You want different? We got different.
There’s plenty of variety for car shoppers with deep pockets: supercar hybrids, Tesla gullwings, BMW i8s. But what for those on a budget? The compact car aisle offers entry-level buyers a wealth of affordable appliances bristling with technology. But in a volume segment designed to onerous safety and fuel-economy regulations, the row-upon-row of soap bar-shaped lookalikes can be numbingly familiar: Toyota Corollas, Chevy Cruzes, Honda HR-Vs, Ford Focuses. Competent yes, but with all the personality of oatmeal.
For those who like Chunky Monkey Chocolate Chip Fudge Ripple, peanut butter on their bananas, and plaid shirts and checkered pants, welcome to the Quirky Qar Qlub.
These cures for the common car must meet my four criteria: (1) They look like nothing else. (2) Sport at least one odd birthmark. (3) Are priced under $30,000. (4): Beg to be driven. My three favorites: the 2016 Mini Cooper Clubman, Hyundai Veloster and Nissan Juke.
Mini Cooper Clubman
Mini? Maxi is more like it.
Clubman — a proper five-door compared to the awkward three-door version introduced in 2007 — is supersized for the small-crossover segment. And it’s a suitably quirky entry in a segment that prizes quirk. Even as more mainstream, small SUV designs like the Chevy Trax and Honda HR-V have invaded the market, quirk-mobiles like the Juke, Kia Soul and Jeep Renegade make for a spicy mix of characters right out of a “Star Wars” bar scene.
Exterior proportions work, though everything is so ... obese. Honey, I blew up the Mini! Headlights are as big as your head and door-mounted mirrors look like they weigh 100 pounds. I didn’t measure it, but I bet Clubman’s mouth could swallow the original 1960 Mini in one bite.
Familiar Mini DNA continues inside with signature “hook” switchgear everywhere, dinner plate-sized center infotainment console, and round door handles. Though a wholly owned subsidiary of BMW, Mini’s plaid coin cubby still reminds of its British heritage even as it (argh!) adopts its German parent’s rotary-console control knob.
Quirky birthmark? Check out Clubman’s unique rear “Dutch doors.” It’s like the Mini was rear-ended by an Oxford cabinet-maker. Push the hatch key and each door swings open like it was haunted. Give ’em room. The hinges are so tightly spring-loaded they almost whacked my wife off her feet as she rounded the back. With second-row seats collapsed, this maximum Mini boasts best-in-quirk cargo room.
But the quirkiest quotient is its handling. True to Mini club-racing tradition, the low-profile Clubman can cut some rug. Wanna get dirty in the Outback? Buy a Renegade. Want to dance on twisty roads? Clubman’s the ticket.
Only the engine disappoints. Married to an excellent six-speed manual, my base 1.6-liter turbo 3-cylinder was but adequate. Cough up $3,500 for another cylinder and you’ll get 189 horses (the Cooper S).
Combine “velocity” and “roadster” and you get “Veloster.” Though it’s not a roadster. More like a coupe — with three doors. And a hatch. I told you it was quirky. I would have called it “Cerberus” after the three-headed dog that guards Hell.
It looks like a hound from Hell. I’m pretty sure this is what Cerberus would drive. With fearsome jaws and beady eyes, Veloster is a zombie pit bull that just saw a postman.
There are a few of these mongrels scampering around Detroit and they always catch my eye. Though not for the third door (right side). There’s that face — and a cool tuckus with sculpted taillights and twin exhaust pipes in the middle like Corvette C7 Jr.
Of course, I’m just talking here about the 201-horse Veloster Turbo — not the base, 132-horse speed bump. I don’t know why you’d buy anything but the Turbo. If you’re looking for hatchback practicality, the VW Golf or Ford Focus blow Veloster away. Taking the ancient, last-gen Elantra Veloster chassis on broken Detroit roads and I worried it would pull apart like taffy.
The inside is a surprisingly fun place to be — unless you’re 6-foot-5 like me and you were the first person to get shoved across the backseat to sit behind the driver. You might need the jaws of life to extract you. But you’ll still admire the airy four panes of glass — optional twin-moonroof connecting front and rear windshields — interrupted only by the B and C pillar supports.
The bowl-shaped shifter seems to be a quirk standard — Veloster, Mini and Juke all share it. Unique touches abound like a dash-centered start-stop button and orange door handles that double as “oh-crap!” handles for your passengers when the devil inhabits you.
And he will.
Take ol’ Cerberus — er, Veloster — over to Hell, Michigan, every once in a while to let the demon run. The eager turbo and remarkably smooth, 7-speed auto box (6-speed manual optional) beg to be flogged. Spying my twin pipes, I routinely attracted other motorheads eager to play — yeah, they know what those pipes mean.
Hey, Hyundai, how about three pipes for the next gen?
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the quirkiest of them all? Juke looks like a Nissan and a frog had a love child. Big, muscular haunches. Round corners. Lights like eyes on top of the hood. I expected a fly-eating tongue to snap out of its broad mouth at any moment.
“It’s really cute,” said one passerby. “Except for the face.”
But Juke revels in its oddness, which is why I love it. It’s a conversation piece like the pet pug down the street. Its bastard looks are also deceiving. Short of the Mini Clubman, it is one of the best handling utes in the segment. The boys at Car & Driver recorded skid pad g-loads at .84 — just shy of the more athletic-looking Mini’s .86 and Veloster’s .85. Over the San Francisco Bay area’s insanely twisted King’s Mountain Road to Half Moon Bay, the Juke playfully juked left and right, its peppy 188-horse, 1.6-liter turbo enjoying brief straightaways in between. And like Mini, Juke brings all-wheel-drive to Qlub Quirk — a useful tool to dig out of Detroit’s snowy winters.
Despite its crossover moniker, however, Juke is tight in the hind seats, providing poor leg and cargo room compared to larger, comparably priced vehicles like the Honda CR-V.
But utility is for conformists. You’re different. And so, bless us all, are the Juke, Veloster and Clubman. Quirk on, qar lovers.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2016 Mini Cooper Clubman
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger crossover
Price: $24,950 base ($26,500 as tested)
Power plant: 1.5-liter, turbocharged 3-cylinder; 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 134 horsepower, 162 pound-feet torque (turbo 3); 189 horsepower, 207 pound-feet torque (turbo 4)
Transmission: 6-speed manual or 8-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.9 seconds (turbo 3-cyl., manufacturer), top speed: 127 mph
Weight: 3,105 pounds (manual, turbo 3-cyl. as tested)
Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway/28 mpg combined (manual turbo 3); EPA 24 mpg city/34 mpg highway/27 mpg combined (manual turbo 4)
Highs: Good ol’ Mini styling; best-in-quirk cargo room
Lows: Rotary-dial console control; all-wheel drive, please?
2016 Hyundai Veloster Turbo
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-passenger sport coupe
Price: $24,950 base ($27,450 auto as tested)
Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder
Power: 201 horsepower, 195 pound-feet torque
Transmission: 6-speed manual or 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.7 seconds (Car & Driver), top speed: 140 mph
Weight: 2,877 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 27 mpg city/33 mpg highway/29 mpg combined (23.8 mpg flogging-it-like-a-madman as tested)
Highs: Aggressive styling; airy, glassed roof
Lows: Taffy chassis; rear-seat for munchkins only
2016 Nissan Juke
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger crossover
Price: $21,150 base ($23,000 S AWD)
Power plant: 1.6-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 188 horsepower, 177 pound-feet torque
Transmission: Continuously-variable automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.9 seconds (Car & Driver), top speed: 124 mph
Weight: 3,164 pounds (S AWD)
Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/31 mpg highway/28 mpg combined (S AWD)
Highs: Peppy powerplant; nimble handling for a compact utility
Lows: Love-it-or-hate-it styling; space-challenged