Mini Cooper wagon falls short of rivals

By Warren Brown
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 25, 2009

I wanted it too much. It was bound to disappoint. It did.

The 2009 Mini Cooper Clubman, the base model driven for this column, was not what I thought it would be.

It was cute. It turned heads. That was fun.

But in the merchandise pickup bays at several Virginia home improvement stores, it was outdone by less expensive urban wagons, including the Hyundai Elantra Touring; the Pontiac Vibe, which is also sold as the Toyota Matrix; and the Honda Fit Sport.

It was fantasy blown to bits by reality. As the longtime owner of a Mini Cooper hatchback car, I should've been prepared for this. But I was blindsided by unrealistic expectations of the elongated Clubman wagon.

Here's the deal:

Urban wagons are small haulers of people and stuff, brilliantly agile in tight city traffic, easy to park, zippy, fun to drive, not bad to look at, and easy on the wallet at point of sale and, later, at the gas pump.

The tiny hatchback Mini Cooper car scores well in agility, parking and fun-to-drive. But its charm is its size -- 145.6 inches front to rear, a bit more than 12 feet long in a world of behemoths often double its curb weight (factory weight including vehicle fluids, but minus passengers, cargo and aftermarket options) of 2,568 pounds.

Driving the Mini Cooper hatchback is like piloting a go-kart; it's like being behind the wheel of a car in a cartoon movie. It goes zip-zip, beep-beep in a world of zoom, varoom, and honk! It's a car that makes you smile.

But it's nobody's darling when it comes to practical living. It gets 27 miles per gallon in the city and 37 miles per gallon on the highway. But it requires premium gasoline -- and that's "requires" with no exceptions.

The Mini Cooper hatchback car doesn't carry much, which is why Germany's BMW, maker of the Mini, extended the hatchback 9.4 inches and added two rear swing-out doors and a small rear access door on the passenger side, thus turning it into the Clubman wagon..

The alterations were done prettily -- enough to seduce me into believing that, somehow, a major miracle had been worked in the small wagon segment. I was partially right. But the miracle was more a work of design and marketing than it was a matter of automotive innovation.

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