We're a nation that has traditionally taken it for granted that "bigger is better" despite the evidence that "small is beautiful." But now the corporate family that comprises both BMW and Mini is determined to change our minds with two important 2008 models.
This one-two punch is cleverly paradoxical: For the new BMW 1 Series, downsized vehicles (both a coupe and a convertible) are fitted with big-boy powertrains. In the case of the Mini Cooper Clubman, the familiar Mini shape is stretched and pulled to make room for more cargo and more doors, but the basic pair of powertrains remains unchanged. Adding further to the irony, all these new vehicles were debuted recently along California's fabled "Big Sur" coastline; and at their diminutive best, they won big smiles among jaded autowriters-which is, of course, no small achievement.
I predict there will be many who will automatically be attracted to the new Baby BMW 1 Series line-up simply because downsizing, efficiency and affordability are the spirit of the age. Bully for them; and they're not likely to be disappointed. But for the true aficionado, this new 1 Series is an important renaissance; for in this car is reborn the spirit of the famous BMW 2002, which first turned the automotive world on its ear some 42 years ago. And do you know, BMW has been an infallible status symbol ever since.
BMW wants 2008 to enter the annals as "Year One of the 1"-and they're serious about it. Each 2008 1 Series model will have a trim ring about the Start/Stop button embossed with this very phrase, and each customer will receive a commemorative hardback book to which a facsimile of his or her actual VIN [Vehicle Identification Number] plate is affixed inside the cover. However, for the enthusiast-as opposed to the E-Bay speculator-the new 1 Series marks the return of the Personal Performance Package. As the smallest BMW, it's less a people-mover than a transporter of emotions. It's a driver's car for folks who care to do or think about little else.
This is not to say the 1 Series is tiny-tiny, by any means. Both the coupe and the soon-to-follow cabriolet are honest four-seaters; and although rear legroom is tight, it's trunk space that surrenders most to achieve a near-10 inch shorter length compared to the 3 Series. This comparison is not only inevitable but crucial, because this smaller, lighter 1 Series employs both of the 3 Series' powerplants, resulting in explosive performance.
Configured as a 128i model, the car delivers 230 horsepower from its 3.0-liter straight-six. Add turbocharging, and you get a 300-hp 135i model, whose monster torque output of 300 foot-pounds from 1,500 to 5,000 rpm is truly thrilling. Six speed manual or automatic transmissions are sporty to the max; and suspension tuning, enhanced by optional active steering, takes handling to the maximum tolerable limit for "civilian" vehicles on public thoroughfares.
A true enthusiast will know (but not care) that the foregoing is something of a coded description: the 1 Series can feel harsh on rough surfaces; transmit more-than-customary road noise; and surprise the unwary with its feral power. It can do so, moreover, for as little as $29,375 for a base 128i, which is phenomenal in pricey BMW Land. Foreign exchange rates do rather less of a favor for the 135i ($35,675) or for either of the anticipated cabrios ($33,875/$39,875, respectively). Let no one mistake the new 1 Series as the mere pup of the BMW breed, however. It may look the terrier; but at heart, it's a mastiff.
So if it's cute and cuddly you want, you'll have to find a different club-or more precisely, a new Mini Cooper Clubman. Ostensibly pitched as the "macho" Mini because, I suppose, it's got barn doors at the rear and a "suicide" or rear-hinged hatch behind the passenger-side door, this latest confection is almost 10 inches longer than the mini Mini. It's also more fun to drive, if that's even conceivable.
Because, you see, the longer, heavier (by 177 pounds) Clubman retains the same two powertrains as the basic Mini: a 1.6-liter twin-cam four making 118 hp or a turbocharged "S" version of the same motor making 172 hp. A six-speed manual or a six-speed auto round out the transmission choices. So if the vehicle is bigger, but its motors are not, what makes it so fun?
The scientific answer is: I dunno; it just is. Somehow the Mini-minds over at HQ dreamed up a car whose saucy attitude spreads over a Clubman driver like creamy Hollandaise, enlivening any stretch of road. Even the "puny" base motor has plenty of car-passing zip; and the harder you crack the whip, the deeper, more delightfully visceral the exhaust note becomes. And three more inches of wheelbase do, in fact, tame the original Mini's skittishness along Interstate freeways and sweeping Pacific coastal highways.
The practical payoffs are enormous: Without actually appearing much larger, the Clubman's extra 6 inches of cargo space balloons trunk capacity to a range of 9-to-33 cubic feet (from 6-to-24). Those Siamese rear doors open extra wide, as does the new side hatch that rear passengers will applaud. A collateral benefit is a longer, stronger roof to which more capacious rails and cargo pods can be affixed.
The new Clubman costs approximately $2,000 more than its original Mini counterpart (now designated Mini Hardtop). The base model Cooper Clubman starts at $20,600 (versus $18,700) and the Cooper S Clubman starts at $24,100 (versus ($21,850). No doubt there are practical souls out there who'll opt for a Clubman simply because of its greater hauling capacity and rear-seat access-or not. But practicality is really just an unintended consequence where Mini-any Mini-is concerned. More consequential by far is Mini's knack for mighty maxi-entertainment.
Coupe; 3-door, 4-pass.; 1.6-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ or w/o turbocharging; FWD, 6-sp. manual or auto; 118-172 hp/114-177 ft.-lbs.; 23-28 mpg/city, 32-37 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 9.2-32.8 cu. ft.; base prices: Cooper Clubman/$20,600; Cooper S Clubman/$24,100
Sport coupe or cabriolet; 2-door, 4-pass.; 3.0-liter DOHC inline-6 w/ or w/o turbocharging; RWD, 6-sp. manual or auto; 230-300 hp/200-300 ft.-lbs.; 17-19 mpg/city, 25-28 mpg/hwy w/ premium; trunk: 13 cu. ft.; base prices: 128i Coupe/$29,375; 128i Cabriolet/$33,875; 135i Coupe/$35,675; 135i Cabriolet/$39,875