The new Mini Clubman: one weird-looking car
It sure is. Devoted fans of all things Mini – and there have been more than a million buyers since BMW first unleashed its lesson in retro pastiche in July 2001 – may find it the coolest thing since having an RAF symbol on their roof, but many neutral observers will find the Clubman downright odd. Blame the 2cm higher roof, chunky full-height C-pillars, strangely small rear lights… and those doors. Ah yes, the doors. The Clubman’s ace card is undoubtedly its van-style twin-hinged back doors, and the asymmetrical, right-hand only rear-passenger suicide door. It looks like nothing else on sale today, the fruit of some excitable first-year postgrad at the Royal College of Art’s car design course summer holiday project. Take away the aperture art and you’re left with a slightly stretched Mini ‘estate’ of sorts. With its panoply of weirdly arcing doors, it’s enough to bring whole streets to a standstill. It’s that different. For the full behind-the-scenes story on the Mini Clubman, read the November 2007 CAR Magazine.
Do those doors actually work, or does the Clubman put posing over practicality?
A bit of both, to be honest. Let’s clear up one thing straight away. This isn’t a real Mini estate car. Not of the sort that will challenge proper small wagons, such as the Skoda Fabia and Peugeot 207 SW. Even the German designers call it ‘a shooting brake’ inspired version of the Mini hatch; the Clubman is only slightly bigger, stretched by 24cm to offer more rear legroom and a more generous boot. Do the doors work? The rear-hinged side Clubdoor (fun-loving Mini officials look aghast if you use the ‘s’ word) only opens once the front right door is open, swinging forth to reveal an oddly shaped hole through which you clamber into the rear seats. It’s not without foibles, though. BMW will only build cars with the Clubdoor on the right, so owners in right-hand drive markets will find themselves depositing passengers on the traffic side away from the safety of the pavement. Not ideal, then. However, the Clubdoor makes access significantly easier, and you can still exit on the correct side past the conventionally folding front seat should you wish. Suicide doors are nothing new, of course, and you’ll hear few squeals of amazement from owners of Mazda's RX-8 or the Mini’s distant cousin, the Rolls-Royce Phantom. Those van doors at the back are a different matter altogether, referencing the original Mini Traveller or today’s white van man, depending on how old you are. They’re like nothing else out there, gliding open smoothly on gas-powered struts the moment you tug the classy chrome handles (they’re slightly less satisfying to close, requiring a hefty thunk shut - left door first, then the right). When open, their cut-out surrounds for the rear lights are endlessly fascinating. Very cool.
How much space is there in the back of the Clubman?
On paper, the growth spurt sounds modest: rear-seat passengers enjoy a whole 8cm extra legroom and the boot has swollen to a still-tiddly 260 litres with the rear seats in place. In practice, though, the Clubman has just enough space to answer critics of the cramped hatchback. No longer will your passengers thumb a lift elsewhere if banished to the rear pew; there really is now space for 6ft adults to lounge behind a similar-sized driver (once they’ve gawped at and swung through the Clubdoor). It’s surprisingly spacious back there for two, although we wouldn’t recommend letting a third passenger in there (as you now can for the first time). And what of the bigger boot? This is less successful - forget any pretensions of moving house in the Clubman. With the seats in place, the meagre loadbay is only marginally bigger than the hatchback’s. Flop the seats forward and (with the optional floor flattening board) things are much better, with a long flat cargo bay. But even on Mini’s overnight media launch, we had to fold the back seats down for our modest luggage and photographic clobber.
What’ll she do, mister?
Mini is launching 1.6-litre Cooper, Cooper D and Cooper S versions of the Clubman at launch, but we hear the cheaper 1.4 entry-level One won’t be far behind. So for now, pick between the Cooper all-rounder (118 ponies and pound-feet); the frugal and thrifty Cooper D (109bhp and a Cooper S-equalling 192lb ft overboost function); and the range-topping turbocharged Cooper S (173bhp, but gone is that delicious supercharger spool of the first-gen new Mini, replaced by a muted turbo woofle). Each comes with Mini’s eco measures, including stop-start and intelligent alternator control – cutting CO2 emissions as low as 109g/km on the diesel. Only the Cooper S has been let loose on journalists so far, and it goes at quite a lick. Do you notice the extra 85kg the Clubman bodyshell adds? Not really. It charges forward from low revs with an elastic pull that makes you forget the peakier supercharged engine’s charms. Thank a torque curve that’s set-square flat from 1600-5000rpm, allowing instant acceleration without the need for frantic gearchanges.
Has the Clubman’s extra weight blunted the handling at all?
In a word, hardly. All second-generation Mini variants have inevitably grown up a little, losing some of the outright pointiness of the slingshot first-gen BMW baby, but it remains one of the sharpest-handling hatchbacks around. The Mini Clubman, too, is a smidgeon softer than the hatchback, thanks to an 8cm longer wheelbase and revised spring and damper rates, plus thicker roll bars to cope with the wagon’s extra girth. Punt it along the roads around Madrid at the Clubman’s Spanish launch, and we were hard-pressed to notice the difference. It still has a well judged, chunky steering effort, a staunch resistance to roll and an agility that belies its family pretensions. Only a rounded compliance over bumps is really different – it removes much of the jiggling that blights the Cooper S hatch over broken surfaces, especially on the 17-inch wheels of our test car. It’s a welcome aid to passenger comfort. One thing you certainly will notice from behind the wheel is the strangely obscured rear vision. It’ll take ages to get used to the sight of van doors in your rear mirror and the resulting blind spot where the doors meet; take a good peek to make sure you haven’t lost a motorcyclist back there, and marvel at the hilarious handclap twin wipers while you’re at it.
What’s the premium for those fancy doors?
Take a deep breath: the Clubman will cost £1200 more than the equivalent hatchback when sales start on 10 November 2007, starting at £14,235. That puts it halfway between the regular hatch and the Convertible. But then bargain prices were never part of the BMW Mini vocabulary; just rest assured that you’ll recoup a lot of that premium long-term through cast-iron residual values and cheap servicing packages. So, yes, our Cooper S range-topper looks pricey at £17,210. You’ll bag a bigger and posher Audi A3 Sportback for that money – and that’s before you tot up the legion accessories that adorned our demonstrator car. It’s been said before, but Mini sure does know how to prise the cash from the followers of the latest fashion.
Is the Clubman a great estate car? Nope. If you regularly lug big bodies and bulky bags around, you’ll do better elsewhere for considerably less cash. Does the Clubman offer a slice more carrying ability than the Mini hatch with a dollop of look-at-me style and lashings of quirky innovation? Hell yes. Make no mistake, the Mini is a very modern car. It’s a triumph of gimmickry and show-off pretensions over solid practicality, yet it’s hard not to be intrigued by its novel storage solutions. The world would be a duller place without cars like this, and the Clubman will find a small but devoted following with those who simply must have the latest thing. Join the Club queue here. For the full behind-the-scenes story on the Mini Clubman, read the November 2007 CAR Magazine.