What on earth is the Mini John Cooper Works Clubman? To some, it's an elongated Mini that offers more cargo space than the standard hatchback, while to others it's a small wagon that offers a refreshing break from the plethora of compact SUVs that litter our roads. The simplest way of describing it is to say it's a weird-shaped Mini, roughly the size of a Golf, that now packs a 306-horsepower engine.
Blink and you might miss the exterior tweaks present on this latest model. The front grille is now deeper than before, with the horizontal gloss black portion having been removed to create the impression of a more aggressive (if slightly more fish-like) front end. The headlights have also been tweaked, with daytime running lights that now travel the full circumference of the housings. The rear lights and rear apron also get some slight mild fiddling, too, but these changes are even harder to notice at first glance.
If there's one thing Mini does well, it's interior style. Slide into a JCW Clubman and it immediately becomes clear there isn't another car on the planet quite like it. The circular infotainment housing is an absolute joy to look at and simple to work with. The new graphics on this version are certainly very pleasant, with fun animations making light of a deep, feature-rich user interface. The LED ring around the circular display is a hoot, too, lighting up incrementally whenever the volume is adjusted or, in Sport mode, when engine revs increase.
Sadly, the material quality in the cabin is disappointing for a premium brand. Cheap materials are in abundant use in the Mini John Cooper Works Clubman, with much of the door cards, mid-to-lower portion of the dashboard and center console littered with scratchy plastics. Cleverly, Mini has attempted to disguise this by fitting a higher quality soft-touch material that quite closely resembles the cheap stuff -- at the top of the dashboard and on the arm rests -- so it's easy to be tricked into thinking more of the cabin is treated to the more premium material. Don't be fooled.
The tech on offer is of a high quality, even if you don't get much of it as standard. Stock kit includes LED headlamps, keyless entry and that 6.5-inch display with the fancy animations. Optional extras you may want to spec include the larger 8.8-inch infotainment display and Connected Navigation. Top models also get Alexa connectivity, which lets you use voice commands -- including for ordering goods directly from Amazon -- although you'll need to pair the system to your phone before making use of this. The JCW Clubman also has access to a concierge service that lets you ask almost anything you wish from a real person in a call center, including movie times, restaurant recommendations or information about the car itself.
The Mini JCW Clubman's trump card is, of course, that new 306-horsepower engine, which provides a whopping 75 horsepower more than the old JCW Clubman. Where the old model felt sluggish, this feels like a more than willing performer. A generous 332 pound-feet of torque means it always feels eager to launch itself at the horizon, and accelerating to 62 miles per hour is dispatched in just 4.9 seconds.
Part of that is due to the All4 all-wheel-drive system, which sends up to 50% of the engine's torque to the rear wheels whenever the car senses the front wheels have begun to lose traction. The car's dynamic stability control system intelligently calculates the ideal power ratio between the front and rear axles, so torque is always sent where you need it, though sadly there's no fancy drift mode that lets you send the majority of the power to the rear.
If you're ever on a track long enough, the JCW Clubman will reach an electronically governed maximum speed of 155 mph, but you probably won't want to bother all that often. The car is reassuringly stable at high speed, but wind noise above legal speeds can make journeys tiresome.
Though it is quick, the question of whether it's fun is debatable. The JCW Clubman certainly handles well enough, but the steering lacks the traditional fast Mini 'go kart' feel -- understandably, since the Clubman isn't designed to be as much of a driver's car as the smaller, two-door hatchback. There's also no option for a manual gearbox. Instead we get an eight-speed automatic, so the sense of driver involvement is reduced noticeably.
Disappointingly, the JCW Clubman lacks the soundtrack we'd expect from a fast Mini. Older JCWs were celebrated for the cheeky pops and bangs emanating from their exhausts on the overrun and with every gearshift, but there's no such drama here. According to Mini, new laws concerning noise limits has forced the company to neuter the sound, and the overall driving experience suffers as a result.
As for ride and handling, our test car used the standard suspension setup mated to 18-inch wheels, which did a decent job of ironing out ay bumps we encountered on our (admittedly very smooth) test route near Frankfurt, Germany. We suspect larger 19s may result in a lot harsher ride, so we'd stay clear unless you're a sucker for a big rim. Body roll, meanwhile, is present but in forgivable quantities, though you'll encounter understeer in abundance if you push the JCW Clubman too enthusiastically through bends.
Like other Minis, the JCW Clubman uses three drive modes: Green, Mid and Sport. You can forget Green right away, as it neuters the car's accelerator to almost unresponsive levels in an effort to limit fuel use. It's probably too annoying to use on a daily basis, but may get the odd emergency outing, particularly if you're running out of gas and need to extend the car's range drastically.
Mid provides an acceptable balance of performance and everyday driving, but Sport increases the responsiveness of the throttle and weight of the steering in a bid to make the driving experience more engaging. It's certainly the mode of choice for anyone who wants to eke out as much driver involvement as possible, and it's still friendly enough to use day to day.
The JCW Clubman's front seats are comfortable and supportive enough to be used even on long journeys, but the driving position isn't quite perfect. The center of the steering wheel seemed slightly misaligned to the center of the driver's chest, but it can be adjusted for reach and rake, and the fact the instrument displays move with the steering wheel is a bonus.
Mini isn't particularly generous with the amount and quantity of storage spaces in the Clubman. The door bins in particular are very shallow, though the central storage compartment is just large enough for small items. There's a standard USB port at the front, optional wireless charging in the center console and a pair of USB Type-C ports for passengers riding in the rear. The rear of the cabin is large enough for two adult passengers, or three if you're on the slender side and are willing to get very familiar.
Trunk space is rather limited, this being a Mini. Here you'll find room for a single large case, or three or so smaller ones. Families carrying lots of child-related knickknacks such as a stroller, toys, etc., may struggle on longer road trips.
As for how we'd spec one, the standard suspension copes absolutely fine, so you can save yourself the $3,000 cost of the dynamic dampers. It's also worth adding the driver assistance package, which includes a head-up display, park distance control, adaptive cruise and a parking assistant for $1,250. Also consider the Touchscreen Navigation package for $1,700, which nets you the concierge services, Apple CarPlay for a year, wireless charging and, of course, satellite navigation. If you really want to pimp your Mini, the Iconic trim package is where it's at. This nets you 19-inch wheels, panoramic moonroof, an alarm system and more -- for $7,000.
The JCW Clubman is an acquired taste, and one that may be a step too far for those of us who are used to traditional SUVs and hatchbacks. But for those of us willing to try something new, its quirky design and high-powered engine make it a tempting proposition. Yes, there are plenty of cars that offer better practicality and more engaging performance, but the JCW Clubman is a compelling enough package that remains worthy of your consideration.
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