Tim heads to Sweden to drive the world's smallest six-door: the Mini Clubman.
It’s expected that a new generation of any vehicle will gain extra equipment, though very rarely is another door part of that enhanced specification, as is the case with the 2016 Mini Clubman.
The second-generation Mini Clubman’s shift to an unprecedented 2+2+2 six-door configuration (albeit from an even more unconventional 2+1+2 five-door layout) has understandably grabbed headlines, but to look at the new model and see only a gimmick would greatly undervalue what the BMW-owned British brand has achieved with this car.
While its predecessor was a peerless, quirky, city-sized wagon with limited practicality and an even more limited uptake in Australia, the new model is much more simply a premium compact hatch with a unique tailgate, presumably giving it far wider appeal (though undeniably at the expense of some eccentricity).
Despite its shift upmarket, pricing for the Mini Clubman (to be confirmed in the coming weeks ahead of its mid-November launch) is expected to largely mirror the old one, with the entry-level Cooper automatic to start at around $35,000 plus on-road costs and the Cooper S auto to be closer to $45,000. Manual versions will also be available.
That puts it right in the thick of the burgeoning premium small car segment with the likes of the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz A-Class (both from $35,900) and the Volvo V40 (from $36,990), as well as its Group cousin, the BMW 1 Series (from $36,900).
The sporty Cooper S Clubman will also have to prove its worth against traditional hot hatches, including the Volkswagen Golf GTI that costs $43,490 in DSG spec.
Where that anticipated pricing places the Mini Clubman on the value scale won’t be clear until specifications are finalised later this month, though first impressions from the car’s international launch in Stockholm, Sweden suggest there’s enough substance to make it competitive with those premium Euros.
Positioned above the more mainstream three- and five-door hatch models, the Clubman gets a number of features that have never been offered in any Mini before it.
The electric barn doors can be opened with a kick each under the rear bumper and power operation continues inside to the park brake and front seat adjustment. All were previously manually operated.
The seats themselves are now available with diamond-pattern stitching – a finish more commonly found in luxury models from Bentley and Rolls-Royce than their city car-crafting compatriot – while the rear bench splits 40:20:40, taking its versatility to new heights. Colourful, changeable decorative lighting arrays further enrich the ambience inside.
They add to the impressive list of features offered in the latest, third-generation Mini family that includes a host of driver assistance systems (rear-view camera, head-up display, adaptive cruise control, collision warning and auto braking, among others), adaptive dampers and driving modes, and infotainment systems with screens up to 8.8 inches in size, a touch-sensitive rotary control dial, and Mini Connected services integrating phone and internet functions into the vehicle.
On the equipment front, then, the Clubman is as compelling as any of the aforementioned semi-luxury hatches.
It’s hard to take points off for the feel and finish of the interior too (at least of the optioned-up Cooper S Clubman available to sample on the launch). Leather and soft-touch materials line more surfaces throughout the cabin than in most small cars, coloured and chrome trim panels and highlights create an attractive contrast, and the uniquely designed instruments and toggles are as nice to use as they are characterful to behold.
Visibility is hampered by the split rear window (the centre pillar is smaller than before, however), though the Clubman’s boxy shape and square windows otherwise allow a decent view out and plenty of light in.
Those diamond-stitched seats are firm but supportive for those up front, and can accommodate two adults in surprising comfort in the rear, as well as a third for shorter trips. There’s an impressive amount of headroom in the rear, providing easy clearance for my 180cm frame, as well as competitive legroom for the compact class thanks to a wheelbase that’s a significant 175mm longer than that of the three-door.
The Clubman’s 360-litre boot is 100L larger than before and now betters the A-Class, matches the 1 Series and is just shy of the A3 and Golf. A false boot floor with a handy flip-up and clip-in system allows you to maximise cargo space, while the individually folding rear seats allow long thin items like skis and surfboards to be stowed down the middle while still keeping four seats in place.
The other end is more familiar. As it does in the smaller hatches, the Cooper’s 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine produces 100kW between 4400-6000rpm and 220Nm from 1250-4300rpm. Available with six-speed manual and automatic transmissions, the Cooper accelerates from 0-100km/h in 9.1 seconds and consumes 5.1-5.3 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle.
Mini didn’t have any available for us to test, but previous experience with the Cooper has shown it to be the sweet spot of the range, combining a characterful engine note and perky performance and good efficiency. Needless to say we’re looking forward to jumping behind the wheel when it arrives Down Under next month.
As with the Cooper, the Cooper S Clubman inherits its 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo from those existing models, pumping out a meatier 141kW between 5000-6000rpm and 280Nm across a broad 1250-4600rpm band. Once again there’s a six-speed manual available, though the big news is the introduction of the new eight-speed automatic transmission – another first for the brand.
Two seconds quicker to triple figures (7.1sec) and using less than 1L/100km extra fuel (5.8L/100km combined), the Cooper S impresses on paper, and more importantly doesn’t disappoint on the road.
The brilliantly versatile turbo motor is eager off the line and responsive throughout the rev range, with peak torque on tap from just above idle. An upside of this is that the engine can operate at low revs most of the time, aiding efficiency, though it tends to be boomy at low speeds, which becomes tiresome in traffic.
Fortunately, you can knock the gear lever to the left and engage the transmission’s sport mode, which hangs onto lower gears for longer when accelerating and kicks back sooner when you back off the throttle, bringing the tacho needle and the far more aurally pleasing realms of the engine’s register to life. Australian cars are set to get the performance-tuned sports automatic that adds steering wheel paddles and a launch control function, and promises even quicker shift times.
The mood changes again with a clockwise twist of the drive mode toggle to engage a second sport setting (a less appealing green mode can also be accessed by turning in the opposite direction). This one sharpens the throttle response, weights up the steering, speeds up the shift times, and (where fitted) adopts a more dynamic damper setup.
With both sport modes selected, the Clubman is at its most engaging and lively. The sharp steering – less darty but more refined than before – makes cornering intuitive, and delivers welcome feedback.
While still keen and agile for a compact hatch, it’s hard not to notice the Clubman’s greater size and mass if you’re familiar with either its predecessor or the latest three-door, as there’s more body roll and a generally more substantial rather than light feeling.
Rather than the traditional ‘go-kart handling’, Mini made much more noise about the Clubman’s ride comfort at this launch, claiming it’s the most comfortable model it’s ever made. While few cars would likely cause too much fuss on Sweden’s pristine motorways, on which we spent much of our time, excursions through some winding country roads and over Stockholm’s cobblestone alleys exhibited impressive levels of ride refinement, particularly for the firmer Cooper S. We’ll reserve our final judgement for when we test it on Australia’s less well manicured roadways.
Mini Australia calls its TLC capped-price servicing program a “no brainer” for customers, providing a highly competitive five years or 70,000km of servicing for just $891.
Servicing gets the Clubman off to a great start on the value front, but it will be those final Australian sticker prices and specifications that either put the new model on shopping lists or keep it a niche prospect.
We hope the local division gets it right, because with a long list of available safety and convenience technologies, decent space and comfort, and fun-to-drive powertrains and dynamics, the Mini Clubman promises to be a breath of fresh air in the German-dominated premium compact class.