Mini Cooper Clubman: Is the joke wearing thin?

June 25, 2008, 8:04 PM UTC

Where will Abigail Breslin be when she is 18?  That unlikely thought that kept crossing my mind during the weekend I spent test-driving the Mini Cooper Clubman.

For those who haven’t been keeping up with sub-teen culture, cute-as-a-button Abigail was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in the title role of “Little Miss Sunshine,” and now, at age 12, is starring in the well-received new movie “Kit Kittredge: An American  Girl.”  The next few years could be difficult for her, though.  Child actors often have a tough time making the transition to adulthood. For every Jodie Foster, there is a Tatum O’Neal.

The Clubman is the latest derivative of the Mini Cooper, which charmed enthusiasts with its retro styling and inspired performance when it was introduced in 2002. Besides becoming a huge success for its owner BMW, Mini has created a whole new segment for the U.S. market: the premium small car. More than 42,000 Minis were sold last year, more than Porsche, Saab or Jaguar.

But nothing lasts forever, and Mini’s new offering, the Clubman, felt like a afterthought to me, a watered-down version of the sparkling original.  Mini’s over-the-top styling cues now exhibit more kitsch than the wit they showed when they were fresh six years ago.  Inside, the instrument panel remains a cluttered, confusing space with cheesy plastic trim and hard-to-read graphics.

More important, the nine inches that have been added to the Mini’s overall length to create the Clubman have produced little in the way of functionality.  Only 3.2 inches was gained in the passenger compartment, producing just a skosh more legroom to ease the discomfort of rear seat passengers.  And the cargo door that has been added – on the passenger side only – to aid access is clumsy and cramped.  There is more room in the luggage compartment now, but the barn- style rear doors make it difficult to access.

Some of the virtues of the original Mini remain: peppy acceleration, skateboard-like handling, top-drawer quality, and impressive fuel economy:  26 miles per gallon city, 34 mpg highway. But like everything else made in the UK these days, the Clubman gets expensive when British pounds are converted to U.S. dollars. The $23,450 base price on my test car quickly shot up to within a hair of $30,000 after including charges for such items as lightning blue metallic paint ($500), chrome line interior and exterior,  ($500), and white turn-signal lights ($100).  Makes you wonder how much the colored turn-signal lights would run.

The Mini concept remains intact:  Create value in a small car by engineering in superior dynamics and by designing in an appealing personality.  General Motors used exactly the same recipe in developing the 2008 Chevy Malibu.  But it is time for Mini to stop relying on its cuteness.  Like a child actress who finds it difficult to grow up, Mini needs to start behaving like an adult.