Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In da

Well, it has been quite a while since I written on my blog, and I've actually been very active between driving cars and all my other pursuits.

I've since driven a bunch of BMW products over the past few months. They include the new 335i Coupe, the 650i Convertible, the new X5 4.8i, a 530xi Sport Wagon, and of course the topic of this particular post, a pre-production MINI Clubman S. I really should take pictures of the darn car I drove on my camera since you might actually see it at the LA Auto Show coming up. It's a tad different that the production models in that a few niggles are still there and the paint job in the back will not be a possible color combo for the real production Clubmans.

"So what? The Clubman is just a long wheelbase Cooper with gimmicky doors!" Well, hold your horses there buster... Like a good little Transformer, it's "more than meets the eye."

Sure, the body is lengthened and from the front everything is virtually the same. But the additional suicide door on the right side of the car makes passenger access quite easy. The only concern is that the car is a bit low to the ground but otherwise, entry and egress was easy from the back seat.

And in fact, I had plenty comfortable room back there. It was at least as good as, if not better than my Subaru's back seat room. There are some small armrests in the back that are right next so some gi-mundo cupholders. For 2 people in the back, about my height (5' 10") it wasn't a problem at all.

Of course, there's also the split barndoors in the back of the car. They are pretty convenient and it makes loading stuff in the back quite easy... as long as it isn't too big if the rear seats are up. They even have special seat anchors that will force the rear seats vertical so you can fit a perfectly rectangular item in the trunk area. That area would be fine for groceries or some shopping. But if you go nuts, it won't fit unless the rear seats go down. Then you have a ton of room, enough for some Costco shopping or if you're thinking like a racer, a full set of wheels and tires. One thing that I was shown though was that the barn doors need to be opened and closed in a specific sequence so that's the only drawback. Thankfully they have a huge rubber bumper on the door latch so you don't dent the other door if you get it wrong.

So what differences are present from the drivers seat? Well, since my last stint in a pre-pro R56 Cooper S, they've certainly done a much better job with the electronic throttle mapping. Nice and crisp and responsive, even without the benefit of Sport mode. The feeling of acceleration was very similar to the Cooper with a little bit of the hesitation that's induced by having to carry extra weight around. Torque steer is still there to some degree but axle tramp wasn't that bad on launches. I still love the flexibility of the turbo engine even though it runs out of pull pretty quick. I think the engineers did a great job tweaking the mapping to make the car more responsive to throttle inputs. Even heel-toe downshifts became much easier, especially with that good gearbox. Same vague and soft clutch pedal though. (Yes, this car had a 6 speed manual)

Just as they made improvements in the loud pedal, they made them in the "whoa" pedal. The "whoa" pedal was actually a WHOA pedal. Brakes were ALIVE! The feel was dramatically improved from the previous Coopers. Pedal was responsive and firm. They finally tuned the brakes right for a sporty character this car has.

The extra wheelbase and weight is there in as soon as you start driving. Rough pavement has definitely been smoothed out quite a bit and the car tracks with more stability at speed than the Cooper. While the Cooper just felt chuckable and ready to zip into a steering input, the Clubman still feels lively, but because of the longer wheelbase feels more planted.

The press releases say that there's specific suspension tuning for the Clubman, it does show. With the added length, body control is still there, and the handling is still fairly neutral with some mild FWD understeer. It seems like it keeps the additional suspension travel of the Coopers and builds on it, probably a better car for pounding through the rough streets of NYC. You don't really lose that much in terms of park-ability since the size increase really isn't that much.

A while ago when the Clubman was still in development, I told Heidi that she should wait to look into this car... after driving it, I'm confident that she'll fall in love with it if she drives it. So I think I better keep her away from it for now... not too hard since dealers don't have it yet thankfully!