It may have more doors but MINI's winning formula remains intact with the Clubman. Steve Walker reports.
The MINI revolution was televised. It was also on-line, on the airwaves and lived out in real time on the streets around us. It took nothing more complicated than a well-judged marketing strategy and a product that was actually rather good for BMW's baby to be propelled into the nation's hearts. With the trendy end of the small car market at its mercy, the mighty MINI brand was never likely to take a break and the more practical Clubman model represents its latest expansion into new territory.
Ten Second Review
More than just a longer MINI, the MINI Clubman delivers its extra practicality in style. The basics behind the success of the standard MINI are retained but the weird and wonderful access options, including a single suicide door on the right flank and double doors at the rear, mark this car out.
It's hard to find fault with the MINI. BMW took the 60s design concept, super-sized it and made it the ultimate automotive fashion accessory for the early years of the 21st Century. If you were forced to seek out and ruthlessly expose its foibles, however, the magnifying glass would quickly turn on the car's practicality. The MINI's twin-berth moulded rear bench gives it a maximum capacity of four and legroom in the back is stingy at best compared to the top supermini contenders. The boot too is hardly a paragon of versatility. Once three shopping bags have been lowered in, it's pretty much at bursting point. Owners are faced with the prospect of eating the contents of the fourth or else scattering them on the roadside for the birds. Carping on about practicality is harsh given the MINI's other qualities but even this avenue is about to be closed off to jealous onlookers by the Clubman. It's basically a MINI estate.
The MINI Clubman rides on MINI underpinnings so it's safe to expect a driving experience in the same urgent and engaging ballpark. Changes have, however, been made to the Clubman's spring and damper rates as well as its suspension bushes to help cope with its additional bulk and slightly different remit. The car uses the same range of 1.6-litre engines and model designations as the MINI, which means there's a 98bhp unit in the One, a 1.6-litre 122bhp engine in the Cooper and a 184bhp 1.6-litre turbo unit in the Cooper S, which also features sporty suspension settings. This engine develops 211bhp in the JCW flagship version. There's now also a choice of two diesel units, a 90bhp version in the One and a 112bhp variant in the Cooper.
Despite the Clubman packing an extra 75kg over the standard MINI, performance is very similar. The Cooper S is fast enough to give the market's more sensible hot hatchback offerings something to think about with a 7.5s 0-60mph time and a 142mph top speed. It's a rewarding engine to drive, not least because of the flexibility that comes as a result of its 240Nm maximum torque being constantly available from 1,600rpm all the way up to 5,000rpm. The normally aspirated 1.6 in the Cooper is more mundane but still respectably rapid on paper. 0-60mph takes 9.8s, which compares favourably with the Cooper diesel's 10.2s showing.
Design and Build
The Clubman is a five-door car but the doors aren't exactly where you'd expect them to be. It's business as usual at the front but access to the rear seating is through a single 'suicide' door on the right-hand side. Hinged on its rearmost edge so that it opens in the opposite direction to the front doors, it's positioned on the right-hand side of the Clubman and there's no equivalent on the left. It means that rear seat passengers in right-hand drive markets like the UK are forced to exit into the road. MINI recognises the problem but explains that shifting the rear door to the left would mean relocating the fuel filler cap, the costs of which would be "prohibitive". At the back, there's more access fun and games. The Clubman employs a pair of side-hinged doors reminiscent of the old Mini Traveller. These are a key design feature of the car and the one that does most to differentiate Clubman from MINI. They feature cut-outs for the rear light clusters that mirror those in the bonnet.
With an 8cm longer wheelbase and around 2cm of extra roof height plus identical components as far back as the B-pillars, there doesn't seem to be much scope for the Clubman to dramatically exceed the interior space of the MINI. Crucially though, it's 24cm longer overall thanks to the extended rear overhang and that has helped BMW squeeze in 8cm of extra rear legroom while upping the boot capacity from a paltry 160 litres to a respectable 260. The rear seats take the form of a three-seater bench in the standard car but the standard MINI's two-person pods can be reinstated as a no cost option if you don't need the middle berth.
Market and Model
There's a choice of One, One D, Cooper, Cooper D or Cooper S variants, plus the Cooper S JCW with 211bhp at the top of the range. The Clubman then, follows the MINI and keeps its model range simple but there's nothing simple about the vast catalogue of optional extras that customers can use to personalise their vehicle. As for standard equipment, all models receive air-conditioning, six airbags including curtain airbags integrated into the roof lining that protect rear seat occupants, ABS brakes, brakeforce distribution and cornering brake control. There's also the MINI Dynamic Stability Control system that incorporates traction control, stability control and hill start assist. The Cooper models feature 15" alloys and the Cooper S gets 16" items.
Cost of Ownership
The Clubman features an integrated package of technologies designed to maximise efficiency and reduce running costs. In the BMW model range it's called EfficientDynamics. In the MINI it isn't but it's no less impressive or effective. Brake energy regeneration uses energy recovered under braking and low engine loads to recharge the Clubman's battery so that the engine can divert more of its efforts to powering the car. Auto Start-Stop switches the engine off automatically when the clutch is released and the gearbox is in neutral, reducing fuel consumption when the Clubman is stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. Finally, the Gearshift Point Indicator shows the driver when to change up or down for optimum efficiency and all of the above works in tandem with the Clubman's highly advanced engines.
The end result of all these small systems is big. Fuel economy across the range is exemplary with the petrol Cooper returning 51.4mpg on the combined cycle with 129g/km emissions and even the fiery Cooper S managing a creditable 47.9mpg and 137g/km. The star of the show, predictably is the 72.4mpg One D with its cleanly 103g/km emissions. Insurance groupings are the same as those of the standard MINI, which means a range between 5 and 15 depending on the model you choose.
Simply stretching out the standard car by another few centimetres to create the Clubman wouldn't have been very MINI would it? Sure enough, the designers have done their damnedest to make the Clubman a distinct and desirable model in its own right. The result is unquestionably odd but it's also definitely a MINI and we've already seen how the buying public react to those.
The combination of unorthodox access points is certainly interesting but there is a question over whether they add anything in practicality over the conventional five-door hatchback layout favoured by all the MINI's rivals. The rear door can only be opened once the front door ahead of it is too and then passengers are forced to exit into the road which is less than ideal. What isn't in doubt is that it will be the Clubman's individual design and polished engineering that will seduce buyers. Those who want a super-practical MPV should buy one. Those who want a MINI that's a little more family-friendly have just met their match.