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Mini Cooper: For even more function, join the Clubman

        For those who like a little novelty with their transportation, there's the Mini Cooper. For those who like a lot of novelty, there is the new Mini Clubman wagon.

        Looking like a scrunched-down service van, the Clubman is loaded with Mini DNA, from its droopy front end to its monstrous center-mounted speedometer and airplane-like toggle switches for the lights and locks, windows and sunroof. But then you step to the rear and open its "barn doors'' -- first open the right, then the left. More convenient than the standard Mini hatchback? Nah, but more funky.

Mini_rgb          If you think the Clubman looks familiar, you have a good memory. It was inspired by ancestors like the Austin Mini Countryman, Morris Mini Traveller and Mini Clubman Estate which were popular in the '60s and '70s. A classic family trait: the twin rear doors.

        The "Club' can accommodate five; entry to the rear seat is made easier by a right-side mini door, hinged at the back. Rear-seaters enjoy about three inches more legroom than the regular Mini (after all, it's nine inches longer and an inch taller). Still, the back seat is merely bearable, not quite roomy enough to be called comfortable.

        Inside, front doors are adorned with distinguishing features like oval indents and half-moon shaped handles. From the outside, I found the door handles required more effort than they should.

        Two-tone seats can be part leather, part fabric, as if one had decided to upgrade but just couldn't go all the way. But seats are plenty supportive and comfortable.

        Mini raised the rear cargo area to offer a flat area when the rear seats are folded down. It's about nine cubic feet bigger than regular Mini. And there is a hidden storage compartment under the rear floor to tuck some things away when at the mall.

        Touchable surfaces felt like good quality, but sun visors had a surprisingly flimsy feel. A novel instrument panel has a gas gauge with 10 tiny lights, each representing a tenth of a tank, that go out one at a time as you consume.

        A sunroof keeps things bright inside, but maybe sometimes you want to turn off the bright. Well, the sunroof has a manual shade but no solid closure to block out the sun completely, and that means taking more warmth than you wish here in South Florida.

        Options abound to make every Clubman unique: any combination of four interior colors, interior trims like English Oak and glossy Black Piano paint. Twelve body colors are available and the Clubman even has a brown exterior color reserved exclusively for it: Hot Chocolate.      

        Out on the road, the Clubman feels solid and stable, but it also is a rather rough ride -- especially with the sport package and its stiffer springs and shocks and run-flat tires. 

        Its 1.6-liter engine with twin-scroll turbocharger and variable valve timing has plenty of pep. In zero-to-60 tests, it gets beat by its kin, the Mini Cooper S, but not enough for many to notice. The Clubman gets it done in 7.2 seconds, versus 6.9.

        With 177 foot-pounds of torque, it's not exactly overloaded. Yet it performs all around the tach dial and it never feels underpowered.

        And its six-speed tranny upshifts quickly for a sporty feel.

        Fuel economy is comparable to the smaller Mini, rated at 23 mpg city and 32 highway, and that's pretty accurate as I managed mid-20s combined. Assisting in the economy with all manual gearboxes is an "auto start stop'' option which shuts down the engine every time you come to a stop, shift into neutral and take your foot off the clutch. To restart, press the clutch pedal again.

       The sportier Club also gets performance safety features like electronic brake force distribution and stability control.

       The Clubman will hit you up for another $2,500 over the regular Mini and, considering its similar performance and features, that's worth a second thought. But if your pal down the street has the other one and you want a little more room and just as much fun, join the Club.

MSRP: $19,950 - $23,450

   

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