The new Mini Clubman JCW is seriously bonkers, writes Richard Bosselman.
They’ve squeezed a mighty new turbocharged petrol engine, four-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic gearbox into the Clubman station wagon, thus creating a jolly-looking giant-killer.
To understand the reasoning requires a trip back in history. Back when Mini was made by BMC, it used motorsport to raise the wee mite’s image, ultimately to giant-beating status.
The key to this was recruiting the right performance partner. John Cooper was the best. The influence the late great Briton’s F1 championshipwinning touch had on these cheeky cars in the 1960s is recognised now by Mini’s modern keeper, BMW.
All the same, today’s John Cooper Works models reach well beyond the original three-door thriller template.
Back in Cooper’s day, the only presumable motor-sport use for a Mini van would have been for parts delivery. It was the one original-era Mini not to get a good fizz-up.
How ironic, then, that today’s equivalent is not only a JCW model but holds status as the most powerful production Mini (they’ve even started writing its name in capitals) ever devised for the road.
What comes as standard?
The modern Mini at this level majors in generous equipment provision, with a few tweaks to remind you of the kind of car you’re driving: the Union Jackembossed tail-lights as one example.
The Clubman packs a rearview camera, comfort access, electric seat adjust, seat heating, a Mini ‘‘excitement’’ and interior lights package, sport suspension, leather trim plus driver-assistant ingredients of active cruise control, park distance warning bleepers front and rear as part of the parking assistance package, rain sensor, automatic air conditioning, a Harmon Kardon stereo, navigation and the Mini Connected app that includes wireless charging and Apple Carplay.
Options, enoughof which were added to the test car to elevate the sticker by $4700, run to metallic paint, red sports stripe, sun protection glazing, an interior lights upgrade and enhanced leather. And, yes, if you want abig Union Jack on the roof they can do that as well.
What’s it like to look at?
In fairness, calling the Clubman an ‘‘equivalent’’ to the original station wagon is a stretch. Not even the name really fits. ‘‘Clubman’’ Minis were snub-nosed redesigns of the three-door BMC passenger model. Though the design keeps barn-style rear doors, it plays extremely loose. Yet it certainly looks different in a sea of ‘‘sameness’’.
As a totally upmarket and very plush model now, it’s sitting several social classes above the old utilitarian trader vehicle that faithfully served penny-wise families and small traders.
Consider it instead as a decent-sized five-seater car, with good boot space, the best of the various new Minis for fully family-minded operability, beaten only perhaps by the near-lookalike Countryman crossover.
For 2020 the 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. It also gets new LED headlights and tail lights.
What’s it like inside?
The reason for the Clubman’s parking spacefilling design of course becomes evident when you’re in the cabin.
Rear-seat room is generous enough to make it appealing to someone of my above-average height. When dropping down that back seat, too, the boot becomes very commodious. And the other thing to like about this generation Clubman is that it has four proper side doors.
Minor trim changes and new tech, including a head-up display and connected options for the infotainment system, which uses a built-in 4G SIM card, are implemented this year into a highly styled cabin that looks very smart and very individual, withlots of stylised knobs and switches.
The touchscreen enhancement is useful, but it still lacks voice control and although the menu sequences and accesses are much the same as you get in BMWbadged cars, the operability is less straightforward.
What’s it like to drive?
With the standard 2.0-litre meted JCW-spec internals, a bigger twin-scroll turbo, fancy injectors and an improved cooling system, this Clubman has an extra 56kW over previous JCW models.
An ability to hit 100kmh in 4.9 seconds and achieve more than 250km top speed is serious. It now easily has enough oomph to go toe-to-toe with the similarly priced Mercedes-AMG A35 and Audi S3.
The car’s spirit isn’t encumbered by it being restricted to an eight-speed auto; in fact, you’d think only the truly brave would be able to cope with it had it also availed as a manual, so strong is the push.
Sport mode is entirely that. The gear changes hold much longer and become snappier at much higher (post 6000rpm) revs than in the softer‘‘Mid’’ setting it defaults to at start-up allows. There’s a ‘‘Green’’ eco setting that in all likelihood lends best opportunity to achieve the maker’s cited optimal economy but so reduces the fizz it’s hard to see why it’ll be prioritised.
The exhaust system features an ‘‘emotionally charged acoustic design’’, which means a bit of trickery involving the stereo speakers. Anyway, it becomes very snap-crackle-pop when you’re banging along in the full-out feral settings and, assuredly, the sound isn’t just being played for your benefit. Everyone can hear it.
The on-demand AWD has a mechanical diff lock to help traction upfront and minimise torque steer and also alters its feed in that optimal fun setting, sending more to the rear.
This edition also takes a stiffer body structure and this, along with being 10mm lower and stiffened, and with geometry alteration for faster cornering and more dextrous hard-driving handling, means it is rather firm for general driving. But that’s JCW typical. Likewise, the beefed-up brakes that can seem a little snatchy, and meaty low-profile tyres of a type that’ll probably be worn down bycoarse-chip regularity.
There’s such massive frontend grip you feel inspired to be quite brave in entering corners, because you sense it’ll faithfully magnet to the apex no matter what. The steering is awesome, with excellent weightingand good feel and feedback. And the four-wheeldrive aspect is trustworthy enough to be called Quattroesque. All in all, there’s a level of competence that a driver of an original Mini Cooper simply wouldn't believe possible.
The modern Mini is driven by sucha fashion-first focusthis buy-in will seem a bit weird. Even with stripes, big wheels and a slightly insanebody kit, the car is hard to visualise as a hard-out sports device or hot hatch. But it really is totally mega.