Prolechariot is a series about vehicular value. It's about slapping your needs and wants on a wall, grabbing a fistfull of darts, cocking your arm back and trying to strike most, if not all, of your targets. It’s about making the second-largest purchase decision most Americans face, and making it well—nay, making it right. Prolechariots are cars for the rest of us, for the 99 percent, and Jonathan Schultz is driving them.
Check your wallet, America. Is there $33,781 in there? Hey, congrats! That’ll buy 24,303 gallons of 87 octane in New Jersey, one place setting at a fundraiser dinner for Hillary Clinton, nine pairs of Nike Air Jordan 5 Retro T23 “Tokyo” sneakers, or a new car at the nationwide average price. Plunk down for a 2016 Mini Cooper Clubman, equipped with a marvelous six-speed manual transmission and downright miraculous three-cylinder engine, and you’ll still have $3,000 to funnel toward your favorite Super PAC. Is this “big” Mini a win for the American middle class? The Clubman is effectively a BMW assembled in England, and those passport stamps typically don’t come cheap. So at $30,750 delivered, the Cooper Clubman makes for a damn compelling Prolechariot proposition.
Just don’t look at it.
Of the Clubman, which was redesigned for 2016, my wife said: “It looks like Fat Bastard sat on it.” Sure enough, the big Scot’s tartan leaked through a door seam and pooled in the cup holders and cubbies, too; Mini has slapped plaid decals in every nook and cranny.
The previous Clubman could be fairly remembered as the Mini Cooper Dachshund Edition. With 9.5 inches of extra length over the basic Cooper Hardtop, it was fitted with a reverse-hinge demi-door on the passenger’s side for ease of access to the rear seats. Barn doors swung wide to grant unfettered access to the hatch area. Launched in an age of willfully weird Nissan Cubes and Scion xBs, the Clubman leavened its idiosyncrasies with British taste and reserve. Mini never sold scads of them, but nobody questioned whether the car represented a sensible or credible extension of the brand.
Eleven inches longer and 350 pounds heavier than that outgoing model, today’s Clubman is, in a word, extended. Taking in its fleshy hind quarters and overall squished mien, an onlooker may perceive a likeness to Austrian artist Erwin Wurm’s Fat Car sculptures:
How superficial, you say. This is Prolechariot, a column about automotive value—specifically, whether a car merits a reader of The Drive’s hard-earned dollar—not about Austrian postmodernists. You're right. Here are the five things you need to know about the 2016 Mini Clubman.
1. Three Is a Magic Number
Before 2014, the last new car to be sold in America with a three-cylinder engine was the 1997 Geo Metro. The only occasion you’d still want to drive such an affront to humanity would be the Mongol Rally, which caps engine displacement at one liter. The Cooper Clubman’s turbocharged, direct-injected three-cylinder is as removed from the Metro as a Pagani Huayra’s AMG V12 is from a basket-case Jaguar XJS. With 162 pound-feet of torque peaking at a near-somnambulant 1,250 rpm, Mini's three-banger puts a fat gob of punch beneath your right foot and keeps it there.
This is a deceptive little piece of German engineering. (Cause for alarm, historically speaking, but continue...—Ed.) With only 134 horsepower, the engine feels as powerful as the outgoing Clubman S’s 181-hp turbo four. Darting along Manhattan’s East River Drive, picking between cars doing going anywhere from 25 to 70 mph, the Clubman has revs and poise for days. Just point, stab and go. And this engine has an equally nimble dance partner.
2. The Mini Cooper Clubman Will Clean Up Your Sloppy Shifts
You’re mired in crosstown traffic on a rainy Friday night. Smears of red light dance across the puddles. Escalades and Town Cars inch from intersection to intersection. There you are in your six-speed Clubman, puttering along in first gear, modulating the clutch. An Escalade stops abruptly. You brake—and stall. Or do you? Depress the clutch and the engine springs back to life without a key turn or “Engine Start” button press. Credit BMW Group’s trick engine stop/start system, which doubles as a stall failsafe. Sure, the car may still lurch (ideally not into an Escalade), but the ignominy of fiddling with a key after a stall is gone. Just press the clutch to the floor, lift and squirt, and be on your way. Of course, you could just learn to drive stick. But, hey, the more manuals the merrier.
The Getrag six-speed gearbox is a lot of fun to use when traffic clears. Dip down into fourth on the highway, and the Clubman eases into a slipstream of torque, with no jerkiness or hysterics. Toggle into “Sport,” and feel the steering tighten smartly. Shift down to second and stay off the brake as you follow the freshly paved corkscrew onto the Brooklyn Bridge, and you’re struck, not necessarily for the first time, by how good this car is.
3. The Interior Dials Back the Obnoxious
Under BMW Group, the reborn Mini has traded heavily on kitsch—from those tartan cubbies to Union Jack-patterned mirror caps and Rockola jukebox lighting on its cars’ pizza-size center dial. Great, you say. A bunch of pointless knick knacks that will break, and break expensively. We don’t know the repair bill on “Ambient Lighting With Adjustable LED Colors,” but can we foresee the system freezing in Permanent Ibiza Foam Party mode at 50,000 miles? Um, Ja, dude.
The new Clubman’s interior seems less Little Britain pastiche and more Grown-Ass Bimmer sub-brand. The dash’s plastics and vinyl composites feel decidedly upmarket, as do the optional Sport seats, with their generous side bolsters. Though not as forehead-slapping brilliant as the units in the Audi TT, the air vents are paragons of Teutonic cleverness, with just one centrally mounted knob to direct or modulate airflow. The optional leather-wrapped wheel, extra thick at the 10 and 2 o’clock, inspires nothing but mischief. Throughout, camp has been supplanted by quality. Good.
4. You Need to Hang Up Your Hang-ups
Like the brilliant Mazda Miata, which has always carried an undeserved whiff of Aqua-Net, the Cooper Clubman must be approached with an open mind and the impermeability of a mallard. You’re no less virile for driving it, especially if you spec the Getrag six. Let the steroidal tech bros in their GT-Rs scoff; they only use their left feet to scratch their shaved right calves, anyhow.
5. Then Again…
It takes a certain person to clamber aboard the Mini bus. Though a fundamentally wonderful city car, the 2016 Cooper Clubman is still a bit cartoonish. If you’re considering one, you’d likely regard it as an outward manifestation of your playful yet pragmatic disposition, even at $30,750.
The Cooper Clubman’s profusion of tartan, however, evokes another four-door hatch that is superior to anything in its segment. With a playful streak (plaid seat inserts) that sometimes yields to a supercar-baiting Napoleon complex (258 lb-ft torque, optional limited-slip differential), the Volkswagen GTI is a car that overachieves on almost every metric. Hell, we could probably change this column’s name from Prolechariot to GTI All Day, and pack it in.
But, for some, the GTI is simply too much car. The buyer who values a locking front differential doesn’t necessarily want “Let’s Motor Hard!” flashing across a multimedia display. The Cooper Clubman is no less appealing, though. It’s not out to conquest you, but to charm you. And if you aren’t charmed, then get out of its way; it’s got motoring to do.
2016 MINI COOPER CLUBMAN
PRICE (as tested): $30,750
POWERTRAIN: turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine, 134 hp, 162 lb-ft torque; six-speed Getrag manual transmission; front-wheel drive
MPG: 25 city / 35 highway
NUMBER OF TARTAN-CLAD INTERIOR SURFACES: Six. Maybe twelve? Lost count.