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The Mini Clubman is one of the greatest automotive success stories of the modern era

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The history of Mini since BMW bought the marque has been one of the greatest automotive success stories of the modern era. BMW produced a thoroughly modern, distinctive and desirable car, and with Mini established BMW felt it was time to broaden the brand’s appeal, with the answer being the Clubman.

Yes, that name is an anomaly; BMW doesn’t have the rights to use the name of the original Traveller estate.

This is one of the greatest automotive success stories of the modern era

But the lack of the Traveller name can't have dented BMW's confidence much, or it wouldn't have taken on a project as potentially fraught with difficulty as turning the fashion accessory that is the Mini into a practical wagon.

Unless the balance is perfect you’re either going to destroy a large chunk of the appeal that makes people want Minis in the first place, or you’re going to build one of the world’s worst family cars. Possibly both.

Being Mini, it didn't go down the traditional route with its load-lugging version, instead opting for a strange door arrangement with just one extra side door - on the driver's side. It's quirky to say the least.

As expected, the Clubman is offered in (almost) the full Mini line-up, including petrol and diesel versions of the One, Cooper and Cooper S, along with the crazy fast John Cooper Works model, which dines on petrol only. Special editions include the luxurious Hampton Clubman and as ever buyers have a huge number of customisation options.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Mini Clubman rear doors

Looks are entirely in the eye of the beholder, and on this score we feel no better qualified to judge than anyone else. But for what it’s worth, our view on the Mini Clubman is that it sits on the odd side of quirky – a shape with a great deal of initial interest but, once the novelty of its innovative design has subsided, not one that’s likely to be remembered as one of the greats.

The layout of the doors is the biggest conversation piece. On the driver's side there's a conventional door at the front and with that open the rear-hinged back door can be opened. This 'Clubdoor' (as Mini calls it) is not found on the passenger side of the right hand drive version, due to the expense of engineering the body, fuel filler and tank to accommodate the opening.

The layout of the doors is the biggest conversation piece

In place of a top-hinged hatchback, Mini's designers took the lead from the original Mini estates of the 1960s, for the design of the side-hinged 'barn doors' at the back. 

Argue as much as you like about the look of the car, but it’s much more difficult to quibble with its engineering credentials. It’s one thing to build a car using gimmicks – and this one has more than its fair share – as a substitute for design integrity, and quite another to provide all the essentials in the first place and then add on whatever stylistic and functional addenda the brief requires. The Clubman is emphatically in the latter camp.

INTERIOR

Mini Clubman dashboard

The extra door of the Mini Clubman is a nice party trick, but it doesn’t work too well. For a start you have to push the front seat forward to allow passengers safe and reasonable access to the back. Which rather defeats the point.

Second, once you have slid the front seat forward it refuses to return to its original position. Third, the driver’s seatbelt is anchored to this door to make a perfect tripwire.

Aside from the gimmicks, the Clubman's interior is the same as any other Mini's

Finally, there is no second door on the other side, so on a busy street your children will have to clamber out of the only door on the kerbside, or be discharged into heavy traffic. That this glaring error has been evident since the car’s launch does not prevent us from still being astonished by it.

Once installed in the rear seats, small children will be entirely comfortable and even adults will find good headroom and acceptable legroom. Just don’t expect it to be anything approaching spacious. A standard Volkswagen Golf is rather more accommodating and practical than the Clubman.

Move around to the back and those retro rear doors are not without charm, but they reveal a boot that, while larger than that of a normal Mini, is still small when compared with our aforementioned Golf.

Aside from the gimmicks, the Clubman's interior is the same as any other Mini's, which means it steals design cues from its forebears and it's particularly well made. The driving position is low and forward visibility is great - though the views over the shoulder and to the rear are impinged on.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mini Clubman front quarter

Mini's Clubman can be an urban runabout or a headache for hot hatches depending on which engine you choose. The entry-level naturally aspirated 1.6-litre petrol engine comes in 98- and 122bhp states of tune in the One and Cooper and the latter is certainly worth the premium. Likewise, the One D and Cooper D share the same basic 1.6-litre diesel engine, offering power outputs of 90- and 112bhp respectively. Although the latter is more desirable, the One D isn't all that much slower in the real world, thanks to a useful 158lb ft of torque produced from just 1,750rpm.

The most powerful diesel is the Cooper SD, which uses a development of BMW's 2.0-litre engine. In the Mini this sends 143bhp and a significant 225lb ft of torque to the front wheels. It's as quick as the turbocharged Cooper S in the real world, though perhaps not as engaging. The petrol-fuelled car produces its maximum 184hp at 5,500rpm so it encourages the driver to use more of the rev counter. Though its 177lb ft figure is lower than the SD's, it's available over more of the engine speed range.

Mini's Clubman can be an urban runabout or a headache for hot hatches

However, really pushing the performance boat out is the John Cooper Works model. It is powered by a further development of the Cooper S's twin-scroll turbocharged 1.6-litre engine, but it produces 208bhp and 191lb ft of torque. A top speed of 148mph is quoted, plus a 0-62mph time of just 6.8 seconds.

All versions come with a six-speed manual gearbox, and an automatic is optional - on anything other than the John Cooper Works.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mini Clubman cornering

How the Mini Clubman drives depends entirely on the model you go for and the options added. All share the basics though and it steers beautifully for a front-wheel-drive car with electric steering. Levels of traction are surely the highest of its genre; it feels very secure and remains great fun to drive.

The entry-level cars may not have the performance to test the chassis, but they cling on gamely through corners, encouraging the driver to use momentum to keep up a decent pace. Body roll is kept to an absolute minimum, even at this end of the range.

If comfort and refinement are of the highest priority, the Clubman is not the car to buy

Further up, the Cooper S and SD offer more thrills thanks to stiffer springs and thicker anti-roll bars. In a way these feel more like the original Mini in that they can be thrown into a corner with abandon knowing that the car's attitude can be adjusted easily on the throttle. However, it's all too easy to spin an inside wheel if you're a little too enthusiastic on the exit of a corner.

We are considerably less enamoured of the ride quality, especially on any version with sports suspension or larger alloy wheels. Roads known to be very smooth suddenly appeared to have been cobbled, thanks to the jittery nature of the ride. The suspension is not only harsh but also rather noisy.

If comfort and refinement are of the highest priority then the Clubman is not the car to buy, but if you want to actively enjoy driving, even at normal speed, it's just as much fun as the hatchback.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mini Clubman 2007-2015

As with all Minis, the Clubman's list price is merely where negotiations commence, and it’s easy to add a few extras and find the price heading significantly northwards. At least the Clubman should prove as residually strong as the Mini hatch.

The economy stars are the One D and Cooper D, both offering 72.4mpg on the combined cycle. You'll not achieve that if you tend to drive enthusiastically, but at least the emissions values of 103g/km will help keep tax costs down.

It’s easy to add a few extras and find the price heading significantly northwards.

Perhaps of more surprise is that the Cooper S hot hatch manages a quoted 47.9mpg. That's astounding given the performance on offer. Nonetheless, the Cooper SD puts it to shame with its combination of torque output, 64.2mpg economy and 115g/km emissions.

Opting for the automatic gearbox has a significantly detrimental effect on the emissions rating and fuel economy on all models and don't buy the John Cooper Works Clubman if you intend to save money, as it really drinks petrol, despite the quoted 39.2mpg figure.

Likewise, the higher performance models cost a bit to insure, though the rest of the range is reasonable enough on that count.

Mini pioneered fixed-price servicing and offers its 'tlc' and 'tlc XL' packages covering the Clubman for up to eight years and 80,000 miles. These can be tailored to suit your likely use of the car. `financially, they're something of a no-brainer.

VERDICT

3.5 star Mini Clubman

The fair-to-middling rating we have awarded this Mini shows how much we value the depth of its engineering, particularly in the way it handles, the clear quality of its construction and how cheap to run it is (John Cooper Works version aside). That's despite the fact that, as a concept, the Clubman is flawed to say the least.

Even if the looks present you with no particular problem, you will have to deal with that single rear door being on the wrong side of the car. Add the two boot doors and it smacks of a company thinking too hard about how such things should look and not enough about how they should work.

The Clubman does offer Mini fans something different

Saying that, the Clubman does offer Mini fans something different. If you get the whole Mini thing and want a change from the hatchback then it could be just the ticket. It's a little more practical, though that's not a reason to buy it. The driving experience and image remain, as does the bewildering array of customisation options and the line-up itself is extensive.

Though there's nothing particularly wrong with the One Clubman, it rather defeats the purpose of a car made to stand out, so this body variant works best further up the range.

The odd thing is, we quite like the Clubman because it is at least an ambitious mould-breaker. However, our problem lies with its execution, which, sadly for such an apparently interesting product, is just not good enough.

Mini Clubman 2007-2014 First drives