Mini's diminutive hot-wagon can make driving entertaining, but it's just tame enough for daily duty, too.
It's a wonder what 73 horsepower will do. As part of a comprehensive update for the 2020 model year, the Mini John Cooper Works Clubman picked up a whole bunch of power, giving the small wagon a much-needed dose of character. Character doesn't mean it's perfect -- because it sure isn't -- but it does mean that this latest go-fast Mini has a unique feeling that more sporty-leaning drivers will appreciate, even if it means making a few sacrifices along the way.
The most important update to the JCW Clubman lives under its clamshell hood. The car's 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 used to put out just 228 horsepower, but now there's an extra 73 horses in the mix for a total of 301. Torque is up the same amount, to 332 pound-feet of torque.
The new powertrain is addictive, barking to life from a cold start with more aggression than I expect. It doesn't take long on the street to notice the mega power upgrade; the torque comes on nice and low in the rev band, providing a surprising amount of shove at low speeds, yet the horsepower is there to zip the Clubman well past the speed limit if need be. The exhaust note is bassy and loud when really leaning into the throttle, but it does a good job hiding in the background on the highway, with surprisingly little drone.
Power makes its way to all four wheels through a serious eight-speed automatic transmission -- sorry, stick-shift fans, the JCW Clubman is AT-only from here on out. I call it "serious" because when it comes time to drop a few gears and take off, a sharp stab of the throttle will cause the transmission to kick like a mule as it immediately finds the right cog. Upshfits are firm at speed, but the whole thing settles into a nice, leisurely smoothness when the pace drops. The all-wheel-drive system does a commendable job pushing the car through corners of varying tightness, making sure the whole thing goes where I want it to.
Combined with the powertrain, the JCW Clubman's extra-sprightly chassis makes for a rather intriguing ride. Despite packing adaptive dampers (optional on lower trims, standard on my range-topping tester), the ride is, um, sporty (read: rough) at almost all times, transferring a fair amount of motion from road to occupant. It's fine when you're out carving up corners, but it can be frustrating when there's two miles of mediocre pavement between me and the grocery store.
The Clubman's pocket-sized dimensions mean its body is happy to change direction at a moment's notice, something that's made obvious when I first give the decently weighted steering a nice tug. In fact, it might be a little too excitable, leading to some lane changes that look more like Fast & Furious outtakes than intended. It'll stop nearly as quickly as it'll change direction, too, thanks to upgraded JCW-specific brakes and a pedal that's mighty easy to modulate.
If you don't like the way the Clubman handles in its default Mid setting, there is some adjustability available via the mode switch. Flip it to Sport, and the throttle picks up some sensitivity while the steering adds weight and the exhaust snags up a few extra decibels. This is my preferred way to drive, but it might be a bit much for most folks' everyday use. There's also a Green mode that quiets, lightens and softens as much as it can, but if that's the one you want to use, why not pick a more efficient variant to begin with?
Speaking of thrift, there's a surprising amount of it in the JCW Clubman. The EPA rates the wagon at 23 miles per gallon city and 31 mpg highway. While I didn't get much better than the estimate in urban driving, I find it plenty easy to meet and exceed the highway rating, pushing closer to 33-34 mpg.
If you didn't know the Mini Clubman was updated for 2020, looking at it certainly wouldn't give it away. Visual changes are on the light side, with some tweaks to the grille and both the front and rear fasciae. The standard LED headlights offer up the same funky circular running-light pattern as other Minis, and out back, the Clubman's taillights now carry a Union Jack design (more fun than the German flag, I guess, as it's a BMW product) for extra character.
My favorite part of the whole Clubman is the split tailgate, which pops halfway open with a single press of the key fob (two presses of the trunk button will open both halves). While it looks neat, there's not much more space behind the second row than you might find in a five-door VW Golf, nevertheless a proper station wagon. Thankfully, the 60/40 second row can fold down in two shakes of a lamb's tail, preventing me from schlepping my new snowblower home on the roof.
That tailgate can also be annoying because it puts a thick pillar smack dab in the middle of the rearview mirror. Visibility is decent in every other direction, though, with flat glass making it easy to keep up with my surroundings.
The Clubman's smaller form factor might eat into cargo capacity, but there's still a good amount of usable space inside. The second row will accommodate two six-foot-tall passengers behind drivers of equal height, leaving just enough head- and legroom to not feel cramped. In-car storage is also at a premium; the door cards have enough space to cram most of your junk, which is good, because the glove compartment and center console cubby are both on the small side, as is the little tray just ahead of the cupholders.
Mini and BMW might be kissin' cousins, but the two share very different interior designs. The traditional circular protuberance on the dashboard houses the infotainment system, in addition to a cute ring of LED lights that can function as parking sensors or a tachometer. There are additional LED elements in the door panels that ramp up the discotheque feeling, while the red stitching on the steering wheel and supportive seats remind you that this is a sporty wagon, baby.
It's all quite nice, but my tester is pushing north of $48,000 from its starting point just under $40,000, and I don't know if it's fifty-grand nice.
Modern BMWs pack a whole lot of tech under their skins, but despite the close connection, Minis generally make do with a little less. Take the infotainment screen, for example: There are no massive dashboard-spanning surfboards here, just a 6.5-inch touchscreen that also works with a small dial on the center console.
BMW's reskinned iDrive system is fine in the Clubman, but it's not my favorite. There's no adjustable home screen, so I'm stuck looking at individual screens (whether it's what's currently playing on the radio, or a navigation map), with a small chunk to the right dedicated to a trip meter or a smattering of other tidbits. It's a fine system, and it includes Apple CarPlay, but at this price point it feels a little feature-flat. The small onscreen icons are tough to hit at any speed above zero, as well.
The gauge cluster doesn't offer much in the way of tech, either. There are a few small screens to move through below the speedometer, offering up simple info related to fuel economy and trip distances, but that's it.
Standard safety systems include automatic emergency braking, rear parking sensors, automatic headlights and the federally mandated backup camera. If you're looking for adaptive cruise control and front parking sensors, they're locked behind a sensibly priced ($850) Drive Assistance Package. If you want anything beyond that -- blind spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist, stuff of that ilk -- you'll need to find a different car.
The 2020 Mini John Cooper Works Clubman All4 starts at $39,400 for the base Classic trim, and my tester is all but fully optioned out at $48,100 including destination.
My personal choice of JCW Clubman would be pretty similar to my tester. I'd like to stick with the $46,400 Iconic trim, which adds must-haves for me like Apple CarPlay, auto-dimming mirrors, the split rear seat and satellite radio. The only question is whether I want the Driver Assistance Package or not, which I don't, bringing the price down to a still lofty $47,250 including destination.
If you're in the hot-hatch market, there are a fair few options available. If you want to keep the price down but the power high, competitors like the Honda Civic Type R and Hyundai Veloster N are both excellent choices. Reach a little higher on the price chart and you can scoop up a Volkswagen Golf R for about the same dough as the Mini, too. I think the Civic and Veloster have the Mini beat in terms of both price and driving dynamics, but they're only front-wheel drive. The Golf R is a bit more conservative and grown up, and I'd say it's about on par with the Mini's experience, even though I like VW's in-car tech a little better. If you want something a little SUV-ier, there's the BMW X2 M35i, which is basically the same powertrain wrapped in a taller-sided shell.
The 2020 Mini John Cooper Works Clubman really stepped up its game. It now has enough power to stay consistently interesting, and its sharp on-road demeanor means every drive can turn into a fun one, even if that's not necessarily what you're in the mood for. It might be small, but the JCW Clubman packs a sizable punch.