Weeks after test driving the MINI Cooper S Clubman, I'm still trying to figure out the name.
What club could this car possibly serve?
Just 9 inches longer than the standard MINI Cooper — which has now been supplanted by the Smart Fortwo as the smallest car you can buy — Big MINI isn't exactly a senior-center tour bus.
Three of those inches find their way into the backseat, so if there's an “I Hate My Rear Seat Passengers Less Than You Do Club” out there that needs an official vehicle, this might be it.
The rest is dished out to the cargo area which expands from a whopping 5.7 cubic feet in the actually Mini MINI Cooper, to 9.2 in the Clubman, allowing for fewer Milk-Bone runs during your “Lapdog Kennel Club” events.
Then again, perhaps the name is an end to itself. Located on the passenger side behind the plain old door, Big MINI has something called a Club Door which swings open to the rear, "suicide-style" for those of you who didn’t pay attention during sensitivity-training sessions. There's no speakeasy slot on it, or velvet rope, but with only two buckets carved into the rear bench it does offer entry to a relatively exclusive area.
Playing shotgun in lesser MINI Coopers has always been a high-stakes game. Lose and for the first time in your life being the designated driver sounds really good. In Big MINI, the backseat is a bearable consolation prize, as long as your friends up front cooperate on the legroom. Just don't plan any long trips.
Even with the added space, the luggage compartment merely grows from briefcase size to carry-on. If one of the people on board happens to be from the stroller set, their fold-up ride will have to fit in the narrow opening diagonally. The remaining space is largely useless for anything not very small.
That you would actually consider bringing one of your offspring along in Big MINI speaks volumes about the difference those 3 inches make. Only the hippest and coolest of American moms allow their flesh and blood to be strapped into the regular-issue MINI Cooper. In the Clubman, a child seat not only fits, but is easy to get in there, thanks to the huge opening provided by the Club Door.
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Unfortunately, there is an aesthetic price to pay for the added utility. MINI did nothing to disguise the added length and the long expanses of sheet metal stretching from the doors to the tailgate do major damage to the perfect proportions of the original. The presence of the Club Door also means that there are three windows on that side of the car, and just two on the driver's side. It’s an odd look, not a clever one.
You'll also notice a thick line running up the center of the rearview mirror when you try to back up. No, you’re not about to hit a signpost. Instead of a hatchback, the Clubman has a split barn-door-type arrangement that is pure style over substance. With your hands full of grocery bags full of Eggo Minis and Mini M&Ms, the last thing you want is to have to open two doors with one free hand.
If the car behind you is parked right on your bumper, you can forget about opening anything. Big MINI is so low that the doors will hit the hood of anything taller than a skateboard. When it comes to functionality, this set up is the complete opposite of the very useful Club Door, and flies in the face of the rest of the car’s practicality.
From the driver's seat you see the same familiar dashboard as the standard MINI Cooper, with its vaguely aircraft-inspired design and ridiculously oversized speedometer located in the center stack.
If you opt for the automatic transmission, like my test vehicle had, you get paddles behind the steering wheel for shifting through its six speeds. As far as automatics are concerned, this one is an ace. Whether in sport or normal mode, the gear changes are quick and happen exactly when you expect them too. Only the double-clutch Direct-Shift Gearbox (DSG) transmission from VW/Audi is better in the small-car world. Still, if you choose to buy the sporty S version of Big MINI that I tested, go for the manual, it's $1,250 cheaper and more to the point in this car.
The Clubman S comes with the same 172 horsepower turbocharged four cylinder shared with the standard MINI Cooper S, and is only a few ticks slower due to its marginally higher weight. Zero to 60 mph takes just 6.7 seconds, which makes it very quick for a subcompact, and on par with some of those enormous compact cars like the Honda Civic SI.
For a base price of $23,440, this is expected, as is the substantial feel in everything about the way the Clubman S operates. From steering with variable electric assistance to its composed sport suspension, the Clubman S delivers point-and-shoot handling, which is enhanced by its narrow body. The car retains all of the nimbleness of its smaller sibling, and picks up a bit of improved ride quality thanks to a longer wheelbase, which is better for soaking up the abuses dished out by bumpy urban roads.
On the highway, the Clubman S moves along with authority out of proportion to its size, with more than enough power to overcome the aerodynamics of its boxy shape. The nearly vertical windshield creates a fair bit of wind noise, but no more than you would expect when pushing a wall through the air at 65 mph. Otherwise, the cabin is very quiet, despite the presence of so much glass, including a double sunroof that takes up nearly the entire ceiling.
Of course MINI is owned by BMW, and the Clubman S feels every bit as good as one of those. You'll even recognize a few interior pieces that are shared with some of the parent company's products. Of course, the Clubman S is a premium car, not an economy car, and you get what you pay for, which can be quite a bit.
With all of the options on it, including a leather interior and 17-inch alloy wheels, the example I drove had a sticker price of $32,950. Even with an EPA rating of 32 mpg highway, you won't be saving enough money to justify the expense in any logical way, so you’d better be sure a very small car is what you want or need.
Membership may have its privileges, but joining this club is going to cost you.
2008 MINI COOPER S CLUBMAN
Base Price: $23,450
As Tested: $32,950
Type: Front-engine, front-drive, several-door hatchback
Engine: Turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-4 cylinder
Power: 172 horsepower, 177 pound-foot torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 23 city/32 hwy
What do you think of the Cooper S Clubman?
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.