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Mini Cooper wagon falls short of rivals
2009 Mini Cooper Clubman

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.

Certainly, the Clubman is the cutest little urban wagon you'll ever see. But it's also one of the dumbest. Try getting into a back seat of the Clubman using that slit of rear door in a crowded parking lot. The front passenger door of the Clubman opens one way. The skinny rear door opens another. Meanwhile, on the other side of the car, the driver's side, the driver is standing with the driver's door open and the driver's seat pushed forward to allow entry to the second rear passenger. It's madness! It's a circus!

And when everybody has been shoveled into the longer, heavier Clubman -- heavier than the Mini Cooper hatchback by 155 pounds -- it still accommodates only four people, same as the smaller, lighter Mini Cooper hatchback.

The Clubman's maximum cargo capacity is 33 cubic feet, nine more than what are available in the Mini Cooper hatchback, but considerably less than the 65 cubic feet of cargo space offered by the Hyundai Elantra Touring, which also has seats for five people.

The Elantra Touring also has a bigger engine -- 2-liter, 138-horsepower inline four-cylinder compared with a 1.6-liter, 118-horsepower inline four-cylinder in the Mini Cooper hatchback and Clubman. The Hyundai is less fuel-efficient, with a combined city-highway mileage of 26 miles per gallon compared with a combined city-highway mileage of 32 for the Mini Cooper hatchback and the Clubman. But the Elantra Touring runs quite nicely on less-expensive regular gasoline.

(Yes, we've dropped the "unleaded" adjective from gasoline, because all gasoline sold in the United States nowadays is unleaded.)

To add Elantra Touring insult to Mini Cooper hatchback and Clubman injury:

The Elantra Touring arguably has a better sound system than what is available in the Mini Cooper hatchback and Clubman. Its flip-up rear door makes for easier loading than the Clubman's two swing-out rear doors. It offers as much standard safety equipment and has a safety rating that is as good, or better. And . . . the Elantra Touring starts at $17,800. The Mini Cooper Clubman starts at $20,200.

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