There’s a lot that $35,000 can buy.
This is especially true in the world of automobiles. That sum can get a great family hauler, a fun sports car or an entry-level luxury car. But what about those who want a bit of everything?
Enter the premium performance hatchback. These are cars like the 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI and 2016 MINI Cooper S Clubman. They combine performance with practicality in a premium package. Surprisingly similar in some aspects, yet still completely different in others, these two European hatches take different approaches to achieve a common goal.
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Grand Daddy of the Hot Hatch
The GTI has been around longer than most of you reading this article. Heck, it even pre-dates your humble author by quite a few years. Many consider it the grand daddy of the hot hatchbacks and even if it has grown up over the years and become more sophisticated than rambunctious, it’s still a lot of fun to drive.
The main driving factor for this has to do with what’s under the hood. Powering the 2016 GTI is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that makes 210 hp, or when equipped with the performance package like our test car, 220 hp. More important than the horsepower figure is the torque – 258 lb-ft are unleashed onto the asphalt below.
SEE ALSO: Volkswagen GTI Review
That may sound like a lot for twist for a front-wheel-drive car, but Volkswagen has decades of experience, and this car is properly sorted out. Torque steer is virtually non-existent regardless of what transmission is being used: the six-speed manual or six-speed dual clutch automatic transmission.
A Fun German Box
With more power and less weight, the GTI is the noticeably faster vehicle and the engine is far more willing to rev up through the rpm range. The turbocharger can be heard spooling on and off and the engine as a whole makes a nice little rumble thanks to sound being pumped through the firewall via a tube connected to the car’s intake.
Either transmission is well-suited for the GTI as the six-speed manual is a smooth piece of work, while the dual-clutch is one of the best on the market when it comes to front-wheel-drive cars. There’s a distinct lack of jerkiness that some other DCTs exhibit and gear changes occur quickly.
But the GTI is more than just an engine; it’s the total package. Handling is just as impressive as the powertrain. Steering inputs are sent to the wheels with urgency, the chassis remains surprisingly flat and the car has a willingness to rotate through a corner better than a lesser compact hatch. It’s easy to see why the GTI has millions of fans around the world.
The Practical MINI
At first glance, the Clubman may not seem like a likely competitor to the GTI, but one look at the numbers reveals that they’re awfully similar. Height, width and length of the two cars are all within a fraction of an inch of each other. This may be hard to believe, as their shapes appear very different, but the MINI’s more steeply raked windshield and narrower doors gives the illusion that the body is actually longer.
Like the GTI, under the hood of the Cooper S Clubman also resides a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine. It only makes 189 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, which is significantly less than the GTI. Power from the engine is pretty good, but weighing 3,235 pounds, the Clubman isn’t just at a power disadvantage compared to the GTI, it’s also carrying around about an extra 250 pounds and is noticeably slower. Under hard acceleration, it does make a nice sound out of the rear exhaust that includes the usual pops and cracks Cooper S models are well known for.
|Vehicle||MINI Cooper S Clubman||Advantage||Volkswagen GTI|
|Engine||2.0 L turbocharged engine||-||2.0 L turbocharged engine|
|Horsepower||189 HP||GTI||220 HP|
|Torque||207 lb-ft.||GTI||258 lb-ft.|
|Transmission||6-Speed manual, 8-speed Automatic||-||6-speed manual, 6-speed dual clutch automatic|
|Weight||3,235 lbs.||GTI||3,031 lbs.|
|Trunk Capacity||17.5 cubic feet||GTI||22.8 cubic feet|
|Fuel Economy (US Man.)||22 MPG city, 32 MPG hwy||GTI||25 MPG city, 34 MPG hwy|
|Fuel Economy (CDN Man.)||10.6 L/100 km city, 7.4 L/100 km hwy||GTI||9.4 L/100 km city, 6.9 L/100 km hwy|
|As Tested Price(US)||$37,850||GTI||$35,330|
|As Tested Price(CDN)||$40,405||Clubman||$41,225|
Not MINI on the Fun
The MINI can be had with a six-speed manual transmission or a conventional automatic that offers eight forward gears. The manual transmission is an average unit, as the shifter engagement, throws between gears and the clutch take up point are all decent, but not noteworthy. It does offer rev matching downshifts, though, and for the most part, it works great – with the exception of the third to second gear downshift where there’s a bit of a delay and it’s easy to catch the process out of sequence.
The steering feel and handling capabilities of the Cooper S Clubman are basically on par with the GTI, which makes sense, since both vehicles are widely regarded as two of the better handling front-wheel drive platforms. Picking a favorite between the two is a matter of personal taste, but if forced to choose, I’m leaning slightly towards the GTI.
Ride comfort is also similar between the two cars and both offer adjustable drive modes that feature optional electronically controlled dampers. Those living in messy climates may want to take note that the Cooper S Clubman can be had with all-wheel drive, while the GTI cannot. A step up to the more powerful, yet more expensive Golf R is required to get all-wheel drive in the Volkswagen.
Practical vs. Stylish
Inside and out, the MINI Clubman has more styling flair than the GTI. The cabin has a higher premium feel to it. The GTI, however, is better for rear passengers, offering a bit more legroom and headroom. The Volkswagen also has a more comfortable seat cushion and a fold-down center arm rest.
SEE ALSO: MINI Cooper S Hardtop 4-Door Review
Despite being the same size overall, the GTI is also rated to carry a lot more cargo in the rear hatch. The MINI, however, does feature a nice sunken storage area and a good amount of space itself. Plus, there are the ubiquitous dual rear doors on the Clubman, which we quite like. The downside to those doors is a pair of small rear windows that are split down the middle. This hampers rearward visibility, especially compared to the GTI that features a nice large rear window. You also have to close the doors in the correct sequence, which can be annoying at first, but easy to get used to.
The Verdict: MINI Cooper S Clubman vs Volkswagen Golf GTI
As equipped, once again, these combatants are very close. The GTI Performance came in at $35,330 tested while the Cooper S Clubman is slightly higher at $37,850. Check off every box on the GTI ordering menu and it can get over $36,000, but then again, select every one of the MINI’s numerous options and it’s possible to get a Cooper S Clubman up to an astonishing $46,000.
So what to buy? The GTI is a performance hatchback that’s premium and practical, while the Cooper S Clubman is a premium hatchback that’s sporty and practical. It comes down to personal priorities are, but for us, it’s always about the drive, so we’ll take the GTI.