Anyone who's traveled overseas has seen the small car-based commercial vehicles common in the crowded cities of Europe and Asia.
While U.S. workmen may use full-size Ford or Chevy vans, their European counterparts use smaller vans (and pickups too) based on compact or even subcompact models.
But here, there have only been two such entries: the compact Ford Transit Connect, launched as a 2010 model, and the now-discontinued commercial version of the Chevrolet HHR compact retro five-door model.
Next year, though, there'll be a third entry--an even smaller one.
MINI, the quirky, iconic British brand, is launching what it calls the MINI Clubvan, a commercial version derived from its MINI Cooper Clubman model--the one with a driver's door on the left, two passenger doors on the right, and "church door" twin opening doors at the back.
It's MINI's first truck sold in the U.S. since the late 1960s, when a small number of old Mini pickups and vans were brought in for use by BMC dealers--many of which survive today.
And it may end up as the most fuel-efficient commercial vehicle sold in the U.S. that doesn't plug in.
The 2012 MINI Cooper Clubman is rated at 27 mpg city, 35 mpg highway, for a combined 30-mpg rating, regardless of whether you get the automatic or the six-speed manual with its sole engine choice, a 1212-horsepower 1.6-liter four.
The 2012 Ford Transit Connect, in contrast, has a 138-hp 2.0-liter four, an ancient four-speed automatic transmission, and a combined rating of just 23 mpg.
To be fair, it also has more than four times the cargo volume--135 cubic feet for the Transit Connect, 30 cubic feet for the Clubvan--and twice the payload: 1,600 pounds versus about 800 for the MINI.
MINI says the Clubvan will come with the same pair of engine options as the Clubman, and the exterior dimensions will be identical.
The rear side windows are blanked out with metal panels, protected inside by polycarbonate reinforcement panels and carpeted side walls. There's a flat load floor without a rear seat. The rear window glass is tinted to hide the cargo space.
Cargo van features include 12-volt sockets in the cargo area and a cargo-tiedown system in the load bay. An aluminum and stainless-steel mesh partition behind the front passenger area keeps the contents of the cargo compartment there even in the event of an accident.
2013 MINI ClubvanEnlarge Photo
Only four colors are offered, and cloth seats are standard.
Options include sport seats in cloth or leather, alternative trim strips, automatic climate control, MINI Connected with a 6.5-inch LCD screen, a navigation system, parking-distance sensors, and a range of interior upholstery looks and materials.
The idea of a MINI commercial vehicle first appeared as a concept car at the Geneva Motor Show, but it was obviously followed by a bunch of, "Hey, that's kind of neat!" reaction.
And as the MINI range balloons--the make hopes to offer 10 distinct models within a few years--a MINI truck is likely to add some incremental sales, not to mention buff up MINI's quirkiness factor.
We now eagerly await a Fiat 500 van and a Volkswagen Beetle pickup truck.
To be clear, we don't seriously think the MINI Clubvan will be a serious competitor to Ford's Transit Connect.
We do think, though, that it's likely to be a lot more fun to drive.
The 2013 MINI Clubvan arrives at MINI dealers this fall.