Many moons ago when Sir Alec Issigonis showed his funky little shoebox to the world, people were amazed by the amount of space inside. Not only was the Mini fun to drive, but you could pack in some seriously tall passengers and a bunch of stuff. John Cooper decided to make the Mini a little more fun by stuffing some key go faster bits and an icon was born: Cooper S
Fast forward to 2009: the modern, BMW designed MINI is positively gigantic when parked next to an old school Mini. Even still, it is one of the smallest cars on North American roads and is still one of the most fun to drive. Packed full of modern safety stuff, the MINI is not the most effective stuff mover of our time. For some potential buyers, that was a potential problem. The solution? The Clubman. a modern version of the super cool Mini Traveler.
Just like the original Mini had the Cooper and the Cooper S, the modern MINI Cooper has the Cooper S and the ultra special John Cooper Works package. That same philosophy has been applied to the Clubman. What more could the enthusiast want than a small package that offers both utility and a hardcore attitude?
Our tester last week was the 2009 MINI Clubman with the full on John Cooper Works package. There is so much to talk about that I barely know where to start. Maybe a good place would be a quote from Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson:
I have decided itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s one of the worst cars in the world. About as desirable as a packet of dung or a can of worms. Truthfully? IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d rather have a goat.
Now I know that Clarkson’s job is to make fun of just about everything, but his entire review just didn’t strike me as funny. Still, having enjoyed the normal wheelbase JCW MINI on the track, a seed of doubt regarding the Clubman had been planted. Fortunately, those seeds turned out to be duds, just like Clarkson’s review.
This was my first media review through BMW Canada and was also my first time time into the bowels of their sprawling facility. Unlike most other fleet lots, BMW keeps their cars in the dark and toasty warm warehouse. Just perfect for a cold winter morning and for showing off a funky night time detail. Regular readers know that I’m a big kid at heart, so it is no surprise that I was excited about the mood lighting emanating from behind the inside door pulls and a few other key places around the interior. I know, I’m shallow but the Clubman had already won me over and I hadn’t even driven it yet.
A huge part of the MINI mystique is the fact that every single design detail tells the world that the driver is a person who knows how to have fun. Design details about, from the jeweled headlight surrounds to the entire interior, everything is uniquely MINI. Let’s face it, there are few people who don’t smile when they talk about a MINI. The Clubman has sort of super sized the fun by stretching things both inside and out. Interestingly, during our week with the car, enthusiasts asked about it and knew exactly what it was. Some even commented on the JCW badges. Non enthusiast types however would ask “how did you stretch a MINI”. Many had no idea that the Clubman was available and that is a shame, because the Clubman is just so versatile for a small car. Everybody loved the 3rd door on the passenger side. The barn doors at the back draw attention and are wonderfully useful, opening wide to allow easy loading.
Our daily life in Canada standard test here in The Garage is the 3 hockey bag test. This would be a true test of how useful the Clubman can be for life with a family. How did it do? Well, to be honest, you could fit 3 full size hockey bags inside with both rear seats down but then you could only carry 2 people. We managed to stuff 2 full bags, water bottle cage and a trainers bag AND carry 3 passengers and still feel like we were entered in the Monte Carlo Rally thanks to the aggressive bark from the exhaust.
Which brings us to the John Cooper Works package’s reason for being: performance. Unlike many other performance packages which offer extra speed in the form of stickers, the JCW is the real deal. Using a healthy dose of parts from the MINI John Cooper Works CHALLENGE model, the Clubman is almost race ready from the showroom floor. The 1598 cc four cylinder is boosted to 208 hp by a twin scroll turbo that scrolls up quickly so there is no perceptible lag. The engine exhales through a tuned exhaust that burbles and pops at low rpm and absolutely wails at higher revs. This is not a car for those who don’t want to be noticed! Surprisingly the little engine also puts out 192 lbs/ft of torque which means that one needn’t row the 6 speed box all that much in stop and go traffic as there is lots of grunt in every gear. Unless of course you just want to hear that glorious exhaust note as you wind through the gears. Things aren’t all go, as the JCW package includes upgraded suspension and gigantic brakes. Given that we had the Clubman during a very snowy Ontario week, we didn’t really get to put those to much of a test.
So how does a little race tuned hauler handle an Ontario winter? I can honestly say that the JCW Clubman is the only car I’ve ever driven that was as much fun to drive in the snow as our old Suzuki rally car and is a heck of a lot more comfortable. With a fresh set of snow boots, the MINI was an absolute blast to drive on snow covered rural roads. Predictable, responsive to throttle, steering and brake inputs and that always exciting ripping sound from the twin tailpipes.
So its pretty obvious that I (unlike Mr Clarkson) think the MINI Clubman is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but what about the negatives? There has to be some negatives. Right? If anything, it has to be style for the sake of style. I have never driven another car which has required me to pull out the owners manual so many times. Once I learned where each control was, they all made sense they just weren’t very intuitive. The designers have deviated from the norm for just about every control in the name of fun and funky style. is that a bad thing? No, it just means that one must learn where everything is and how certain things operate. It took me almost the full week to figure out the intermittant wipers. Then again, I never did look those up in the book.
Fun and funky styling, more usable space and real race bred performance come together to make a car that is perfect for a small family runabout that could easily do double duty as a weekend track toy to satisfy the Paddy Hopkirk in all of us.