Wednesday, July 23, 2014

2014 MINI Cooper S Clubman

Minis have always intrigued me. From the first time I saw one on TV, during a recap of a World Rally Championship from back in the day, I was fascinated with how people could actually take such a tiny vehicle and turn it into a full-fledged race car. Add in the fact that it always looks like a toy car that even a child could drive only piqued my interest further.

Of course, the current iteration of the Mini is not the Mini of the past. Now a part of BMW's slowly growing brand portfolio, Mini has benefited from some of BMW's production, engineering, and marketing expertise, turning what used to be a small niche brand into a true global auto brand. BMW, in turn, has benefited from Mini's expertise to develop front wheel drive platforms that may underpin future BMW vehicles. The first of these that we have seen is the 2-series Active Tourer, a vehicle that looks like a Mazda5 dressed in fancy duds. However, this BMW involvement had many concerned that the very classically British character of the Mini brand would be stifled by the cold, austere demeanor of its German owners. Are the new variants, including some pseudo-SUV and pseudo-workman vehicles too devoid of real flavor to be an honest tribute to the Mini brand name?

From the outside, there is no denying that this particular Mini Clubman I am driving is a Mini. The family resemblance to its ancestors is clear as day, albeit this latest Mini has gotten at least a few sizes larger and appears to have some extra junk in the trunk. From the goofy-looking round headlights to the squarish shape of the rear, the design is very characteristically Mini, through and through. Heck, it is even possible to get different colored roofs and mirror caps that emulate the style popular among owners of classic Minis. Despite all of this attempt at maintaining the Mini identity, it is a thoroughly modern interpretation and all of the necessary sacrifices for modern safety standards have been made, accounting for at least some of the growth in both size and weight, but definitely a good thing to have when driving such a diminutive car in a world filled with massive SUVs and CUVs piloted by morons talking on cellphones.

Inside, however, the attempts to keep Mini's classic character have yielded a very different result. To put it simply, it is pretty much an ergonomic disaster. The attempt to maintain a speedometer in the middle of the dash is admirable, but the combination of it with the radio head unit and the placement of the HVAC controls just creates a jumbled mess in the center console. Add in the lack of a armrest and the sheer amount of empty space between the front seats and the whole thing just feels like someone got lazy and quit designing once the basics were in. At least the materials feel generally nice, with plastics and leather that would not feel out of place in a 3-series BMW. Still, if Mini really wants to invest some serious money in its product, they could start by scrapping the whole interior design and starting with a clean sheet.

Firing up the little 1.6L-turbocharged engine does not exactly send my heart racing. Despite the modest sound-proofing, the exhaust note is muffled and far from racy. Good thing that the engine itself is rather capable and offers plenty of thrust in the low end of the rev range. Power delivery is smooth and there is just barely a hint of turbo lag when starting from not quite a dead stop. The transmission does an admirable job keeping the small boosted motor in its power band and delivers transparent and unobtrusive shifts, making the drive pretty enjoyable. At speed, the induction noise kicks in a bit more and the cabin gets filled with a lot more road noise, offering up a more connected experience.

Fling the little Mini into a corner and its short wheelbase really gets a chance to shine. The chassis is well-engineered and offers an excellent mixture of ride comfort along with handling prowess. Tossing the car around highway entrance/exit ramps and around some city streets reveals that the car continues to deliver on the promise of spritely, go-kart like handling. Add in the nicely weighted steering that is fairly precise and plenty of mechanical grip and the Mini proves it still has what it takes to be a fun partner. What has changed slightly, in part due to the slightly longer wheelbase of the Mini Paceman, is that the ride has settled quite a bit, resulting in a more grown-up friendly ride without sacrificing any fun in the process.

Unfortunately, while that extra wheelbase has done wonders for the ride, it has done nothing for the interior volume. The rear seats are pretty much useless if the driver or passenger in front are even remotely close to average sized. The addition of a suicide door on the passenger side of the car does nothing but highlight the absolute lack of rear seat room. Quite frankly, I do not understand why Mini even bothers with a rear seat in these car since they are basically useless. The stretched body does help add a touch more interior cargo space as the Mini's rear doors open up into a rather adequate hold, but the use of the split door creates an obstruction in the rear view from the driver's seat.

Sadly, the Mini suffers from a problem common among German brand automobiles: the price. The one I tested, despite its tiny size and modest equipment load-out, stickered at just under $29k. That price is largely paying for the added panache of the Mini name and the BMW engineering. Lay that price on top of a car that delivers nearly useless back seats, mediocre fuel economy for such a small car, and a level of equipment that struggles to match the competition and it becomes a much more difficult proposition to to take seriously, no matter how go-kart like the handling is. Speaking of competition, a fully loaded Ford Focus ST, one of the best handling and most power cars in this class, can be had for just over the base price of the Mini. In all honesty, I fail to understand Mini's value proposition here, though I can definitely see the appeal.

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