Do the MINI Clubman’s extra rear seat leg- and headroom and those natty back doors justify the premium over the standard Cooper D?
Like Marmite, you decide…
THEY say that familiarity breeds contempt and that should play into the MINI Clubman’s hands. The low rate of sales to date has meant that the quirky addition to the range has yet to become a popular sight – at least not here in the UK. Does that lack of widespread appeal mean that the MINI ‘estate’ (which would, no doubt, have been called Countryman or Traveller had the BMW Group and not NAC owned the rights to those names) isn’t worth the extra £1000 over the R56 hatchback?
The Cooper-badged version of diesel-engined MINI Clubman may be miss-named but the car does have a lot to offer those in search of a small hold-all for these troubled times. Look beyond the split tailgate and Clubdoor and there’s a useful amount of additional passenger room – something that no MINI owner who ferries friends in the rear would ever say isn’t needed.
With the addition of fuel saving measures such as stop/start and a gear change indicator, it’s possible to rack up impressive mileages without much in the way of effort. A point in MINI’s favour is that, unlike rival players such as Ford and Volkswagen (with their cynically pitched ECOnetic and Blue Motion models), these features are packed in across the whole range as standard – a good move which we hope the rest of the industry wastes no time in emulating. On the MINI it works too – check out the headline grabbing 104g/km CO emissions output as well as our real-world average fuel consumption in our week with the car…
However, as with all MINIs there’s a price to be paid at the dealers – and that’s been thrown into sharp focus with the arrival of the more realistically pitched Fiat 500 and Ford KA. Is the MINI Clubman a high-priced joke or the new face of post credit-crunch premium motoring?
Performance and economy
With 110bhp on tap and, with a kerb weight of 1200kg, the MINI Clubman Cooper D goes very well indeed – as with all TDs the raw performance figures paint only part of the picture because the outright sprinting pace is clearly overshadowed by its petrol powered cousin. However, when in-gear acceleration is taken into account, its punch becomes much more apparent, with 30-70mph pace that will leave behind a petrol-powered Cooper unless, of course, its driver is prepared to wring it out to the maximum.
If there’s a downside, the 1.6-litre unit lacks the ultimate torque you may come to expect from larger TDs although resorting to using the sweet-shifting six-speeder isn’t exactly a chore. 70mph cruising equates to a long-striding 2300rpm so, when combined with lowish overall noise levels, a supportive driver’s seat and excellent visibility, you’re looking at the perfect long-distance MINI.
However, the joy of the diesel-powered MINI comes from its smoothness and refinement – it’s a clear leap from its Toyota-powered predecessor. The BMW/PSA lump is a sweet little thing and will happily rev to its red line without any signs of stress or fussiness. Fuel consumption is, as hinted above, excellent – we averaged 60mpg in day-to-day driving over the week and, try as we might, we couldn’t get intermediate consumption to drop below 50mpg.
Handling and ride
Modern MINIs have been developed with the keen driver in mind. Even before you’re on your way, the well weighted and uncorrupted EPAS steering set-up impresses with its lack of slack and sheer responsiveness. Throttle response is also sharp and agreeably un-diesel like and you’ll find yourself dialled-in quickly. Head for a twisty B-road and the positive signals continue to flood through – turn-in is almost ferocious and, with low levels of body roll, the age-old comparisons with go-karts seem as valid as ever.
Push harder and the benign neutrality eases towards tyre-scrubbing understeer but you’ll be pushing far harder than is prudent on public roads. Backing off the throttle mid-bend results in a tightening of line that aids controllability but in a way that’s lazier and less pleasing than the hatchback R56. There is, then, a price to pay for choosing the long wheelbase Clubman – it’s good but, overall, there’s a slight loss of focus. Not all of that can be put down to the extra length – the body stiffness obviously takes a hit thanks to that Clubdoor (we’ll get to that later)…
Sadly, our Clubman was fitted with 18in wheels and sports suspension and the ride quality took a dive into the realms of misery. On the motorway, the car felt planted and secure, for sure, but, when we hit your average British town centre, the stiff spring and damping set-up resulted in the most appalling surface chop and us plotting a course to deliberately miss the potholes in the long term interests of our backs. It might make your MINI Clubman look less cool (again, we’ll leave that one up to you), but choosing smaller wheels and leaving the suspension set-up will be the preferred option for all apart from the hardened Nurburgring addicts.
Living with the Clubman
Let’s start with the style of the thing – you’ve obviously already made up your mind but the one thing that shone through loud and clear during our time with the Clubman is that it polarized opinion like no other car with a comparable price tag. People simply loved or hated it – with little middle ground. That could have been down to the canary yellow paint and those enormous wheels but, just as equally, it could have been the van-style rear and ‘suicide’ Clubdoor. From our perspective, it’s a compromised design made somewhat worse by its translation into estate car – lifestyle option or not.
In the rear, legroom is usefully improved – this is the first new-generation MINI which can honestly describe as being a four-seater. The Clubdoor, which sparked considerable debate when the Clubman was launched, is little more than a gimmick. The rear belt is fixed to that door and climbing in is still a balancing act – and, although we’re not convinced that being mounted on the offside is the big deal doomsayers made out, it falls down for us for failing to offer the enlarged opening to the rear that could reasonably be expected. The boot may be marginally bigger than the hatchback’s but those split rear doors are a case of style over substance – they may look great but their lack of practicality is questionable. For a start, do not consider reversing into a parking space backing onto a wall.
With that out of the way, and your choice made, the MINI Clubman Cooper D emerges as a pleasant car to live with. The contrived interior styling isn’t to everyone’s taste and that centrally mounted speedometer must surely be a Bavarian joke given that it’s roughly the same diameter as one of those oversized road wheels. Ergonomics aren’t exactly a step forward from the R50, with the Fisher Price style heating and ventilation controls hard to fathom compared with the Rover-era dials of old. The only reason for their existence, surely, is for potential owners to price-up into the climate control system.
Still, the agreeable toggle switches remain, as does the clutter-free view forward. Paying extra for the Clubman does mean a severely compromised rear view, though – the split in the doors fills practically half of your badly placed oval interior mirror. Parking radar anyone? Who’d have thought that on a MINI?
In day to day driving, the Clubman Cooper D scores well – it might be a driver focused effort but, on the day to day commute, the steering and all other controls are light and free of striction and will cause no headaches. The stop/start system works a treat, too, and we’re amazed that it failed to catch on first time round in the 1980s. Slipping the car into neutral when halted kills the engine and the silence will take a little time to acclimatize to. Dip the clutch again to put it into gear re-starts it automatically – and you’re away seamlessly. During our test, it never failed to work and, within a few short minutes, it became second nature.
In Europe, the MINI’s honeymoon is close to ending. With the arrival of the Fiat 500, especially, as well as trendy new mainstream hatches such as the Mazda2 and Fiesta, the cool cachet has taken a swerve towards more tepid waters. Despite that, though, there’s strength and depth in the MINI’s DNA – it remains a cracking drive and will win fans on the shortest of test drives. Factor fuel efficiency and cleanliness as well as that dynamic excellence into the equation and the MINI becomes a guilt-free premium choice.
New arrivals have made the MINI look expensive and, although it’s beautifully engineered, we do wonder whether buyers will notice the difference or, more importantly, be prepared to pay the extra. The name and dealer back-up are second to none but, for some, the styling and general lack of cheekiness mean that it’s not quite enough. Produce a stripped-out MINI Minus-One, offer it for £8995, and watch the customers come flooding in. Will that happen? Not likely.
For us, the MINI Cooper D remains a winner, especially if you have the means to pay the premium. It’s quick, sporting to drive, economical, and nice to live with. Notice that we’re saying MINI Cooper D – and not Clubman. The reason for that is simple – the five-door version simply isn’t worth bothering with unless you absolutely need to own a MINI and desperately need the extra couple of inches of rear knee room.
Scores out of ten
|Handling and ride|
MINI Clubman Cooper D specifications
|Engine||1560cc, DOHC, 16V, Turbodiesel|
|Maximum power||110bhp at 4000rpm|
|Maximum torque||177lb/ft at 1750-2000rpm|