Defying stereotypes in the roomier MIN Cooper Clubman 2016

Not so long ago (7 years to be exact) I was unsure about the expansion of the Mini Cooper line. A more voluminous Mini seemed like the answer to a question that nobody had asked. Now it’s looking pretty perceptive. We’re talking about the “big” Mini — the newer, longer and roomier Clubman. I drove it around Jozi earlier this month.

I had always known the MINI Clubman was made for me in mind. I mean, I fit their target market perfectly; I am young, innovative and stylish. I am highly focused on practical features when it comes to cars, I consider my social status as very high and lastly It caters for my titanic body structure. The only problem though is that I am not a fan of this small car segment.

First Impressions Count

Gone is that awkward club door on the preceding model, and in its place are an extra pair of real, traditional doors. But even more than changes to its body, Mini has taken the original Clubman idea – to build a more versatile version – to its logical extreme, going larger. More importantly, this 2016 model represents a more premium, comfortable direction for the Mini brand. But don’t worry, loyalists, this is still very much a Mini.

Mini’s exterior stylists worked hard to emphasize the car’s extra width, too, while retaining a brand-appropriate footprint. This was done, most obviously, with the addition of the large, horizontally oriented rear taillights. A meaty set of rear hips also works the theme. Finally, designers added a chamfered edge on the outside of the rear doors.

Other design decisions are less successful. Parking lot superheroes will be weeping at the new electric parking brake, which has been fitted to accommodate a pair of large-ish cup holders ahead of the shifter. And outside, we found ourselves questioning the positioning of the brake lights, which are actually mounted in the bumper. One of my passengers rightly remarked that the Clubman’s rear is a rather busy place, what with four lights, three badge sets, two door handles, and two wipers.

The Interior

This ride comfort pairs very nicely with the Clubman’s in-cabin experience, which is better than ever. The backseats are spacious for two adults, although cramming a third in the center may result in that awkward warm feeling between all parties. In the back, that extra overhang is good for extra boot space, a figure that can be expanded by lowering the 60/40-split rear chairs. As you can see by the photos, there’s plenty of room for at least a couple suitcases.

While we’re on the topic of the cabin, it’s best that we address the Clubman’s exclusive interior treatments. The keen-eyed among you will note that, unlike the last-gen model, this car gets its own unique design. This was done in a bid by Mini to further differentiate the Clubman from the outgoing two- and four-door variants. The view forward is ruled by a stylish and strong “bracket,” a band of trim that runs from the front of the dash, to the doors, and on up underneath the windshield. While it’s not a new styling feature, it works especially well on a small car, as it makes the cabin appear wider. It’s also more elegant than the large “color lines” offered on the Mini Hardtop.


The Innards

The big news on the powertrain front is the new eight-speed automatic that will be offered alongside the six-speed manual transmission in the 2.0-liter, turbocharged Cooper S Clubman. (The 1.5-liter turbo triple in the standard Cooper will continue to be mated to six-speed transmissions, be they automatic or manual.)

The new transmission will be offered in two specs: the standard setup we had on this car and a quicker-shifting, paddle-equipped sport trim. In its base setup, which we had for the drive, we found upshifts to be brisk, especially in Sport mode, but not necessarily on pace with a dual-clutch transmission. It’s keen on downshifts, whether at your request or the computers, and is quick to engage off the line. The vehicle handled very well on the winding roads on route to the Vaal.

At Play

As with the previous Clubman, this new model rides on a longer wheelbase. The 2.7m span is arguably more maxi than mini, offering buyers anywhere from 2.9 to 6.9 inches of extra space between the axles. It also makes the Clubman the longest vehicle Mini has ever made.

Thanks to the wider track, the Clubman feels even more stable in aggressive driving, with less body roll than some of its competition. We did notice a great number of dive under hard braking (the stoppers felt disappointing and underpowered, too).

Part of the Mini legend is its sharp, takes-no-prisoners steering. But as with the suspension, the Clubman’s tiller is relaxed compared to its smaller counterparts. Turn-in is still extremely quick relative to mainstream offerings and the power assist is strong, but it doesn’t feel overboosted or twitchy. Instead, there’s a natural feeling to this electric setup. Feedback through the wheel is on the low side for something wearing a Mini badge, but there’s plenty of road-surface information telegraphed through the heavily bolstered seats to make up the difference.

For most customers the details of the Clubman’s handling will take a backseat (no pun intended) to ride comfort. In this regard, Mini’s largest-ever model is also one of its most comfortable, boasting a civilized character over both the tedious roads to Sebokeng and Sandton’s city center imperfections. Secondary impacts are particularly well muted, with the Clubman’s suspension managing the high-frequency rough stuff without much trouble. On larger impacts, suspension noises are limited, while the actual influence on cabin comfort is best described as minor.

Prices for the Clubman start at R343 000 for the three-cylinder Cooper, while the Cooper S will set you back R415 000. That’s only half the story, though, as the Porsche-like options catalogue is capable of elevating both of those figures considerably. We weren’t given an official as-tested price of the car pictured here, but ticking off the optional content makes a R380,000 estimate seem likely.

Writer: Papi Mabele