My car lease is up in December and I’m sad to say goodbye to the most thrilling car I’ve ever driven, the Audi A4 2.0T quattro. But the speeding tickets and accident drove our insurance up to $5000 a year and responsibility dictates that I take it down a notch for two years to recover. It also gets 20mpg on a good day and has been bleeding me for the last year. The Audi is a beautiful machine inside and out and it has served me well. But it is not a good car for triathlon, or even cycling which is what I really need these days. I drive to a spot and bike all over which means I need a car I can use as a transition area. When I surveyed the LA Tri Club for their cars of choice the Honda Element was the clear winner, but I thought the MINI Clubman would be a dark horse.
My wife’s coworker hooked me up with a connection at Nick Alexander imports down in the middle of nowhere south of downtown L.A. Willem gave me the full Monty. They’ve got tons of MINIs to choose from and their warehouse looks like a bumper car ride at the carnival with hundreds of MINIs lined up with their little whip antennae sticking out their roofs.
What differentiates the Clubman from the regular MINI is the suicide passenger door, it’s about a foot longer than a regular MINI, and the rear opens up with a set of barn doors. Otherwise it’s very much the same car:
I test drove the standard Clubman first and was warned beforehand that coming from an Audi A4 2.0T quattro I’d be in for a sharp difference. My wife drives a Honda Fit and I enjoy driving it for limited periods. But doing road trips to San Francisco is about my limit. I feel constrained by having to mash the accelerator to the floor to pass people, and I feel like I have to redline the engine to get it to go fast. The VTEC engine is designed this way, to redline comfortably and push performance at high RPMs. But I feel like I’m cracking the whip on a hamster that’s running as fast as it can inside its little ball so I back off the throttle after pushing it for a passing maneuver. The Audi merely mutters a low “enschuldegung” as it hums by BMW 3s and tuner rice rockets. Even with only 200hp the Germans know how to engineer a ride. Which is why the MINI Clubman was a pleasant surprise. It wasn’t pokey but I could definitely feel the muted horsepower. This would be a fine city driving car. At 117hp I was getting only part of the MINI experience. I pushed it a little on the city streets, enough to feel like I could make do if I had to. But Willem wisely moved me from the regular to the S.
Twelve years ago there was a briefly lived expensive arcade in Pasadena called Virtual World that built cocoon pods of linked video game stations. They created a beautiful lounge environment with portraits of British adventurers like Sir Richard Burton and the pitch was that the customers were futurenaut explorers. There were two different games – a racing simulator of low gravity rockets in an alien mining facility, and the other was a complicated mechanized warrior game of battlefield strategy. Virtual World now lives on as the latter style game as BattleTech Centers. It was an expensive habit, $1 per minute of gameplay. But the racing game was addictive. Being cocooned in a pod in a racing position with surround sound amped to 11 and a huge screen fore and aft to simulate being inside the pod racer. My craft of choice was always the lightest possible chassis with as many booster rockets as possible. A piece of tin foil around an afterburner. Some people liked to roll heavy, but I liked the feeling of lightspeed, nimble handling, and the occasional explosive death. It is no surprise that my goal for my tri bike is weigh less than 15lbs and to beef up my legs into solid rocket boosters.
Driving the MINI Clubman S is kind of like that Red Planet racing experience. Nestled into a snug leather cockpit with high tech rocker switches on the ceiling and console and very little separating driver from road. This is both a positive and a negative, vis a vis the explosive death mentioned earlier. My father has said that the best savings in these cars is they provide the coffin as part of the vehicle. Wreck in a MINI and you’re never getting out. Given how many airbags are crammed into this car it’s more likely that in case of impact I’d be liquified from external pressure turning me and the car into some sort of metal and man Moon pie.
The real question was how I could fit my bike inside the car to use as a transition area? And the answer is – unlikely. The barn doors make the trunk easier to access and the rear seats fold flat, unlike the original MINI, but even with the passenger seat pushed forward there’s not enough width to fit my bike flat. Forget about the wetsuit, the bike pump, and all the other crap that would be nice to have in a rolling transition area. The Clubman S can only work if I get a locking roof rack system, which in truth I am loathe to do. I could take the dogs in case of emergency, or even just to the doggie day care, but to get the bike in and out of the car – or on and off – will take several minutes of dealing with a rack system. It’s not ideal, but it is hellafun to drive.
I spec’d out two flavors of the car and sent them to Willem to see what kind of lease arrangements I can make. The car is blissfully fun to drive, gets great mileage, and has a seriously high fun factor. No one does fit and finish like the Germans – the interior design on the MINI rivals the Audi. It’s high tech without losing intuitive layout and there’s enough bells and whistles to keep any ADD driver busy for hours. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t finally check out the Honda Element, the hands-down top choice of triathletes in every group I’ve asked.
In my past writing about how to buy a car there is always the one irrational “I love it” factor that has to be weighed. You can’t force yourself to buy a car you’re supposed to love driving. It has to be love at first drive and you make everything else work because you love the ride. I really, really liked the Clubman S, but there are enough red flags that if I cannot afford it, or I cannot make it work for triathlon I won’t be devastated. It is really, really fun to drive, though.