With my E46 touring in the garage for New England’s salty winter, I had the opportunity to spend my winter ski season with a completely different type of vehicle.
The MINI Clubman isn’t the most utilitarian vehicle ever made. It can’t haul plywood like a Tacoma, you can’t bring nine of your friends like a Volvo XC90 or Chevy Suburban. It has virtually no ground clearance and you hit your elbow on the ends of your skis every time you shift. But can you use it as your daily driver commuting to the mountain during a Vermont winter? I wanted to find out.
In an attempt to impede the notorious Vermont salt from blowing holes in my E46 unibody, I commandeered my parents’ 2019 MINI Clubman All4 to haul me to the mountain this past ski season. As far as specification is concerned, the car is exactly how I would have it: stick, no sunroof, manual seats, white on black. Simple, clean, basic.
As you might imagine, the MINI is, well, mini. My 187-centimeter skis protrude directly into the area surrounding the shifting zone, and in the event I don’t plan on skiing alone, the car’s cargo space has little room for more than one other occupant and their gear. This cargo issue could have been remedied with a ski box, which is what I would suggest to other ski nuts in the same situation.
It gets better from there, however. Due to its compact layout, the Clubman can always find a spot near the lodge on a holiday weekend. Many suburban ski folk tend to overestimate vehicle size and opt for the biggest, heaviest SUV to use as their ski rig. In my case, the smaller the vehicle, the better. Throw it on the end of a row, or squeeze it in between two mall crawlers or halfway up a snowbank; the Clubman rarely fails to find a spot even on the busiest of days.
Speaking of parking on a snowbank, the MINI’s All4 all-wheel-drive system was astonishing. Over the course of a Vermont winter, the Clubman saw sleet, snow, freezing rain, and ice. Never once did I come across conditions that it wasn’t able to handle with its stock all-season tires. She was always able to find grip (and I can’t imagine how much of a beast it would be with studded snows). Even where the roads were unplowed and nearly a foot deep, the little Clubman was able to make its way upward, ready for the next challenge.
Another one of my favorite features of the Clubman is its cruise control system. Via a two-phase button on the steering wheel, drivers are able to set speed by tapping lightly for a 1-mph change or with more pressure to change by multiples of 5 (for someone with self-diagnosed OCD, this made me quite happy). It’s a system shared with modern BMWs, but coming from more rudimentary setups, a great cruise control system is something often overlooked.
The relationship between the engine and gearbox is frictionless; they seem the perfect match. While I haven’t had the opportunity to drive the automatic (and for 2020, the DCT), I can’t see myself ever opting for a two-pedal variant. That said, the detuned, three-cylinder, turbo motor in the non-S models did, at times, leave me wanting a bit more. Due to the nature of the engine, torque is at a premium, peaking at a 1,500-rpm sliver of the six and a half thousand RPM rev range. In order to take full advantage of backroads, drivers will usually live in third and fourth gear. On the highway, however, the car is geared well, making overtaking on Vermont’s snowy Interstate 89 a breeze.
Driven in anger, the car is a blast. With minimal power, anyone is able to use all of the rev range at any time. Cruising along meandering Route 100, rowing through gears made me appreciate how fun a bone-stock, low-power car can be. It rotates well through corners and the steering ratio makes for a direct, “point-and-shoot” style of driving (no understeer here). I certainly won’t be winning any World Time Attack merit, but it’s enjoyable when called upon. It is genuinely more fun than it has any business being.
To me, the car’s design isn’t anything to write home about, but that’s a matter of opinion. Luckily, I spent much more time driving the car than looking at it. The styling isn’t bad, but I do see why buyers often opt for S variants over base—although waking up and seeing it buried in snow does make me feel some type of way.
The Clubman successfully delivered me to and from the mountain over 100 days this winter, racking up 6,000 miles between January and May. For a brand new car, I expected it to run flawlessly, and it lived up to expectation: it had no issues whatsoever. With regular oil changes from the dealer, she was good to go.
One thing worth noting is the respect it garnered from other members of the Vermont ski community. From clapped-out ’90s Subarus to massive Ford F-350s, everyone had a smile on their face when I would show up in the MINI. Skiers would often come up to me asking how I was enjoying it, or how it did in the snow. I always answered with the same three-word phrase: “She’s a beast!”
Living with the Clubman for five months, I have very few complaints. Despite its size, the Mighty MINI (as it became affectionately known) far exceeded my expectations. The car was truly torture-tested under my stint, and it handled everything I threw at it. The Mighty MINI, it seems, is always ready for battle.—Tucker Beatty
[Photos courtesy Tucker Beatty.]