MINI gives its Clubman estate the John Cooper Works treatment, with all-wheel drive as standard, but the result is a somewhat perplexing car that doesn't really know what it wants to be.
In the metal
In 2015, the MINI Clubman was completely redesigned and the John Cooper Works version builds on that. There's a more aggressive front bumper design featuring air ducts where the fog lamps used to sit to aid brake and engine cooling, plus a revised rear bumper and spoiler, which MINI claims give a reduction in lift. These sit rather oddly with the Clubman's elongated shape, and it's a real Marmite car in terms of appearance. Those who love it think it's glorious; those who don't, well... We'll let you decide for yourself.
Our test car was fitted with 18-inch wheels, which look a little lost in the arches (19-inch items are an option), and there are plenty of John Cooper Works logos dotted around the exterior to remind other road users as to what this Clubman is. LED headlights are standard and are very effective once darkness falls, while the driver's door mirror projects an illuminated MINI sign on the ground when the car is unlocked.
On the inside, it's quite dark apart from coloured accents on the dashboard and the doors, the latter of which changes hue depending on which driving mode is selected. Sports seats are standard, but are lacking a little in lateral support, while the leather-trimmed multifunction steering wheel has a quite thick and unusually shaped rim that forces your palms into an unusual position when held at quarter-to-three. That quirky split boot door design blocks any useful view from the rear-view mirror, but thankfully the big door mirrors compensate somewhat. The anthracite roof lining is a nice touch, and there's an excellent heads-up display. It's a good place to be, and benefits from the usual high-quality MINI fit and finish. Everything feels tactile to touch, and the optional 8.8-inch touchscreen with MINI Navigation XL is intuitive to use. Other options include a Harman Kardon hi-fi system, dual-zone climate control, heated seats and a panoramic glass roof.
This is where things get slightly confusing. The engine is the same as that fitted to the regular MINI John Cooper Works, so you get 231hp between 5,000- and 6,000rpm and 350Nm from 1,450rpm through to 4,800rpm. In reality though, the car doesn't feel all that quick. There's negligible lag and a nice initial surge when you floor the throttle pedal, but it just seems to run out of ideas towards the higher end of the rev range, even sounding rather strained the higher you go. It doesn't really reward you for wringing it out, so you tend to change up quite early. A six-speed manual is standard, but our car was fitted with the optional eight-speed Steptronic automatic gearbox, which is quite quick on upshifts, but could do with an improvement to the down-change function in terms of rev-matching, especially in the Sport setting. Interestingly, when in fully automatic mode, this gearbox can work in conjunction with the MINI Navigation XL system to read the road ahead and prevent unnecessary gearchanges.
Flicking the car into Sport mode sharpens the throttle response and gives the steering a bit more weight, while simultaneously increasing the exhaust noise and stiffening the dampers if the optional Variable Damper Control system is fitted. There are some very audible pops from the exhaust on upshifts and on the overrun, but in truth that's about as far as the sensation of fun goes. The damping is well-resolved, but the car is quite inert and doesn't respond to attempts to get it moving on corner entry. The brakes are effective, but the pedal has quite a long travel, and the steering is pretty much devoid of feel - although to be fair, our test car was fitted with Pirelli winter tyres suitable for Austrian winter conditions, which may have exaggerated the numb sensation. The ALL4 all-wheel drive system is predominantly front axle-biased, only proportioning power to the rear if the DSC system detects wheel slip. It's very stable, but as far as entertainment goes, it's a long way off its main rivals. Switching back to normal mode, the car is perfectly capable as a cruiser, but then again so is the regular Clubman, which does make you wonder what MINI is trying to achieve with this car.
What you get for your money
At €48,210 on-the-road, the JCW Clubman costs quite a premium over the rest of the range, and you'd have to really want the extra go-faster bits to warrant it. When stacked up against rivals like the SEAT Leon ST Cupra et al, it falls short in terms of dynamism and fun, so it's difficult to see it finding buyers outside of the die-hard MINI set.
The John Cooper Works Clubman was always going to be a niche version of a niche vehicle, and despite selling itself on the pretence of a fun driving experience wrapped up in the versatile Clubman body, it's just not that enjoyable. It's by no means a bad car and is still just as practical and adept at everyday driving as the regular Clubman models, but it falls short on its stated aim. That engine feels like it has more potential, and if MINI could just dial a bit more playfulness into the chassis it would go a long way towards improving the grin factor. As it stands, it's not the type of enjoyable drive that we hoped it could be. More's the pity.