- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

I’m always amused by the exuberant reaction a Mini Cooper triggers. The car seemingly appeals to everyone — even those who don’t particularly like such cars.

Mini Cooper has expanded its lineup with the Clubman. The Clubman’s elongated body and dual side-hinged rear doors make it even funkier and more unique than the conventional Cooper.

The 2009 Mini Cooper Clubman is streets-of-London chic. Mini Cooper fans can put to rest concerns that the Clubman’s expanded size (3.2 inches of extra wheelbase and 9 inches-plus of extra length) might sour the standard Mini Cooper’s renowned agility and sharp steering.

The Clubman’s stretch does a serious job of improving comfort and utility, but absolutely does not compromise the keen driving experience. Just like the conventional Mini, the Mini Cooper Clubman cuts and carves through traffic and narrow streets.

If you choose the 1.6-liter 4-cylinder base engine, then you need to be the kind who’s eager to keep the whip in hand, because its 118 horsepower is only adequate to move the Clubman’s dainty 2,723 pounds. Willingness to shift your own way with the enthusiastic six-speed manual transmission abets the performance of the direct-injected little engine and also saves you the $1,250 cost of the Clubman’s optional six-speed automatic transmission.

Serious drivers can address the power issue with the Mini Cooper Clubman S, which uses a turbocharger to huff on the conventional engine’s numbers, extracting an extra 54 horsepower. More vital, however, are the 63 more pound-foot of torque that shoves around the Clubman with impunity.

The point of the Clubman over the standard Mini Cooper is its expanded length. Although a few inches in the wheelbase isn’t really much, it translates to now-tolerable legroom for the two rear-seat occupants and expands the cargo area of the standard Mini by a not-inconsequential 61 percent with the rear seats up.

The side-swinging “barn door” entry to the rear cargo area is a convoluted answer when a conventional hatch would have worked fine, but the twin doors enhance the Clubman’s quirky image. The swinging doors are boosted with hydraulic struts that entertainingly pop them open to full width after you click the latches.

Equally important to the utility equation is the new, rear-hinged demi-door on the Clubman’s passenger side. Children and adults of thinner profile now can slide into the rear seats without contorting themselves.

Apart from the Clubman’s extra rear-seat and cargo space, there’s a giant round central dial for the speedometer, fuel gauge and other indicators, and incorporated into that are some of the tortuous controls for the audio system that never seem to do what you want. Just below, the manual climate controls also are overstyled and non-intuitive.

When I look at a Mini’s sticker, it’s always a couple thousand dollars more than what I’d consider a “good value,” despite the long list of Mini strong points. If you like the Mini Cooper Clubman as a fuel-economy play, the almost $26,000 of the Mini Cooper Clubman test car buys all the Toyota Prius hybrid you could want.

If the Clubman’s more about squirt-around-town performance and nimbleness, that same $26,000 can buy a Volkswagen GTI, which is heap big fun and a lot roomier. But then none of these is a Mini.

There’s palpable flair oozing from the Mini brand. Considering its extra utility, the Clubman now is the best model in the always-entertaining Mini Cooper lineup.

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