First drive: 2016 Mini Cooper Clubman S

The biggest Mini to date is a contradiction, but not a disappointment

The steady march of the Mini brand away from its original diminutive philosophy takes its most deliberate step yet with the latest Clubman, a model which the company isn’t shy about labeling the biggest Mini to date. At 3,300 pounds it’s no longer a featherweight, and with dimensions that are nearly identical for a four-door Golf, it’s not all that miniature, either.

Instead, this Mini is geared toward practically, utility and a rich feature set. While the classic Mini traits of spritely, engaging performance and quirky design still exist here, as the company’s design focus continues to evolve with the market, it’s not surprising to discover that they’re largely relegated to the periphery now.

It isn’t so much an indicator of an identity crisis as it is a purposeful shift toward the priorities of Mini’s customer base, who today are more likely to head to yoga class than the autocross. So it’s through that lens that one must look at the 2016 Cooper S Clubman, a Mini which casts its net far wider than its core fanbase in hopes of reeling in a number of Mazda3, Ford Focus and VW Golf Sportwagen converts along the way.

Maximum Mini

The 2016 Clubman sees substantial design changes over the previous generation model, ones which address some key points of contention with its predecessor. Gone is the single “club” door that provided access to the rear seats, replaced by two normally hinged, grown-up sized doors to make ingress and egress a far easier task for rear seat passengers.

The Cooper S Clubman places comfort above corner carving.

Interior room for those passengers has improved substantially as well, as the new Clubman has increased in overall length to 168.3 inches and body has been widened by three inches. But while this may be the largest Mini ever built, it’s still nearly a foot shorter in overall length than a VW Golf Sportwagen, putting it within half an inch of the standard four-door Golf’s length. The result is a Mini that maintains a reasonably small footprint while providing significantly more breathing room on the inside.

Of course there’s a give and take when it comes to vehicle growth, and in the case of the Cooper S Clubman, out on the road it translates to a driving experience that is less go-kart and more grand tourer. Sure, there’s a Sport button, three pedals on the floor and a turbocharger under the hood, but the Cooper S Clubman has clearly been tuned more for comfort than corner carving.

In comparison to the Mini Hardtop, the Clubman’s suspension tuning is noticeably softer, with body roll and brake dive quickly beginning becoming evident on demanding roads. Likewise, the Clubman’s steering feels more relaxed as well, with an electrically assisted setup that is easy to pilot but lower on feedback than some Mini loyalists might hope for, and enthusiastic drivers will likely find themselves pushing deeper into the brake pedal that they might expect to in order to reign in this big Mini at speed. But despite these concessions to commuting comfort, the Cooper S Clubman is still notably more driver-focused than most of its direct competition, even if it has given up a step or two for sake of wider appeal.

Under the hood is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four cylinder motor that generates 189 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque, which is mated to either a six-speed manual gearbox or an eight speed automatic. While it doesn’t push the Cooper S Clubman with the same level of urgency as does in the Cooper S Hardtop, the Clubman is still capable of getting to 60 mph in a brisk 6.9 seconds, and the gearing of my six speed-equipped tester made weaving through freeway traffic a fairly effortless proposition in practice.

Yet it’s clear that the Clubman does its best work when it is asked to provide some reprieve from the outside world. The cabin’s well thought out ergonomics places everything where your body expects it to be, yielding a relaxed driving position that’s ideally suited to long stints behind the wheel, and the Clubman’s BMW-like isolation from road noise helps to bolster the Mini’s premium vibe.

Potentially very, very well equipped

While the Clubman S starts at $27,650 before destination, it doesn’t take a shopping spree on the options sheet to send the price tag into $40,000 range, as the handful my test car was equipped with (which notably did not include the available adaptive suspension dampers – an upgrade I would recommend) rung up an even $37,000 all in.

The Clubman does its best work when asked to provide a reprieve from the outside world.

That changes the Clubman’s story a bit, but then again, how often do you find heads-up displays, panoramic sun roofs, and LED headlights on the options sheet for a compact wagon?

And to its credit, the iDrive-like infotainment system with navigation and 6.5-inch display comes as standard, as does the vast majority of the Clubman’s “Mininess,” like the adjustable, mutli-colored ambient lighting placed throughout the cabin, the two-tone exterior paintwork, and well-bolstered sport seats.

Playing to your audience

The Clubman’s newfound maturity might make this big Mini a more compelling option among its competitive set, but it’s the brand’s aesthetic that will likely do the most to lure potential buyers away from perceivably safer harbors.

While purists might find frustration in the company’s change in priorities – one which increasingly relies on the perception of performance while focusing instead on ease-of-use – it’s hard to deny that the logic is sound. The new Clubman, like most of the rest of the current Mini lineup, will likely find favor with buyers looking for more personality than the alternatives offer — but would prefer to forego the potential drawbacks in comfort and convenience that are inherent to high performance tuning, diminutive proportions, and quirkiness.

And the plan seems to be working: The more the brand moves away from its toy-like reputation, the better the cars sell, so clearly the public has made its desires heard. With the 2016 Clubman, Mini takes its most deliberate step yet toward mainstream appeal, and while the result may not fully resonate with those looking for a driver’s car, it has the potential to turn a lot more commuters into drivers, and I certainly take no issue with that.

Highs

  • Stylish Mini design cues
  • Redesign yields two full-sized rear passenger doors and more interior space
  • DNA from BMW provides a premium feel

Lows

  • Softer than expected handling
  • Underwhelming braking performance
  • Price tag jumps up quickly with additional options
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