- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2007

MADRID — Next year when the Clubman, the latest version of the Mini, arrives on the North American market, there will be another retro car on the road. Those of us who are old enough or interested in English cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, will recognize the names Mini Clubman Estate, Austin Seven Countryman and Morris Mini Traveller. Those were the classic models that inspired the team of Gert Hildebrand, Mini’s design director, when they started drawing the third variant of the modern Mini.

Indications that we could expect a longer version were alive when the Mini Concept made its debut two years ago at the IAA Frankfurt Auto Show. A month later, the Traveller was dressed in British Racing Green to take the stage in Tokyo, and in January 2006, the Mini Concept Detroit was revealed in Motown. By then, Mini’s Dr. Michael Ganal, a board member of BMW AG, said, “We have decided to add a new member to the Mini family.”

In two weeks, the production version will bow at the IAA and will hit the European roads this fall, while North America will have to wait until the first quarter of 2008 for its arrival.

In 2001, when the new Mini was introduced on the market, BMW was reluctant with numbers, but it was clear they hoped to sell 100,000 cars on a yearly basis. But they would never have dreamed that sales, inclusive of the Convertible, which arrived in 2004, would reach the 1 million mark this spring. Now, with the addition of the Clubman, interest in and publicity on the Mini should be kept alive.

In Europe, the Clubman comes in three models: Cooper, Cooper S and Cooper D. It is not known yet, if the diesel will also hit the North American market.

Technically, those models do not differ from the hatchback versions, which means the Cooper has 120 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque, the Cooper S has 175 horsepower and 177 pound-feet, while the common-rail turbo diesel produces 110 horsepower and also has 177 pound-feet of torque.

Compared with the production Mini Cooper, the Clubman is nearly 9.5 inches longer and has a 3.2-inch longer wheelbase. But not less important are the three doors that have been added.

The back is now split, with two doors hinged at the outside for easy access to the expanded luggage compartment, which measures 9.1 cubic feet with the seats raised. When folded down, the cargo space eats 32.6 cubic feet of goodies.

The passenger seats can be reached easily now through the added small club door that opens contrary to the driving direction and by the lack of a B-pillar. The passengers in the rear benefit fully of the longer wheelbase and have a little more legroom. They also have slightly more headroom because the roof line has been raised by nearly an inch.

Furthermore, the Clubman offers a more practical luggage compartment, which increased by 3.2 cubic feet to 9.1 cubic feet. The styling of the Clubman is enhanced by contrasting paint work of the rear door in the same color as the roof, which comes standard in either silver or black. Mini also offers the Clubman with the roof in body color, with only the C-pillars and the upper part of the bumpers in contrasting paint.

Customizing is as easy as with the Mini hatchback: with 12 colors, there are a lot of possibilities, while the interior is offered in four trims and can be combined with five color line variants plus the Pepper or the Chili package. Seats are offered in cloth, leather or a combination of both.

Of course, I was curious if the driving dynamics of the 2008 Clubman would be much different from the Mini hatchback. When we stepped behind the steering wheel of the blue Clubman Cooper S, the feeling was immediately marked by recognition. Across Spain’s capital, I had enough driving time to explore the longer Mini, and it behaved as I had expected. The turbocharged engine propels the Mini to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds and reaches a top speed of 136 mph.

European models arrive in showrooms with automatic stop/start functionality built in to save fuel along with regenerative braking, which captures heat energy normally lost in braking and converts it to electrical power for accessories. It is not known if those features will make it to the United States. What will be offered on the U.S. models is the same standard safety equipment, including six air bags, anti-lock braking system, electronic brake-force distribution, cornering brake control and brake assist. Stability and traction control will also be standard, as well hill-start assistance. A limited slip differential will be optional on the Cooper S.

On the route with the winding roads, the Clubman impressed with the direct and precise feel of its electrical power-assisted steering gear, the turbo engine — as willing and able as I remembered — and the smooth-shifting six-speed gearbox, which was not any different from that in the hatch. But, and there is a but: If the surface of the road is not completely smooth, the car is really nervous and unstable. I would mark it as uncomfortable. Who wants to have a Mini with more practical qualities that easily seats four (or five) that is so stiff? Mini’s Senior Vice President Ulrch Kranz conceded that this version was “maybe too much. Please drive one of the silver-colored models that has no sport suspension.”

The sport suspension means stiffer springs and dampers, roll bars with a different diameter and 17-inch wheels with 205/45 tires. The Clubman Cooper S comes standard on 195/55 R16 run-flats, which offer more comfort because of the increased height.

And indeed, the standard Cooper S is the Clubman I would prefer. The balance between front and rear is better, and the nervousness is gone. For those who opt for less go-kart characteristics and more comfort, the Clubman Cooper, standard on 15-inch wheels, is the alternative.

The Mini Clubman is expected to reach the North American market in February 2008.

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