Test Drive: 2016 Mini Cooper S Clubman

Glumness and melancholy were setting in like hardening emotional cement. We all grow up and most of us grow out, I ruminated as my shrinking nuclear family boarded the 2016 Mini S Clubman to drive our youngest daughter to the airport. She’s flying off for her gap-year travel odyssey before resuming university thousands of miles away come September.

The other kid hasn’t lived with us for three years. So functionally, we’re empty nesters. But I swear my wife and I were trekking carefree through Europe ourselves just a few months ago. I sighed, clicked the seatbelt and set the electric seat to memorize a creeping girth.

Even my beloved Clubman has aged almost beyond recognition, I thought darkly. I had picked up this new Clubman just minutes earlier for a week’s testing. The last car I ever owned was a 2010 Clubman and I’d loved it. Seeing this bigger new one, I was suspicious, even resentful, of the changes. A recent press release reported, Mini is evolving its brand from being the city dweller’s fun car to something more practical and sophisticated, “combining intelligence with design”.

I wondered just how much were Mini going to quell the fun. For starters, the colour of this big tester was an officious Pure Burgundy Metallic. My 2010 was Hot Chocolate, not Pure Brown, with silver racing stripes that made it go faster. Sigh.

“Oh wow, this is waaay better than the old one,” my daughter interrupted.

Kids say the darnedest things. “There’s finally room for my expletive deleted knees. And my elbows. And look!” She started playing with the dual zone climate controls’ rear vents. “I got my own expletive deleted heat!”

It wasn’t like she’d suddenly pricked my emotional bubble. It was more like, with a few words, she’d smashed that hardening emotional cement. Like that, snap, I rebounded out of this sulk like my old Mini Clubman on a hairpin turn.

“Yeah,” I conceded. “And check this out, darling. It has different drive modes. Here’s the green one for conscientious eco-driving.” Pandering to the youthful audience, I flicked the circular switch. The relatively huge 8.8-inch visual display screen acknowledged the shift modes and cheekily displayed “Let’s MINImalize.” This text flanked a tiny cartoon of the Clubman bein’ green, green arrows lining the hood and, within a thought bubble, a tachometer leans into what looks like a cushion. “That’s so cool!” she enthused from the backseat, warm air blasting (only) her way. “This one’s a green helper too.” I show the start-stop button whose symbol looks like an @ symbol. If activated, “the engine stops at lights when I’ve got my foot on the brake, then restarts automatically when I take it off.” We never had any of that in my Clubman.

From small beginnings... Evolution of the Mini

“Yeah, this is way better, Daddy.” Two minutes later, after the engine restarts at the traffic light, we’re on a thoroughfare, heading out of downtown. My wife joins Team Junior, championing the superiority of the new Clubman, searching the satellite radio for music we can all agree on. Good thing there’s 130 stations.

 

Knowing my passengers really couldn’t care less what the drive feels like, I quietly adjust from GREEN Mode through MID — “Let’s Motor” the screen cheerily encourages — then into SPORT. “Let’s Motor Hard!” it bleats, complete with that excited punctuation, feisty red racing strips where the green arrows had been, and new thought bubbles featuring a rocket and go-kart. Then, we do motor hard.

The roads in central Toronto were designed over 100 years ago by someone who hated drivers, pedestrians and the future. A Mini S (it stands for both Sport and Steve!) in any model is de rigeur for zipping about and seizing small opportunities. I rocket back and forth, between traffic snarls and cones and idiots on phones, while the radio settles on the late David Bowie, himself appropriately singing about being in a rocket. This drive is not the same as the Clubman I sold a couple of years ago. Bloody right!

Maybe they’ve grown up too but Mini is still the most fun.

Look back at that quotation from the press release. In my mind, Mini’s always combined “intelligence with design”. That’s what made these cars fun.

Take the new Clubman’s dimensions, the instigator of my daughter’s approval. What I saw as creeping middle age spread, Mini designers saw as opportunity.

The wheelbase of my Clubman was 255 cm. The 2016 boasts 267 cm. That’s loads more legroom for those passengers in back, yes, but frankly a different car – especially when you consider all the other expanding dimensions. The 2016 is also 33.5 cm longer and 11.6 cm wider than my 2010, but only 1cm taller. So you’re still one with the ground, little grasshoppah, but now spread out more.

Minis are road-gripping lowdown fun, if sophisticated now. While other reviewers have compared driving a Mini favourably to a go-kart (and Mini themselves as we saw on the SPORT Mode screen) I’ve always maintained that with so little overhang beyond the wheels at front and back the driving sensation’s more like a cross between a Big Wheel and a table. Mind, as a baby I also fell onto my head from a table. It’s hard to tip.

Or think of it this way: David Bowie was a centimetre taller than Sylvester Stallone. Which one do you think would be harder to push over? The point is, the 2016 doesn’t feely tippy even with physics-defying cornering. By expanding its spread overall without functionally touching its height, the Clubman’s designers have expanded the feeling of driving the Clubman itself. So, while it’s much bigger than previous Clubmans (Clubmen?), it’s just as authentic a Mini experience.

And let’s face facts: Size matters to Canadians. We love SUVs and crossovers and Mini’s marketers have listened to their customers. Some middle age spread was inevitable, never minding the immense Countryman launched in 2010. Think of the difference between the original Mini Cooper in 1961 and its BMW rebirth in 2000; bigger, more sophisticated car, similar fun experience. It was only a matter of time before they expanded their product line, so to speak, again. Things change. If we’re lucky, they change for the better.

Hey, I feel happy. Quick, someone give me a corner!

I’ve just pushed the Dynamic Traction Control off. My old Clubman would wordlessly oblige with fun when I did that. The 2016’s screen explains “Maximum traction on loose surfaces” (aka pretty much any Ontario road near the end of winter) and “Limited driving stabilization and driver assistance.” Damn right, Mini! We’re grownups now; we don’t need no steenkeeng nanny controlss.

We avoid the inner city highways (appropriately if unintentionally called parkways in Toronto). Instead we zip through this poorly planned city’s many neighbourhoods whose thoroughfares are freer of parked cars during rush hours these day, making city rides like everything by Mini, except the appropriately named Countryman, a good idea. This tester’s upgraded Mini Yours Sport Leather Steering Wheel feels muscularly fatter in my hands than mine ever did, and I’d loved mine. The six-gear standard transmission effortlessly stimulates the 2.0L four-cylinder turbocharged engine, creating opportunities in traffic, mirroring my excitement for my daughter’s oncoming adventure. The engine requires premium gasoline but that’s not new.

This pure burgundy Clubman endured the urban driving challenge of being my tester right after I’d spent a week in the BMW i3, a shockingly responsive electric city tootler. The difference in torque is noticeable – is it turbo lag? I doubt it – but the Clubman is certainly as much fun overall.

Learning to let go of the past and embrace change.

My former Mini was not an S model and I’ve always questioned whether the extra expense is justified because all Minis are fun to drive. If you have the extra $4,000 to upgrade the 2016 Clubman to an S, bless you. You probably weren’t dropped on your head as a baby.

Other design features have evolved but are recognizable. Take that cheeky branding text from the drive modes and move outwards: the screen sits like a skier’s goggles in a chrome and LED circle; the colour of its perimeter shifts with you. Now, moving past the instrument cluster, up, down and all around, count the number of corresponding circles, ovals and unnecessary but intentional curves, abiding throughout. Note the new extra roundedness of the club doors at the back. The curviness of the brand hasn’t changed; if anything, it’s increased naturally, like that prosperous look most of us unintentionally beget in our middle age.

Curves and circles and former cars and growing up? Driving my daughter into the sunrise for her next life chapter in this round-mobile, I feel like a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Mufasa.

Speaking of doors and evolution, I still miss the reverse-opening suicide door in the back of my 2010, although I never had to use it. My daughter was immediately delighted by the 2016’s two grownup backdoors. She’s probably not the only one. It’s remarkable what an extra foot of length makes possible.

The panorama sunroof trumps the one I had too but, taking a cue from the S discussion above, it’s no longer even worth comparing my erstwhile Clubman to this 2016 blingionnaire. Let’s stay here in the present.

The head-up display is an expensive addition but improves safety and the feel of the drive, eliminating the need to look down regularly for the, umm, legality of your velocity. And the park distance control, part of the $1,800 Loaded Package (speaking of fun names) is a boon.

In one of those usurious parking spots only airports and hospitals can offer with a straight face, we prepare to say goodbye.

“Watch this,” I tell my daughter. A touch of the key fob and the club doors at the back pop open like a jack-in-the-box she played with as a toddler. “Oh! It’s so much springier than ours was.” Indeed, my Clubman’s back doors would wheeze out a few inches and sit there, sullen and limp, like old celery you sometimes discover at the back of your vegetable crisper (speaking of ironic names). Ten minutes later, she has her boarding pass. “I can take it from here,” she chokes out, loathing goodbyes as much as her parents. My wife and I wander back to the 2016 Clubman, nostalgic but optimistic. Then, after just a 20-minute stopover, we only have to cough up $8 for parking and I’m stupidly happy.

It’s understandable to miss things we once enjoyed in life that have moved on – but if we’re lucky, those things grow up become even better.

Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance

Competitors:
Buick Encore
Fiat 500L
Honda HR-V
Nissan Juke

2016 Mini Cooper S Clubman
2016 Mini Cooper S Clubman
Base Price $28,990
Optional Equipment Essentials Package (Panorama Sunroof, Heated Front Seats, Front and Rear Fog Lights, Front Centre Armrest, Integrated Visual Display 6.5" Screen (upgraded to 8.8" in Wired Navigation Pkg), Enhanced Telephone Prep with Voice ControlMini Connected (upgraded to XL in Wired Package) - $1,800, Loaded Package (Electric Seats with Driver Memory, Comfort Access Keyless Entry, Auto Dimming Interior Mirror, Park Distance Control (rear), Dual Zone Automatic Climate Control with Rear Vents) - $1,800; Wired Navigation Package (Integrated Visual Display 8.8" Screen, On-Board Navigation, Mini Connected XL with touch controller ) - 1,000, LED Lights Package - $1,150; Visibility Package (Rear View Mirror, Mini Head-Up Display) $800, Style Package (Mini Yours Sport Leather Steering Wheel, Chrome Line Interior,
Chrome Line Exterior, Piano Black Interior Trim) - $650, 18" Star Spoke Alloy Wheels, Silver - $1,430, Dynamic Damper Control - $500, Anthracite Roofliner - $250, Performance Tires - $50, Metallic Paint - $590
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,985
Price as Tested $40,505
Optional Equipment