A MINI Cooper Clubman showdown on the streets of Montreal
I’m going to assume you’re all starting to notice a bit of a trend when it comes to the types of cars I drive and the events I cover — I have a bit of a soft spot for all things that come from the British Isles; I’m not ashamed to admit it.
And so it’s only natural that I’d get my hands on a few of MINI’s latest cars to zip around the city and up to the country in, to really see what they have to offer. And I promise I’ll be completely unbiased and objective in my review (maybe).
I was one of the first lucky journalists here in Montreal to get behind the wheel of the coveted John Cooper Works version of one of the brand’s latest rejuvenations: the Clubman. Having driven the basic version just a few weeks prior, I was curious to see the difference I’d feel both in performance and general character behind the wheel, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about MINIs it’s that they pack a serious punch when it comes to attitude and personality on the road, no matter which model you choose.
Now, some may poo-poo this as not really being a “MINI” but let me edumacate you for a second on this: The Austin Mini Traveller (aka Mini Countryman, which I’ll get to in a second), on which the MINI Clubman is based, was a staple in the Mini lineup throughout the ‘60s and was later renamed the Clubman through the late ‘60s into the ‘80s. It featured a wagon rear with extended rear window and barn doors in the rear instead of a hatch.
When the new MINI Clubman was “re”-launched in 2007, I immediately fell in love. Now, hear me out. It wasn’t just because it was a MINI (trust me, there was no love for the Countryman or the Paceman when they were first launched…), it was the quirky nature of the car, the design the elongated body and the oh-so-cool third suicide door on the passenger’s side. Oh, and those barn doors made loading the rear of the Clubman so much easier, plus they look uber cool when you open them.
So, when MINI announced they were redesigning the Clubman from top to bottom, I was skeptical at first, but also uber excited to see what they had in store.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Inside the all-new MINI Cooper Clubman you’ll find a much more mature space with upgraded materials, surfaces and designs. From the plaid inserts found in storage spaces and on the dash to the comfier diamond-quilt patterned leather seats (leather and suede sport bolstered and JCW crested seats in the John Cooper Works edition) and the uber-cool wrap-around dash, as well as colour-matching door inserts that feature tiny holes that are then backlit with whatever colour mood-lighting you choose in the cockpit while you drive.
Slightly larger in width and length, the size difference in the new 2017 MINI Cooper Clubman is definitely noticeable. Up front the cabin is spacious and two adults fit without feeling like they might encroach on each other’s space — and coffee cups held in the front cup holders are safe from elbows and knees.
In the back, my son was super comfortable and pleased he now has full doors back there instead of the funky suicide door. Truthfully, I kind of miss the quirky third door that really set the Clubman apart (along with the rear openings). However, the integration of two more full doors (in the same way the MINI 5-Door now sports proper rear doors) does make the Clubman that much more practical.
And about those barn doors in the rear; I still love them. Now hydraulically controlled, they swing open gently once the handle button is pressed. And the load height is perfect for someone of my particular height and size. It’s also worth noting that the Clubman makes a very convenient dog transport vehicle, with plenty of space (and windows) for your furry friend in the trunk space.
From the outside, the all-new MINI Cooper Clubman is still instantly recognizable as a MINI with its boyish grin and bubble lights. The updated rear sports modern taillights and “Clubman” written across the rear in the same guise as the Countryman. The roofline was also lowered as was the car’s overall stance. It’s taken on a much more wagon-like presence on the road, and that’s more than OK with me. I was happy to share the #wagonlove.
Alright, I know what you’re all dying to read about is the difference in the drive, because, after all, the John Cooper Works editions are about more than just more aggressive aesthetics and racing stripes. These special editions beef up engine performance along with handling.
The base 2017 MINI Cooper Clubman is equipped with a 3-cylinder TwinPower Turbocharged unit that produces 134 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. This little swaggin’ wagon reachs the 100km mark from a standstill in 9.1 seconds, and my particular tester was equipped with MINI’s 6-speed automatic transmission.
The 2017 MINI Cooper Clubman John Cooper Works ALL4 on the other hand came equipped with a 4-cylinder TwinPower Turbocharged engine that produced 228 ponies and 258 lb-ft of torque. Also equipped with an automatic transmission (8-speed) this much feistier version hits 100 from nothing in just 6.3 seconds.
There is an over $11,500 difference in base price between the base Cooper Clubman and the jacked-up John Cooper Works ALL4 version. That’s basically a Nissan Micra…
First, let me say this: A MINI at any time and in any trim should never be driven with an automatic transmission. I don’t care. I don’t want to hear your excuses or whingeing about clutches in traffic; just know that that is how a MINI must be driven. Always. Even more blasphemous is a John Cooper Works model with an automatic tranny. It took everything in my being to overlook that sad fact. I’ve only every driven one other JCW with an automatic and it was a Countryman years ago that almost had me thinking MINI had totally lost its way …
Every MINI has a playful personality on the road, no matter what the model or trim level. From the hatch to the Countryman (in a different sort of way, but you’ll have to read my review on that one to find out why), they are all a blast to drive, and that’s totally intentional. With fabulous balance and wheels set at, essentially, all four corners, they really and truly do handle like go karts, and I love it.
Don’t let the Clubman’s wagon size and dimensions fool you into thinking this is a sluggish, too-large MINI to throw around, it most definitely isn’t. The only thing that really holds this model back is the transmission.
I actually really, really liked the simplicity of the base model. The 3-cylinder is gutsy and gives it all when asked. Steering is on point, and the suspension feels stiff and sporty under more aggressive maneuvers. You almost forget you’ve got a larger rear stuck on the back and feel as if you’re in the hatch.
Switch to the Clubman John Cooper Works and the power boost is immediately evident, but not in a face-crushing uncontrollable way. Everything is very BMW civilized in the JCW (as it should be). However, pop the Clubman JCW into “sport” mode and along with a fancy Clubman cartoon on the centre stack screen that calls you to “motorhard” while it takes an apex on track rumble strips, and everything gets a bit more exciting.
Throttle response increases, steering becomes more precise, gear changes are more aggressive and held longer for sportier driving. Oh, and did I mention the exhaust note and backfires? Yeah, those happen too. You’ll be poppin’ and fartin’ all over the place with the JCW, and it’s a glorious, glorious thing. It kept my son and I grinning from ear to ear all week. Accelerating then lifting my foot off the throttle to hear the pop, bang out the rear followed by my son’s infectious laughter may have been the vehicle’s coolest feature.
It’s also interesting to note that the John Cooper Works only comes with ALL4, MINI’s all-wheel drive system, which also helps handling and makes the Clubman JCW a viable winter warrior, as well.
Foibles and annoyances
So, it can’t all be roses and rainbows, now can it? Here are my main gripes with the all-new Clubman (base or JCW version).
For starters, that head-up display. It needs to change. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to put a hideaway plastic screen that rises behind the steering wheel slower than grass grows instead of integrating a display that shows on the windscreen like every other BMW, but that person needs to be lead out of all future design meetings, and preferably at a faster speed than the head-up display collapses once you discover you CAN hide it and never have to actually look at it.
And that transmission: The 8-speed automatic in the JCW wasn’t horrible (please don’t quote me on that), but the 6-speed felt sluggish and the lack of paddle shifters on the steering wheel just kind of dulled the experience in the base Cooper Clubman.
Honestly, certain cars should only come with 3 pedals, and the MINI is just one of them; especially in JCW trim. I’ve driven a base Cooper with next to no bells and whistles, equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission and the new turbocharged 3-cylinder and I liked it as much (if not more) than the Cooper S version with more horsepower. It is that much fun with a stick.
Worth the extra dollars for the extra ponies
So, after all that, would I dish out the extra coin to rock the John Cooper Works badge in my condo carpark? Does the Queen own corgis and wear blue skirt suits? There’s your answer.