Welcome to the most powerful production MINI yet - the 306hp Clubman John Cooper Works (JCW). MINI has squeezed this mighty new turbocharged petrol engine, four-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic gearbox into the Clubman estate. Can it live up to its billing, though?
In the Metal:
There's no getting away from the fact that the current MINI Clubman strikes a slightly awkward pose. Now, I have to put my hands up to being an owner of an older Clubman, of 2009 vintage, and I happen to think that's still a great looking car. The current Clubman shape seems to me, sadly, to be a little more bloated, and has an awkwardly long centre-section, leaving the rest of the car looking unbalanced.
Still, at least this generation has four proper doors, and retains the enjoyably tactile 'barn-door' boot, with which you can while away many happy hours of latching and unlatching.
The whole Clubman range has been given a general going-over in style terms, with a new grille at the front, new bumpers, new mirrors and a general move away from soft, oval shapes towards something more technical and edgy. If you already liked the Clubman design, then there's nothing here to upset you. It also gets new LED headlights and taillights, which (as a delete option for the Irish market) echo the Union Flag stylings of the recently updated hatchback. There are also some minor trim changes for the cabin, some new colour options (including the arresting rosy 'Indian Summer Red' for the truly brave) and new alloy wheels. You can also optionally spec it with sportier, 10mm lower, suspension, and all of the engines now meet the latest Euro 6D Temp emissions regulations. There's also a long list of new connected options for the infotainment system, which uses a built-in 4G SIM card.
This is no ordinary Clubman, though. The is the John Cooper Works variant and, in the spirit of the one-time F1 champion Cooper team and its subsequent, legendary, work tuning and tweaking original Minis through the sixties, this is the most powerful MINI yet offered for sale (alongside a new Countryman SUV model with the same engine option).
The 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine gets a bigger twin-scroll turbo, plus changes to the air intake and fuel injection systems to liberate - wait for it - an extra 75hp compared to the previous JCW models. With 306hp, this MINI is now able to go toe-to-toe, blow-for-blow with the Mercedes-AMG A 35 and the Audi S3. It's also more powerful than the likes of Ford's new Focus ST and the Renault Megane RS.
To cope with the power, there's standard fit All4 four-wheel drive and, instead of the standard MINI's seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, there's an eight-speed automatic instead. The dual-clutch gearbox can't cope with the torque, apparently. To help everything else cope with the extra wallop, there's an uprated braking system, a stiffer body structure and a mechanical limited slip differential for the front wheels. The suspension has also been re-worked, and there's a new sports exhaust, which also incorporates a gasoline particulate filter, for maximum cleanliness.
Inside, there are high-backed bucket seats, lots of John Cooper Works badging and a sporty-looking three-spoke steering wheel.
There seems to be a bit of a pattern emerging in recent hot-hatchery of manufacturers promising sledgehammer performance and maximum excitement, but then turning out cars that actually feel a bit too safe and sensible.
The MINI Clubman JCW definitely has the sledgehammer hit. Thanks to that power and torque surplus, and four-wheel drive, and launch control, it'll get to 100km/h from rest in 4.9 seconds - only a fraction of a second behind the Mercedes-AMG A 35 and the guts of a full second quicker than the likes of the new Focus ST. It also sounds good when you do that; the new sports exhaust and a bit of trickery involving the stereo speakers mean that the engine has a rich, fruity note when you're bombing along in Sport mode.
The MINI also has a chassis of rare and abiding stability and surefootedness. An indicated 220km/h on a derestricted Autobahn? Easy-peasy, and nary a sweat broken even in record summer temperatures. Sweeping with effortless ease along tree-lined roads in the hills above Frankfurt? The MINI takes to it as if born to do it. It has that same sensation that you get from a MINI hatchback, which is of such colossal front-end grip (in the dry at any rate) that there seems to be no entry to a corner so deep and so late than you can't make it in to the apex. It's hugely confidence inspiring, and the steering backs you up by having excellent weighting and good feel and feedback.
So, why am I not more excited? It's tough to say, but there's a bit of the same problem here that we've experienced with the Mercedes-AMG A 35. The chassis is so competent, possessed of such deportment, so free from vice, that it all starts to feel a touch dull. Yes, the Clubman JCW zips from apex to apex with insouciant ease, and no lack of velocity. Yes, it has a level of capability that a driver of a 1990s original-shape Mini Cooper simply wouldn't believe possible. But it's not actually all that much fun.
Just as with the baby AMG, the sheer competence of the chassis leaves the whole thing feeling a touch cold, as if 306hp is no big deal. Having more power than an early nineties Porsche 911 in a family hatchback should just not feel like no big deal. It's almost as if were MINI to make the Clubman's chassis, technically, a little worse, it would actually be better because the driver would then feel as if they have something to do. A manual gearbox and front-wheel drive would probably transform the experience, but alas, the big markets for cars such as this don't want a manual, and don't want front-wheel drive, so you can forget it.
The good news is that a car with this engine and front-wheel drive does exist, and is going to launch later this year. It's the new MINI John Cooper Works GP, complete with insane aero body kit and a massive struct brace in place of the back seats. It will, sadly, also only be available with the eight-speed automatic (which, in fairness, is an excellent gearbox), but it will be front-drive, and much lighter than the Clubman's rather portly 1,550kg, unladen. Perhaps then, we will have a 306hp MINI that feels suitably thrilling.
What you get for your Money:
The John Cooper Works name has its kudos, obviously, as does the MINI name itself and its connection to BMW, but there's no getting away from the fact that the Clubman JCW is very expensive. On the upside, at just over €54,000, it's better value than its most obvious rival, the Mercedes-AMG A 35. Equally, though, it's worse value than the likes of the Focus ST or Megane RS which - fair enough - aren't as quick as the MINI, but which are realistically more than fast enough for everyday purposes. Then there's the small matter of the Honda Civic Type R, which is €3,000 cheaper (before options), more powerful, actually slightly slower to 100km/h (no four-wheel drive, you see), but which delivers the kind of thrilling, pulse-racing drive you'd expect from a 300hp+ mega-hatch.
It seems a bit harsh to describe a 300hp hot hatch with a supremely talented chassis as 'boring', so we won't. What we will say is that MINI, in being so brilliant at chassis engineering, has rendered its mega-hatch less thrilling than it might have been. A touch of waywardness would make it so much better.