always been one of value. With refined powertrain options and an interior that is nicely catching up to Mini’s price points, that will be less of an issue.
But a dynamic tension between Mini’s heritage and its future, more mainstream offerings will always remain. During a presentation by Noble, someone asked a question. “How many of your buyers know the cars are assembled in Oxford?” A member of the media (and fan of the brand) harrumphed, “98 percent!” The executive said it was probably more like a third. If they can create more cars like the 2016 Clubman, the real answer will be, “Who cares?”
|2016 Mini Clubman|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door wagon|
|ENGINES||1.5L/134-hp/162-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 12-valve I-3; 2.0L/189-hp/207-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|TRANSMISSIONS||6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic; 8-speed automatic|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,100-3,300 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||168.3 x 70.9 x 56.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.9-8.9 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||22-25/32-35/26-27 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||140-153/99-105 kW-hrs/ 100 miles|
|C02 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.70-0.76 lb/mile|
|ON SALE IN U.S||Currently|