Keith Adams takes a trip to Reims in France to see if the Clubvan makes a convincing case for itself as the ultimate lifestyle light commercial vehicle.
And, of course, whether it’s suited to Champagne deliveries…
As assignments go, this is not a bad one. We’re to pick up a new MINI Clubvan Cooper D from Heathrow, and drive it down to Reims. The mission is to get to know the new ‘premium’ light commercial vehicle, before dropping it off at the celebrated Champagne house Marc Chauvet. For a Francophile, the idea of cruising through Northern France on what ended up being an unseasonably sunny couple of days is as close as it gets to driving perfection.
But what of the Clubvan itself? Regular readers will already be painfully aware that anything new MINI related sparks controversy with AROnline‘s expert and knowledgeable readership – it’s a definite case of love or hate. But despite the war rages within these pages, there’s been an impressive amount of love for the Clubvan. This version, more than any other recently, seems to make sense, evoking pleasant memories of the Mini Traveller van of old.
But what about the new Clubvan? We all like order in our lives, so where does it fit into the grand scheme of things? It’s fair to say that the usual rules of what does and does not make a good van don’t really apply. Ford, Renault and Vauxhall probably won’t lose a moment’s sleep over the Clubvan’s trifling 860-litre and 500kg payload. It is – in effect – the small van market’s first ‘premium’ product.
We’re sharing the drive down with Petrolblog‘s Gavin Braithwaite-Smith, and as we crawl around a congested M25 it’s as good as time as any to say that once we leave the UK, we’ll be keeping away from the Autoroute. Travelling through France is never better than where you’re meandering through the villages, spotting old cars – and luckily, he’s just as excited (if not more) at the prospect of finding a creased Citroen Visa or a patinated Peugeot 505 as I am.
As we leave the world class Terminal 5 at Heathrow and aside from the non-existent over-the-shoulder visibility, it feels as good as any other MINI to drive. From the front-seats forward, the Clubvan is identical to the car it’s based on, and that means the semi-retro instruments and controls, which we really hope stay with the MINI for the new 2014 model. The main speedometer is centrally-mounted, and in the standard models, that also houses the fuel gauge and warning lights. A secondary steering column-mounted digital speedo is also fitted, and this also doubles as the trip computer, too.
On the M20 down to the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkstone, it lopes along effortlessly, showing 2200rpm in sixth at an indicated 70mph. As motorway cruisers go, MINIs do the job very well indeed – wind noise is muted despite brick-like aerodynamics, engine noise is relegated to a distant hum, and the four-square, slightly firm, but well-damped ride suits high-speed distance covering.
By the time we board the train and rattle into the pipe under the Channel, we’re of the opinion that this is a pretty good van to cover distances in, and the thought of florists and bijou patisseries using it for urban duties seems like a bit of a waste to us.
Once in France, it’s time to hit the ‘no-motorways’ options on the sat-nav, and head in the direction of the rural France that we’d all love to retire to. Within minutes of our route nationale drive, we’re stopped in our tracks by a the sight of a wonderfully patinated Austin 1300GT sat on the back of a beavertail, awaiting its enthusiastic Gallic owner’s attentions. He’s obviously keen, judging from the UK-style numberplate that’s been fitted. Considering this perennial AROnline favourite is such a rare sight in the UK, its appearance in rural Picardy is akin in its likelihood as a Citroen SM rolling into the Iceland car park in Doncaster. Lovely stuff.
But it’s time to roll on. We scoot through the villages south of Boulogne, skirting the fashionable resort of Le Touquet, and head for the troubled town, Amiens. We don’t think too much about the city’s chequered past, which saw it sacked during the Franco-Prussian War, and World War One, and Two; and which now is suffering the economic ravages currently engulfing much of Europe. We enjoy the sight of the sheer variety of old cars still in daily use in this faded city. The spotting opportunities are just too good to resist – and progress is stunted by a series of encounters with various aged Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots… and an Alpine A310.
We’re also amazed at how much attention the Clubvan attracts – all of it seemingly positive. It had started at the rail terminal, when the passport officer had commented on how how the van was, and since then, it seemed we were turning heads in every village.
After the sprawl of Amiens, we push on, and the rolling countryside and open roads of the Somme. It’s an inspiring place to be, and perfect for the keen driver. The roads are wide, lightly trafficked, and the sweeping corners are well-sighted. The news that the MINI Clubvan drives almost identically to its four-seater cousin should come as a relief for those who are considering buying one, and it’s certainly a relief to us in God’s own driving county.
The Cooper D is expected to be the biggest seller of the range, and as befitting a van bearing that name, it’s suitably sporting to drive. With 110bhp to haul 1185kg, it has an excellent power to weight ratio. Between 30-70mph, in particular, it feels impressively quick and responsive. And on these roads, it’s fast, fun and accurate, with the steering and gear change in particular rewarding through their nicely-engineered feel and ample feedback. The Clubvan corners without discernible body roll, inspiring confidence because of its grip and poise.
A further plus point is that the Clubvan is kitted out with the awkwardly-named MINImalism package, which is standard across the range, so you get stop-start and a gearchange indicator included. And both have a real impact on fuel consumption figures, with the Cooper D achieving a combined fuel consumption figure of 74.3mpg and a CO2 output of 103g/km. In the real world, expect that to drop to 50-55mpg if you drive it as enthusiastically as we are.
Our Clubvan was fitted with optional 17-inch alloy wheels, which should ruin the ride quality. But on a mixture of surfaces, ranging from brilliant to appallingly rutted, it always feels firm but well-damped, and there’s no real cause to complain. And in short, anyone who ends up driving a Clubvan on delivery duties will enjoy themselves – just as long as their load isn’t too fragile. Still, the webbing on the floor and those lashing points will come in very handy, too, because we can see the average Clubvan driver enjoying themselves – and that could mean their cargo being flung around the loadspace if left untethered.
That gets us thinking about the Clubvan’s suitability for Marc Chauvet’s Champagne deliveries. We’re not far from his place in the quaint village of Rilly-la-Montagne near Reims, and we need to make one more stop off before dropping in on the famous former Grand Prix circuit, and the recently-restored grandstands and pit garages on the road to the prim village of Gueux. They’ve been restored sympathetically during the past five years, and were the centrepiece for the brilliant Weekend de l’Excellence Automobile historic racing festival. And many car enthusiasts on road trips love the place for a brief stop-off. We do the same, even though time is pushing on.
The past 10-or-so miles give us a bit of time to come to some conclusions about the MINI Clubvan. It isn’t a huge LCV, nor is it capable of carrying much weight, but it is a useful one for small businesses concentrating smaller loads, who’s drivers enjoy a bit of fun behind the wheel. Very few Clubvans will be bought on the grounds of sheer logic, not least because the space-to-cost ratio is probably the lowest on the van market.
But in reality, the Clubvan is all about appearances, and how well it drives. And on those points, it performs very well indeed. There is definite appeal for one-man operations, who can purchase the Clubvan as a commercial vehicle, use it as their own drive, and then claim back the VAT. The Clubvan line-up starts at £11,100 excluding VAT for the MINI One Clubvan, but when buying yours, take extra care when ticking the options list – our test Cooper D with Chilli pack, and a number of other extras fitted weighs-in an a heavyweight £23,500.
And at the genteel Champagne House in Rilly-la-Montagne, there’s plenty of room in the back for plenty of those cases of Brut, and its owner – and ancestor of the company’s founder – Nicolas Chauvet, certainly looks happy to see us. And the Clubvan. We just hope that once he starts delivering, he doesn’t get too enthusiastic on the wonderful roads that surround his vineyards. We’re not sure we couldn’t.