Mini Cooper S Clubman

Despite reasonable pump prices, fuel economy remains high on the list of sought-after features for new-car shoppers. For those whose gotta-have list also includes sporty and fun to drive, there are more than a few choices out there. None, however, are more sporty or fun to drive than the Mini Cooper S. A combination of jackrabbit acceleration and spot-on handling elevates the Cooper S into the ranks of uber grin makers that include sports cars costing thousands more.

My latest Cooper S was the $24,350 Clubman. The “S” is the middle-of-the-road Cooper model. It has a 172-horsepower turbocharged 1.6-liter four. A 118-horsepower version of the same engine without turbo charging powers the entry-level Cooper. At the top of the Cooper heap is the John Cooper Works edition that delivers 208 horsepower. As in The Three Bears, the in-between S seems to be just right. Just the right mix of moxie, fuel efficiency, low emissions and get-up-and-go, the Cooper S balances environmental concerns with boy-racer performance. If you can reconcile the living space to your lifestyle requirements, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better blend of green and go.

Environmental concerns are met with a fuel-stingy appetite for gasoline. Yes, premium is required, so there is a bit of a spike in the per-gallon price over regular; but with an EPA fuel economy rating of 26 mpg in town and 34 mpg on the highway, the Cooper S will cost about as much in gasoline per year as a four-cylinder Accord. And the Cooper S is a lot more fun to drive. Also earning a spot on the EPA’s list of SmartWay cars; the Cooper S scored well on the government agency’s measure of smog pollutants and greenhouse gases. The higher the score, the fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases; the Cooper S received 14 out of 20 possible points.

Hustling engine output to the front wheels falls to a six-speed Getrag manual transmission. If you want the transmission to self-select the cogs, you will need to pony up an additional $1,250 for the optional driver-shiftable six-speed automatic. My test Cooper S had the slick-shifting manual – flogging the transmission yourself is more entertaining anyway. Well matched, engine and tranny coaxed some great fun out of the Clubman. Mini says you can expect to sprint from 0 to 60 in about seven seconds.

Stocked up with a number of features designed to help keep the driver in control, the Cooper S comes standard with four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. There is also traction control, stability control, emergency brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution. Additionally a brake hill-holder feature that keeps the vehicle from drifting backward when putting the car into first gear on an incline is standard.

Sixteen-inch alloy wheels carrying run-flat tires are part of the Cooper S package. Upgrading to 17-inch alloys will add $1,250 to the bottom line. McPherson struts in front and a multi-link arrangement in the rear comprise the basics of the four-wheel independent suspension. The ride is sports-car stiff, inspiring some braking at every railroad crossing. A Sport button for the Clubman’s electronic steering increases the response. The athletic suspension and acute steering conspire to deliver an almost go-cart-like driving experience.

Larger than the two-door hatchback or convertible Cooper, the Clubman is nearly 10 inches longer. It contains about 38 cubic feet of cargo room – about 40 percent more than the hatchback. That space swells to 33 cubic feet with the backseat folded. The cargo hold is easier to utilize thanks to side-hinged “barn doors” that open wide for loading and unloading. Likewise rear-seat passengers find entering and exiting the Clubman easier than the hatchback because the doors on the passenger side are also hinged opposite each other in a barn- or suicide-door format.

Other than the additional cargo space and two and a half inches of extra rear-seat legroom, the Clubman cabin is a carbon copy of the hatchback's with all the standard bells and whistles. All Coopers are furnished for four; however, the Clubman does a better job of actually accommodating that number. The dashboard is the same funky retro layout found in other Coopers. The pie-pan tachometer sits directly in front of the driver, while the smaller speedometer is fixed in the center of the dashboard with the controls for the six-speaker audio system included in the same unit. A CD player and an auxiliary input jack for your iPod are standard. The heating and cooling controls are arranged below. If you didn't realize BMW is Mini's parent, it will become apparent when you want to make any adjustment to the stereo, which is more difficult than it needs to be. Pop an extra $2,000 for the optional navigation system and be prepared for some real hair pulling. There is very little intuitive about this unit.

Once past some of the controls that are overly complex, BMW's influence is all positive. The Cooper S Clubman is a blast to pilot and can more than hold its own on mountain twisties or dashing from green light to red in urban slogfests. Lots of fun and environmentally responsible – it's perfection on wheels.

By Russ Heaps