Overall rating: 4/5
As the modern MINI that is the least mini of all (it's the best part of 4.3 metres long) the all-new MINI Clubman is bound to be a love it or hate it kind of car. Yet the company's decision to make this vehicle more mature and upmarket than its predecessor means the latest Clubman proves to be an endearing machine, if not the sharpest MINI you'll ever drive - even in range-topping Cooper S guise as reviewed here.
In the Metal:
OK, let's not beat around the bush: this is hardly a pretty car. At 4,253mm long, 1,800mm wide and with a 2,670mm wheelbase, this is the largest MINI yet, MkII-based Countryman crossover included. Yet... we quite like it. Addressing the negatives, the front is the same gawky design as the MkIII MINI hatchback, although the multitude of design features seen on a Cooper S three-door (which make it look extremely fussy) seem to be toned down here. And at the back is another pair of gigantic light clusters, which we've already stated we're not fans of on the hatchback. Also, the 'Clubman' badge, split four letters on the left boot door and three on the right, triggered off our mild OCD and kept annoying us.
However, those tail-lamps are horizontal here, and in the wider and chunkier rear end of the Clubman we think they work well visually. A note of clarification: there's a high-level brake light just under the roof spoiler, but the other two brake lamps are in those thin strips down in the Clubman's rear bumper. And while the twin boot doors continue unabated for the change from Clubman v1.0 to v2.0, the odd asymmetrical passenger set-up that saw a 'suicide' door end up on the offside of the old right-hand drive Clubman has been replaced with four regular doors. Therefore, the overall look of this six-door, four-wiper estate is handsome, premium and possibly the best-proportioned MINI yet. Shame, then, that the 12-colour exterior palette is mostly made up of subdued hues, just Volcanic Orange and a couple of bright reds lifting things.
However, the interior is brilliant. The MkIII MINI dashboard immediately makes MkII cabins look a bit dated (the camera car for our launch was a Paceman, yet to be fully updated to the latest interior architecture... and it showed) and in the Clubman the brand has managed to make it look attractive and styled without a lot of that OTT 'jazz hands' feeling some other MINI cockpits have. There's a nicely-judged dash panel, acres of room in the back (when have we said that about MINIs before?) and a boot that's actually useable, starting off at 360 litres and rising to 1,250 litres with the rear seats folded down. As an option, you can have those back seats divvied up 40:20:40.
The grown-up outlook is reflected not just in the physical growth of the Clubman and its restrained exterior/interior aesthetic, but also the drive. We found the Cooper S three-door's vibrant character had been dulled somewhat in the transition from MkII to MkIII MINI, and the Clubman is even more sedate. Despite the presence of a 192hp 2.0-litre petrol engine, the Cooper S estate doesn't feel particularly lively. Understeer (loss of grip at the front tyres) is quick to make itself known and the Clubman isn't that keen on rapidly changing direction, although we would say body control is very good considering its size.
Nevertheless, there's a lot to like here, not least the ride. True, all the test cars were on optional variable dampers (€655.52) so we can't tell you what a normally sprung Clubman will feel like, but if it's near the 'Mid' setting on this Cooper S, it will be absolutely fine. The longer wheelbase and extra weight of the car lead to a MINI that finally loses that nervous secondary damping characteristic, meaning it's superb on a motorway and comfortable on a bobbly back road. It can still feel firm if the surface deteriorates to a significant degree, but it's more bearable than the all-too-eager hatchback models.
Aiding refinement levels further, the whole car is quiet too, with engine and wind noise well suppressed; the tyres... not so much. There is a lot of roar at speed, if we're honest, but we reckon the diesel model on smaller wheels would be more hushed. And while the chassis isn't as playful as we'd hoped, the excellent steering and brakes at least mean you can get the MINI Clubman into a quick, flowing groove if the road conditions are right.
There's a choice of gearboxes on all models, with a first for any MINI: an eight-speed automatic. It's only available on the four-cylinder variants (so Cooper D and Cooper S, while the three-cylinder Cooper gets a six-speed auto as an option) and it's another brilliant transmission, being super-smooth, sharp to react to throttle inputs and muted in its operation. We prefer the standard-fit six-speed manual for that extra bit of driver interactivity but if you want an automatic MINI, it's nice to know there's an utterly up-to-date gearbox available. A final note: adding the auto to the Cooper S shaves 0.1 seconds from its 0-100km/h time, it improves consumption to 5.8 litres/100km (48.7mpg) and CO2 emissions to 134g/km - enough to save you €110 annually on road tax over the manual.
What you get for your Money:
In Ireland, we're getting a pared-down range, at least to start with. On the continent, there are petrol and diesel versions of the One, Cooper and Cooper S, leading to a six-model launch line-up; three engines are three-cylinder, 1.5-litre units and the other three are 2.0-litre, four-pot engines. Over in the UK, they're not getting the One/One D, leaving the Cooper, Cooper D, Cooper S and Cooper SD. Here in Ireland, we lose the last of these, which is a pity, as it uses the more powerful 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine as found in the latest BMW 3 Series, which means 190hp, 400Nm, performance almost on a par with and much better economy and emissions figures than the Cooper S we drove here.
So the €28,960, three-cylinder Cooper has 136hp, the €31,970 Cooper D makes 150hp (and will be by far the biggest seller here) while the Cooper S has 192hp and a healthy top speed of 228km/h. Standard kit on the Cooper S is pretty impressive, including 17-inch alloys, a multifunction sports steering wheel, sports seats, cruise control, satnav, DAB radio, rain-sensing wipers and automatic lights. But like any self-respecting MINI, there's a lengthy options list so that the car can be almost infinitely personalised - and the danger is that the price could easily spiral well beyond €40,000 if you get fast and loose with the trinkets when ordering your Clubman.
The looks are bound to split opinion but this is the most practical, spacious and refined MINI yet made by BMW. Driving enthusiasts might find the Cooper S lacking sparkle, so if all you're interested in is a stylish, comfortable family car then the Cooper D Clubman is going to make much more sense. Either way, it's a thoroughly likeable machine and the best entry into the MINI canon. And for those of you waiting for a hot Clubman, there's bound to be a John Cooper Works variant sooner or later...