First drive: Mini Cooper Clubman

The bigger little Mini is here. But does it measure up?

Mini Cooper S Clubman Mini USA

After months of making the rounds at every conceivable auto show, the 2008 Mini Cooper Clubman is finally on sale in the U.S.

The wagon-style Clubman is billed as a roomier car that still maintains the personality of the original Mini. To some, it seems like a perfect combination of form and function. But for me, the idea of a big Mini just seems ... well ... against what makes a Mini a Mini. One thing's for sure: the Clubman just seems to be one of those cars that people either love or hate.

Part of the point of making the bigger car is, obviously, to accommodate more stuff. The third door, which opens up suicide-style on the passenger's side, makes it easy for back seat passengers to get in and out -- but it does look a tad strange. And the double doors in back make way for a fair amount of cargo space.

The problem is, when we drove the 1.6-liter, 118-horsepower Clubman, we found it struggling to give us the power we needed. And that was with two adults and no cargo. I couldn't imagine trying to get that thing through the hills of San Francisco with a full trunk. While the handling, which Mini describes as "go-kart" style, was pretty quick and responsive, the car just couldn't keep up with our demands. Of course, one major benefit of the smaller engine is fuel economy - an estimated 37 miles per gallon on the highway and 28 miles per gallon in the city with the manual transmission (34/26 automatic) -- as long as you drive it alone and empty on relatively flat roads.

The Clubman S, however, was a different story. The car had plenty of pep, and while we didn't take it up any steep hills, it was able to reach highway speed and pass other cars with relative ease. But the extra performance drops the gas mileage down to 34 miles per gallon on the highway and 26 miles per gallon in the city with the manual gearbox (32/23 for the automatic).

There's no doubt that the Mini Cooper Clubman will have its loyal followers. Its signature Mini styling cues, along with some model-specific features, definitely attract attention. But unless you're willing to spring for the more powerful engine, be prepared to curse those steep city streets. And for $25k, there are plenty of other cars that could make it up the hill. Although the alternatives might not look as hip.

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