Mini Clubman, Big on Design

Can the British automaker continue its winning streak with a sporty new model? Added legroom, storage space, and pep won't hurt

Will it be love at first sight—again? BMW (BMW) gave the world a sneak peek at its new Mini Clubman wagon July 29, releasing photos and a host of details about the eagerly awaited variant, which includes asymmetric "butterfly" doors on the right side of the car and distinctive split doors in the rear that open from the middle out. "It's the sporty, big brother of today's Mini, with a coupe-type look," says Gerd Hildebrand, Munich chief designer at Mini.

The first BMW Mini Clubman rolled off the Oxford production line in Britain on Aug. 2, and will be unveiled in the flesh at the Frankfurt Auto Show in September, ready to roll into European showrooms in November. In updating the Clubman, Hildebrand stuck closely to the concept car shown at the 2005 Frankfurt Auto Show which featured the split rear doors of the original Mini Clubman Estate (1960s) and the Morris Mini Traveller (1959). "The split doors are unique," says the 53-year-old German designer. "When you open them, the rear taillight remains stuck on the car like goggles or glasses."

But Hildebrand made one huge departure from the past with the introduction of the "Clubdoor"—a rear passenger door on the right side of the vehicle, which has no exterior handle and can only be opened from the inside when the front door is also open (for safety). The Clubman door opens in the opposite direction to the main front door, to make it easier to get in the back seat.

Hard to Reproduce

The question is whether the highly individualistic Mini crowd will embrace it. "Butterfly doors are something every designer wants to do. But they are a bit of a risk," says Christoph Stürmer, senior researcher at Global Insight in Frankfurt, noting that few automakers historically have dared give a nod to such doors—and that Mini buyers prefer to put their own stamp of originality on the car. But, Hildebrand insists, "It's a comfort door. It's hidden functionality."

Hildebrand spent four years on the Clubman's design, tussling daily with BMW's engineers over the complexity introduced by the Clubman door and the split rear doors and taillights. "These two features were complex to design and engineer and they are not cheap to produce. So they are not easily copied," says Hildebrand, who previously designed cars for General Motors' (GM) Adam Opel unit, Volkswagen (VOW), and Mitsubishi.

Hildebrand also strived to keep the wagon version of the Mini sporty-looking, hearkening back to the so-called "shooting brake" cars of the 1950s and '60s, which were upmarket models adapted for hunting and other outdoor activities enjoyed by British aristocrats. "The silver, graphical C-pillar [the roof support between the rearmost side window and the rear window] cuts the car on the end," says Hildebrand. "It emphasizes a wedge shape, and gives the car additional sportiness. It makes the car look longer and sleeker, like it's pushing forward. Likewise, the Clubman door has no external handle, to avoid disrupting the sporty lines of the car."

No Slouch on the Road

The front of the Clubman bears the unmistakable face of the popular Mini hatch, with its smiling hexagon grill and large round, earnest eyes. And the compact, low-slung silhouette is unmistakably Mini, even though the Clubman is 2 inches higher and 9.45 in. longer. Of that extra length, 3.5 in. goes to added legroom in the rear seat. The luggage compartment on the Clubman is more than double the size of the standard Mini.

Design-it-yourself options are plentiful. The interior of the car can be personalized with four different color schemes as well as trims such as Brushed Alloy and Glistening Piano. The exterior comes in 12 body colors, including one new flavor, Hot Chocolate, which will only be offered to Clubman buyers. The roof comes in either silver or black, or can also be customized.

And the Mini's big brother is no slouch on the road. The Mini Cooper S Clubman accelerates from zero to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds, while its direct-injection 175-horsepower engine sips an average 44.8 mpg. (The regular Mini Cooper Clubman has a 120-horsepower engine and makes the zero-to-60 sprint in 9.8 seconds.) The Mini Cooper D Clubman is a diesel-powered model that will—at least initially—be available only in Europe.

Global Insight forecasts Mini Clubman sales will top 40,000 next year, its first full year in production, roughly the same level of sales as the Mini Convertible. Sales of the second-generation Mini (Cooper, Cooper S, and plain Mini), which hit German showrooms last November and the U.S. market this spring, are on a tear. Mini sales jumped 17% in the second quarter (see, 8/1/07, "BMW Hits a Speed Bump") and sales of all variants are expected to top 220,000 next year.

For more on the Mini Clubman, see the accompanying slide show.

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