Car reviews - Mini - Clubman - range
Design, solidity, handling, grip, performance, added value, safety items, more spacious interior, individuality, personalisation options
Room for improvement
Firm ride on optional Cooper S 18-inch wheels, steering too nervous off-centre, some road noise intrusion
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17 Nov 2015
MINI is on a roll, with a strong sales surge since it at last started listening to consumers by offering more choice and better value options.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these is the new F54 Clubman, replacing what can only be described as the oddest vehicle to have been foisted on an unsuspecting public in quite a number of years, the 2007-2014 R55 Clubman.
Not only was the concept of a small three-door station wagon strangely out of date – if memory serves us correctly the last time that happened was with the 1978 Holden TD Gemini – the left-hand drive-favouring rear side door that forced kids to clamber in and out from the road side was just plain daft.
One BMW executive’s summation of the latter as “very niche in its appeal” sums up what the British might call a monumental ‘cock up’.
Not so with the 2016 version. Bigger than before, and sitting on a 100mm longer wheelbase than the already quite large F55 5-door Hatch (both shared with the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer and latest X1), the Clubman is one of those cars that we desperately would love to see succeed, if only to help stem the unrelenting tide of needlessly fatter and heavier SUVs on our congested roads.
Oh, and also because it continues to live outside of the norm.
And the great news is, there’s hope. This is not some oddball with tiny appeal, but a striking, solid, and very clearly BMW-based design statement that is relatively affordable and, most importantly, interesting to drive.
Opening the hefty door reveals a hyper-stylised interior that – let’s face it – is not to everybody’s taste, but that does stand out. While the large central circular motif continues to be a bit of a joke-is-over caricature of the ’59 AD016 original, at last the instrument dials are where they should be, the quality is at last up to expectations, and the basics – ventilation, storage, driving position, comfort, quietness – have all been BMW-fied.
Sitting perched happily behind the chunky little wheel, the driver also enjoys the luxury of space, as well as a fairly airy side view. Only that dissected barn-door rear vision is annoying, since it’s always there. Oh well. At least it’s ‘distinctive’.
Out back, there’s probably more room than you might think, with a six-footer being able to sit behind him/herself without being too cramped. Just be sure to raise that front seat cushion for larger feet, and remember to duck getting in and out.
Rear airvents, deep side windows, and overhead grab handles are good no folding centre armrest (in base 60/40 backrest spec) or cupholders… not so good. A wasted opportunity. Also why couldn’t the British-badged BMW score fellow UKL-platform stablemate 2 Series Active Tourer’s sliding/reclining second row arrangement? Do you know that pressing the key fob remotely opens each door a push at a time? Ideal for startling pedestrians behind the car. Also, the doors open some degrees wider than usual, revealing a boxy though still fairly shallow load area – until you realise that the floor removes to reveal a much deeper floor the shelf is there so when you fold those rear backrests, there’s an even surface. Still not deep enough for most family’s needs.
Some unanticipated surprise and delights also lurk at the other end of the Clubman.
Let’s begin with the more appealing of the two, the $35K Cooper. Auto only (a manual is no-cost special-order only), it uses BMW’s lusty little 100kW/220Nm 1.5-litre three-pot turbo-triple to terrific effect. Smart off the line, eager through the rev range, and always sounding sweet, this spirited engine imbues a similar type of can-do character that defined the very earliest of the first BMC-era Minis.
Really, it’s all the power you’ll need. And the auto (no manuals were available at the launch around the lovely Adelaide hills) is spot-on in terms of ratio deployment.
That’s not to say that the Cooper S’ 141kW/280Nm isn’t a gem – for the step-up in speed and response is probably worth the extra $8K for most buyers. Again, we’re talking slick, strong, and effortless acceleration, delivered with that premium veneer of engineering excellence that most BMWs impart nowadays.
So why do we prefer the slower Clubman? Because the dynamic issues we have with the F54 are somewhat less pronounced in the cheaper car.
Basically, while the handling is eager, involving, and very fluid at speed, the steering’s just-off-centre reaction is far too sharp, with a ‘bouncy’ and unnatural response that requires at least one more bite at the wheel to correct. Mini’s desire to emulate the so-called “go-kart” feel of the models past has resulted in an unnecessarily nervous trait. Strangely, though, it’s only at lower velocities or through tighter turns longer, more sweeping corners sees the helm and chassis really come together, for safe, secure, and reassuringly fluid roadholding results.
This display is repeated pretty much exactly in the Cooper S, except that – on 18-inch rather than 17-inch wheels – the grip is more impressive, and the nose seems slightly heavier. However, on the tyres as tested, the ride is simply too firm, too busy, and too drone-inducing over coarse roads, for the quiet, refined, and relaxing cruise that this sort of slammed-down wagon with all that BMW cabin quality promises. PLEASE stick with the standard 17s in the S, and 205/55R16 runflat rubber in the base Cooper, and inflict no suffering on any Clubman occupant.
The darty steering and punishing ride on 18s are our only real issues, in an otherwise likeable, fun, and actually useful Mini derivative that is preferable to at least a dozen similarly priced SUVs that we can think of. Yes, options can be expensive, and eye-wateringly tasteless at times, but at least the Clubman’s appeal is now no longer confined to the rich fringe.
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