Car reviews - Mini - Clubman - 5-door
Loads of room for rear passengers, retains sporty handling, barn-doors look cool, Cooper S engine is a gem
Room for improvement
There is only one rear door and it's on the wrong side, harsh ride, base engine is snoozy especially with auto transmission
22 Feb 2008
THE Clubman will be so much easier to live with than the regular Mini.
That said, it could have been even better had the carmaker done a couple of things a little differently.
On the whole, Mini has managed to retain the same basic elements of the Mini, while opening the model up to a far wider group of customers.
The most important question is whether the Clubman spoils the fun of driving a Mini.
Has the stretched Mini lost the go-kart-like steering, response and agility that makes its three-door donor car so much more special than another small car with retro styling? Did someone mention the VW New Beetle?
Well, thankfully, the Clubman is fun to drive, it’s agile and, in Cooper S form, is an absolute hoot on twisty roads.
It is possibly not quite as sharp as the regular hatch, but this is still a car that handles very well.
The extra weight makes little difference to handling, but it is more noticeable when it comes to performance.
The base Cooper engine never was a fireball, but the extra bulk of the Clubman means it takes 0.7 seconds longer to go from 0-100km/h.
You have to work the engine hard with a manual to keep the car going. The base 1.6-litre is a nice engine, but if you want to keep a reasonable pace you have to rev it pretty hard. With a manual it is adequate, but you can’t help but think a car this size that costs $34,400 should have more grunt.
When you pair it with an automatic, the Cooper starts to become frustrating.
Without enough punch to keep it going, you find yourself pressing the accelerator harder and harder to maintain speed at any sign of a hill.
Struggling to find enough torque, the automatic goes hunting. You can switch into manual mode and use the paddles on the steering wheel, but it doesn’t speed up the changes or mask the fact the engine is underdone.
For many people, especially those in the city, the automatic 1.6 Cooper Clubman will be satisfactory, but the lack of performance is disappointing given the dynamic capability of the Mini chassis.
Of course, the upside is the good fuel economy.
Any criticisms of the base engine are forgotten when you step into the turbocharged Cooper S.
It has enough punch to easily cater for the extra weight of the Clubman.
With a vast amount of torque on tap, the boosted engine is a real treat.
Compared to the previous-generation Mini hard-top Cooper S engine, which still serves in the current convertible, the new turbo is smooth, refined and muscular.
It’s not as pleasing to the ear, missing that uncivilised supercharger whine that really added an angry edge to aural experience.
That said, the twin-scroll turbo ensures there is always enough power on tap.
The only downside is the tugging of the steering wheel when you accelerate hard and turn at the same time, especially when pulling away hard from a stop.
We didn’t notice this in the regular Cooper S hatch and can’t help but think the optional ($280) limited-slip differential fitted to all the Cooper S Clubman test cars makes a difference.
All the Cooper S models on the national launch in Melbourne’s Yarra Valley this week were also fitted with optional sports suspension ($440).
The car we drove handled very well, displaying all the athletic qualities you expect from a Mini. Traction and grip levels of this car are very impressive and you find yourself scanning the horizon for a bend, any bend, that you can throw the Clubman at.
The taut chassis means the Mini sits nice and flat through the turns, while the minimal weight of the car, along with brakes that have plenty of bite, ensure you can really get a move-on through twisty road sections.
Unfortunately, the ride of the Clubman, just like the hatch, is on the harsh side. This is not just the case with the Cooper S Clubman, which runs firmer suspension, but also the regular Clubman - although it is not as bad.
The run-flat tyres that Mini, and its BMW Group parent, fit to the Clubman despite the car having a well for a space-saver wheel, could be partly to blame.
In the Cooper S, the rigid, unforgiving ride picks up bumps and imperfections of the road and passes them onto the occupants. Many customers don’t mind that given it is a sports car, but we also found the Cooper Clubman we tested on the launch had a sometimes uncomfortable ride.
This may well be partly due to the optional 17-inch rims, or its run-flat tyres. Either way, the Cooper Clubman was not as harsh as the Cooper S.
So what about the practicality?
There is a lot of headroom and legroom in the back. An extra two full-size adults can comfortably ve accommodated, even with the front seats pushed reasonably far back.
Adding a third seat would make things a bit tight for adults, but the Clubman could seat three children across the rear row.
Things get a bit frustrating when it comes to getting out, however. If you are on the right-hand side it’s okay because the new rear-hinged door allows for an easy exit.
But if you are parallel parked on a busy street, you have to watch out for traffic - a problem that doesn't apply in left-hand-drive countries because rear-seat passengers exit on the kerb side.
The biggest issue with the extra rear door is not so much that it is on the wrong side, but that there is only one.
Why not have two rear doors? Mini says the extra door actually improves body rigidity, so it is not a question of structural weakness.
It says the reason is a combination of engineering issues, including the fact the fuel line and filler would have to be moved, and because it wanted to be different.
That desire to be different means the rear passenger on the left has to either twist and turn and squeeze out the front door opening or shuffle across to the other side of the rear seat, past an intruding centre console stack and out the right-hand side. Which might not sound like a big issue, but could become tiring on a daily basis.
Some customers may not take passengers very often and will simply appreciate the extra rear door, which will help them put items in the back.
The rear barn doors open nicely with ease thanks to gas struts. You must open the right door first and close it first too. And closing the doors actually takes a fair bit of effort because of those gas struts.
The wide-opening doors do actually make it easy to load large items and the boot is a respectable size, if not class-leading.
Being able to fold the rear seats down opens up far more space and makes this car a serious load hauler.
People who need to take a bike somewhere will really appreciate the extra space. Those people certainly never would have thought of buying a Mini before and that is the strength of the new car.
The Clubman is the most useable new Mini yet and retains all the core elements of the brand, but it’s by no means perfect.
With an extra rear door, standard tyres instead of run-flats and a suspension tweak, the Clubman would be a great car.
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