Good: lots of fun to drive, more comfy and spacious than the hatch, ugly-pretty looks
Not so good: lacks the quirky fun-factor of the old Clubman, very pricey in this spec
First, a confession - I already own a MINI Clubman. Not this brand, spanking new model of course, but an old-shape 2009 version, a Clubman Cooper D 1.6. And it's a cracking little car in my opinion. Just about spacious enough to take us, the kids and bags for a weekend away, hugely frugal and lots of fun to drive. This new Clubman, then, has rather a lot to live up to, what with it replacing the hallowed choice of my own driveway.
New it most definitely is though - there's a new platform underneath there, longer and wider by far than my old Clubman and longer and wider in fact that either the three- or five-door current MINI hatch. Crucially, some of that extra length has gone into providing some proper legroom for both front and rear passengers, while the extra 73mm of width has at last given us taller drivers somewhere to put our knees.
Actually, the difference in space between new Clubman and old is quite striking, and the new one has really moved up a class in terms of size and space. In our own 2009 car, when my eldest son sits behind me, I have to adopt the classic Taxi Driver driving position - steering wheel in my sternum, knees in my armpits. In this new Clubman, the same father and son can sit fore and aft with genuine stretching space for both.
Yet, this still feels like a proper MINI. Yes, at 4.2 metres it's the longest car ever to bear the MINI badge (bar some bizarre one-off limousines), but, to put that in to some frame of reference, that's only really about as long as a current Volkswagen Golf. It still slots neatly onto my driveway with space on either side to roll the wheelie bins out (an industry-standardised test, I assure you...) and doesn't feel excessively bulky to drive.
And it is far, far more practical. Never mind the extra legroom, check out the door count. The old Clubman attracted much opprobrium at its launch for the little rear-hinged extra door, which MINI insisted on calling a 'Clubdoor.' A neat enough idea, it was (thanks to the position of the fuel filler) mounted on the wrong side, the driver's side, for right-hand drive production, which meant rear seat passengers were forced to alight into traffic. Actually, in personal experience, it's not that bad - city centre parking restrictions being what they are, we usually end up in a car park, and the extra door is handy for the kids to scramble in and out through.
Nevertheless, the new, entirely conventional rear doors (one on each side, I checked) are far more useful and sensible day-to-day, even if they do rob the Clubman of a little of its quirky personality. At least MINI has retained the side-hinged twin boot doors at the back, which open and close in a way that is guaranteed to delight engineering nerds (so finely damped and balanced; feel the Germanic precision!) and while they're not sensible really, a Clubman simply wouldn't be a Clubman without them.
A shame that the styling all goes a bit wrong around the rear though - those big rear lights are very gawky, and in general the car looks far less neat than the old one. Up front, it's better - hardly pretty and with lots of needless extra lines and vents in this car's Cooper S spec, but still rather striking and certainly different. Different is good, in case you were wondering.
And it's still fun to drive. In spite of the extra space, the greater practicality, the bigger boot and the improved comfort, MINI has managed to make the Clubman still feel like a proper MINI. It's noticeably more refined than my old one, and far smoother (if still very, very firm) over bumps. Electric assistance has robbed the steering of some feel (a shame), but it's still quick to twirl across its locks and the Clubman still springs into an apex with enthusiasm.
I wouldn't bother with the Cooper S engine though. Yes, it has relatively muscular performance, but to be honest, its performance figures just don't look that impressive any more. Either upgrade to the (insanely expensive) Cooper S Works, or just go for the lesser, but somehow better, regular Cooper. You'll save purchase and fuel money and I don't reckon you'll really feel all that short changed in performance terms.
Thankfully then, MINI has ironed out many of the old Clubman's failings without, entirely, eradicating its character. The old one was a totally different car really, a barely-more-spacious MINI hatch with some silly doors. This new one is far more sophisticated and a rival to the likes of a high-end Golf, an Audi A3 Sportback or a Mercedes-Benz A-Class. I think some of the quirky fun factor of old has gone, but the extra space and comfort balance that out. I think I might have to (eventually) find some space on my driveway for one.