Small, expensive and overflowing with character – the Mini Clubman S stands out. Thankfully, its quirks are endearing.
Three engineers walk into a boardroom in Munich. Let’s call them Hans, Klaus and Tilda.
“Ja, it’s time to design the new Mini Clubman. It must be fun and funky,” one of them says. “Of course! We’ll give it a set of round headlamps and weird barn doors,” another chimes in.
“And don’t forget the interior. Everything will be circles, and there will be lots of colour.”
Then they all pack up, and head to the local brewhouse to eat schnitzel and drink beer from giant glasses, all the while discussing the perils of stereotyping. Probably.
You get where I’m heading with this. The idea of a British icon modernised by German engineers doesn’t necessarily sound enticing on paper, but Mini has been an unquestionable success since its early 2000s rebirth. The formula has been simple: lots of circles, cutesy design and a focus on the details, but the product itself has grown physically to the point where ‘Mini’ isn’t really the most apt moniker.
The burgundy, barn-doored Clubman Cooper S here is 4253mm long and 1800mm wide, with more luggage space than a Mazda 3 and a usable back seat. And yet somehow it still feels authentic and charming. It’s likeable, this Anglo-Deutsche tie-up, in a way few cars can manage.
Before we explain further, the basics: power in the S comes from a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine making 141kW and 280Nm, put to the front wheels through an eight-speed torque converter transmission. Claimed fuel consumption is 5.9L/100km on the combined cycle, and we saw around 8.0L/100km during our week.
A six-speed manual is available as a no-cost option, but our tester had two pedals. The sprint to 100km/h takes a claimed 7.1 seconds, and you’ll be doing 228km/h flat out.
Although they’re almost hot-hatch numbers and the Clubman S weighs just 1390kg, the engine isn’t as rabid as we’ve come to expect from a full-fat hot hatch. It pulls smoothly from just above idle and revs out nicely, backed by a decent snarl in ‘Mid’ mode and a deeper, computer-aided growl in Sport, but it feels more ‘punchy’ than outright ‘fast’ at full noise.
Splitting hairs? Maybe, but it bears mention given the ‘Cooper S’ badge. Maybe the John Cooper Works exists to serve that performance role in the Clubman range, but the Clubman Cooper S doesn’t have the hard-edged feel some might expect.
The automatic transmission – or ‘sports automatic’ in Mini speak – is a willing companion for the four-cylinder engine. It engages smoothly at low speed, doesn’t baulk at tricky uphill parking manoeuvres, and surfs the wave of low-down torque on mild throttle inputs. It’s quick to kick down when the driver demands more, and flat-out upshifts are pleasingly quick, backed by a dual-clutch-like fart.
In typically BMW fashion, the transmission actually listens to the paddles (or tall, push-for-down/pull-for-up gearstick) in manual mode, holding tall gears when asked and, unless a downshift will punt a cylinder through the bonnet, flicking down through the gears when the driver demands.
The idea of a manual is really attractive when coupled with a small car and punchy engine, but I’d take the automatic Clubman S. Hear me out, three-pedal acolytes.
A manual makes sense in the three-door Cooper S hatch, but the Clubman is a bit bigger with a slightly more grown-up remit, and the automatic fills that role perfectly. The fact the paddles are so responsive means you can still explore the engine’s upper reaches when the mood takes you, too, so you aren’t missing out on any performance by speccing the self-shifter.
That more grown-up feeling is clear in the way it rides. I was concerned the Clubman would ride poorly, but it blends firm-riding sportiness with a sort of soft-edged luxury feel. You’re aware of what’s happening under the car, this isn’t a magic carpet by any means, but it never feels harsh.
The same dichotomy applies to the steering. It has decent weight about it in ‘Mid’, and the wheel tugs gently from side to side with the camber of the road at low speed. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s tiring in that way, but there’s constant dialogue between the driver and the road.
Sling it into a set of bends and the Clubman’s slight luxury bent comes to the fore. Body roll is well contained and the nose goes where you want it, but it doesn’t feel particularly adjustable mid-corner – lifting off the throttle doesn’t really bring the rear into play, and getting heavy-handed (or should that be footed) with the right-hand pedal generally results in mild understeer.
Putting power down can be a slight issue without a mechanical differential on the front axle, with an ‘electronic differential lock’ instead working gamely to stop wheelspin. It succeeds, too, but there’s nothing particularly ‘positive’ about the way it operates. It doesn’t help you go faster, is what we’re getting at, instead nibbling away to stop things getting out of control.
It is fun, though, encouraging a point-and-squirt technique befitting its city-focused, pocket-rocket status.
While we’re talking endearing, the Clubman’s interior is brilliant. Nothing undermines a sense of ‘cool’ like a brand trying too hard, and there was a real risk the car’s quirky design could come across as contrived, but somehow it all works.
There’s an 8.8-inch infotainment system housed in a circular central binnacle surrounded by a multi-coloured LED ring that can mimic the rev counter, volume controls, climate controls… You get the idea. It’s the focal point of the cabin, and takes the ‘ambient lighting’ craze sweeping the industry to a unique, interesting place befitting the Mini’s funky history.
The devil really is in the details: proper toggle switches, a compact speedo/rev counter pod on the steering column, chrome overhead switches and backlit door trim all surprise and delight in their own ways. It isn’t all sizzle, no steak, though – all the materials feel quality, with that well-damped tactility for which BMWs are known. Even the dash is squidgy.
You shouldn’t struggle to find things, either, thanks to a surprisingly logical control layout. Even the bubbly infotainment display is a cinch to navigate, with touch, voice and rotary-dial inputs combining to deliver a funkier take on the classic BMW iDrive experience.
Wireless Apple CarPlay is standard, too. No-one’s forcing you to use it, but having the option is nice, especially if you’re tackling long trips and want to dive through your music/podcast library on the fly.
If you’re tall, the driver’s seat drops right down to the floor, and the steering wheel telescopes right into your chest. BMW knows how to do a cockpit and the Clubman benefits from that experience, with a driving position that should suit essentially everyone. Gone is the giant central speedo of older new Minis, but you still get a cute gauge pod on the steering column, complete with digital speed readout.
That’s not to say it’s an outright paragon of luxury. Road noise is a bit of an issue at highway speeds, especially on coarse-chip rural roads, and our tester sprung a dashboard rattle on rougher tarmac down Victoria’s surf coast. Annoying.
Other small things rankle. Those barn doors are cool, but they create an annoying blind spot directly behind the car and offer no practical benefit over a conventional tailgate. The boot itself is useful, housing 360L of junk with the seats in place or 1250L with the 40/20/40 second row folded.
Although the car has a van-like profile, the cargo area is more hatchback than outright load-lugger. There’s a significant lip on the rear bumper, which is crying out to get scratched if you aren’t careful loading your artisan drip-brew coffee crates or vintage vinyl players. There’s a distinctly hipster air about the Clubman, if you hadn’t gathered already.
With that in mind, pricing includes the ‘cool tax’ applied to the entire Mini range. The base Clubman Cooper S is worth $44,900 before on-roads, but dipping into the options can drive the sticker deep into the $50K range.
Our tester had the Multimedia Pro Package ($2400), the Convenience Package ($2900), the Climate Package ($2400), Pure Burgundy paint ($900) and the Control Package ($650), along with the Leather Lounge and Piano Black interior design packs ($2200, $550) pushing its price to $56,900 before on-road costs.
Adaptive cruise control is standard, along with autonomous emergency braking and forward-collision warning. A rear-view camera, parking sensors, parking assistant, speed sign recognition and a speed limit display are also standard.
At least servicing is reasonable, with $1295 or $3650 packages offered over a five-year period. The latter includes brake pads, discs and other consumables, along with the clutch on manual cars.
Maybe this is more of a reflection on my fashion sense, but the Clubman S is a really appealing package, even at that price. It’s the right size for a young city dweller (an – shudder – urban professional) who likes to get away on the weekend, drives with enough verve to keep those who yearn for a hot hatch happy, and has a hard to define X-factor about it.
It’s just a nice object, and arguably the most convincing package offered you can buy from Mini in 2018. I want one – a silver Clubman Cooper S with black wheels, an eight-speed automatic and heated seats. Roof racks would be nice, and maybe a cargo net for the boot. Round it out with a double-shot latte in the cupholder, and you’ve got the perfect commuter that can also tackle a ‘lifestyle’ weekend getaway.
Stevo, about that pay rise…
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