Tried & Tested: MINI Clubman Cooper S

MINI Clubman Cooper S

Since BMW relaunched the MINI brand in 2001 it has exceeded all expectations. This success has encouraged BMW to create plans to extend the MINI range well beyond the familiar coupe and cabrio models. The first realisation of these plans is the recently launched R55 MINI Clubman. Our friends at Rolfe Classic MINI Garage in Canberra offered AUSmotive a weekend test of a Clubman Cooper S and rather than keep our thoughts to ourselves this is what we discovered.

Firstly, as a current, and very happy, owner of a 2004 MINI Cooper S I am ideally suited to judge how well the Clubman has kept the ethos of the MINI brand, which has become such a worldwide phenomenon. However, I also understand that my experiences may leave me a little biased towards ‘my’ car, so I will do my best at bringing you a subjective and honest appraisal.

As a keen follower of the brand I have watched the progress of the Clubman from concept to production with great interest. Opinion among the MINI enthusiast community is very much divided. Some love the concept of the Clubman, others hate it. I must admit, it wasn’t until I saw the car in the flesh at the launch earlier this year that I began to take the ‘big’ MINI seriously. I had thought the styling was a bit cumbersome and not quite resolved. And while I wouldn’t say I’ve been completely won over, seeing the car for the first time did provide a more pleasing reality than I had first thought. Our test car was about to be used for a local radio promotion which explained the somewhat crude graphics all over the car. Apart from that, the hot chocolate metallic paint and silver roof works surprisingly well. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, I know, but MINI gives customers seemingly endless options when it comes to colour and trim combinations.

Which brings me to the inside of the car. Some parts of the test car were great, the wood trim with cream highlights just one example. While others were just plain wrong, the ghastly brown door trims the standout here. Again, thankfully with MINI you get countless options and there are better choices available. I could bore you with the details of why I prefer the look and layout of my 2004 Cooper S over the Clubman, but unless you own an R53 Cooper S you probably wouldn’t notice such things. Suffice to say, the centre stack aside, which houses the HVAC and radio controls, the new generation of MINI are a definite step forward in terms of interior build quality. The use of materials has, for the most part, stepped up in quality and simple things, like the indicator stalk, don’t feel like they will fall apart. The large centre mount speedometer, while very big, does not feel oversized and it was not until I hopped back into my MINI, with its smaller centre dial, that I realised just how big the new speedo really is.

MINI Clubman Cooper S
MINI Clubman Cooper S

MINI Clubman Cooper SMINI Clubman Cooper S

Other details to impress on the Clubman interior were the heating controls for the optional English leather seats. They seem tucked away at first, but once you discover them you see what a simple and effective solution they are. Likewise the dual storage glove box with its upper and lower compartments. We all know the MINI is not big inside, but the use of space has a kind of IKEA like simplicity that really does make you reflect on how simple and clever some of the details are. To impress your mates, or probably just yourself, you can alter the interior ‘mood’ lighting at night, ranging from pink, to regular BMW amber and finishing up with a cool blue. Kind of pointless, but kind of fun at the same time.

Sadly, none of these cool and typically MINI characteristics overcome the completely counter intuitive radio controls that are featured across the 2nd generation of MINIs. Naturally, familiarity will overcome such issues to the point they would no longer cause concern. As a first impression, though, the radio controls are just plain unfriendly to use. From the placement of the on/off and volume controller to the way the preset buttons, housed in the centre dial, are hard to align with the corresponding digital display above.

The rear hatch opens with bi-fold barn style doors, opening to what I think is a large boot space. If you’ve seen in the boot of an R53 Cooper S you’ll know what I mean. In real terms, the Clubman’s boot is not large at a modest 260 litres. Although, the false floor gives a perfectly flat surface, which is also kept when the rear seats are folded down. When this is done the Clubman’s extra 240mm length does offer a genuinely useable 960 litres of interior space. The car’s storage will never compare to family station wagon, for example, or even a purpose built urban courier vehicle, such as a Volkswagen Caddy, but it’s very handy all the same. As mentioned there is a false floor which can be easily raised to put small knick knacks out of harm’s way. Laptop bags, brief cases and the like. In fact, I suggest the practicality that space offers would probably be one of my favourite features of the car. It’s difficult to explain other than to say it is surprisingly effective and convenient.

MINI Clubman Cooper S

MINI Clubman Cooper S

MINI Clubman Cooper S

MINI Clubman Cooper S

The bi-fold doors, with their large centre column, do impede rearward vision from the driver’s seat somewhat. Keep in mind the sign writing on the test car made this issue far worse than it could ever be. Having said that, even with the sign writing on the back window I didn’t find rearward vision too difficult. Only at night was it sometimes an issue, but again, this was more the writing on the window than the centre column itself. It would take some time to get used to the rearward vision, but it’s nothing to be overly concerned about.

MINI Clubman Cooper SOkay, I can’t ignore that elephant in the room any longer. The ‘Clubdoor’—that pesky little thing behind the driver’s door. Yep, that perfectly innocent looking ‘suicide’ door has certainly attracted it’s fair share of controversy. Mostly due to the fact the door is only available on the right hand side of the car, which means the door opens to the roadside in markets such as Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom. The issue being, that many feel this door should open to the kerbside to allow for a safer entry and exit. Pretty sound reasoning on the surface. In reality, however, it would only be an issue if you regularly had small children getting in and out of the car. Despite the best supervision some little tackers just have no road sense at all, bless ‘em. Apart from that, the simple fact is, the door works pretty well and makes it much easier to gain access to the back seat with it’s marginally larger leg room over the coupé models.

My beef with the one-sided door is how it affects the Clubman’s visual language. The other side of the car looks great, I really like the uninterrupted shape the longer rear quarter panel gives. However, it tends to become a bit of a mish mash on the other side. I would prefer the car either came with a symmetrical two-door solution, or no rear door at all. It is worth noting here that the location of the fuel tank in the Clubman makes a left-sided rear door impossible without a major under skin redesign. So I guess we live with it then.

It has to be said, and this appears to be a view held by quite a few in the MINI ownership community, that the general look of the second generation MINIs really does grow on you after a while. Perhaps most people reckon the 2001 MINI is virtually identical to the 2007 models. But, us owners are a particular bunch and many didn’t like the new look at all when it was first revealed. After a bit of time to get familiar with the new models, I can now appreciate MINI has updated the exterior design quite well. In regards to the Clubman, I do think the rear taillight treatment looks unfinished. It’s almost as if the team at Plant Oxford have forgotten to put the chrome trim around the taillight cluster.

MINI Clubman Cooper S

So how does the Clubman drive? Well, I have to say, first impressions were not good. In fact, they were down right shocking. Literally. Within two kilometres of picking up the car I had driven around a couple of corners that had a few ripples and bumps. They appeared to be pretty harmless looking, but the feedback through the wheel and the chassis caused quite a reaction. I had not taken the corners at any great pace and I was somewhat dumbfounded as to how it appeared BMW had got it so wrong. As it turned out, they hadn’t.

I had arranged to meet a friend with a Mk5 Golf GTI to head out to some local roads that we know quite well. In my mind at least, this would be the Clubman’s acid test. If a car wears the MINI badge it has to hold it’s own when the roads get tight and twisty. Truth be told, after the earlier bump and grind around town, I was not looking forward to attacking these mountain roads with the relish a MINI usually encourages. The GTI led, I followed. The more I got into the rhythm of the road ahead, the better the Clubman got. The more purpose I put into driving the car, the more purposeful and settled it became. I was both thankful and relieved that my confidence in the car had returned. I love my MINI and the thought that this Clubman was not up to the MINI badge was one I was glad to leave behind. It was also pleasing to me that the Clubman Cooper S was able to keep pace with the GTI, widely accepted as the best all-round package in it’s class. Okay, the Clubman and GTI may never be direct competitors, but the Clubman’s ability in the mountains had proven to meet my high expectations. On these roads, neither the extra 80mm added to the wheelbase nor the extra 75 kilograms in weight, had any noticeable effect on the Clubman’s willingness to be thrown into corners. I might argue that the heavier steering on my 2004 MINI has a slightly sharper edge over the new generation of MINIs, but the fact remains, the immediate steering response and communication to the driver are still one of MINI’s greatest strengths.

MINI Clubman Cooper S

I drove half of the mountain roads with the Sport mode on and the other half with it switched off. Switching the Sport button on is supposed to improve throttle response, provide an extra 20Nm of overboost and sharpen the steering. I have to say, only the improvement in steering feel was immediately noticeable to this tester. Without the Sport mode engaged the steering is still all it should be, but it does lack initial bite on turn in.

The 1.6 litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the Cooper S models develops 128kW of power at 5,550rpm and 240Nm of torque between 1,600-5,000rpm. The power delivery is smooth and effortless. As strong as the old supercharged engine was in the R53 Cooper S, it was a bit of an old lump and comparatively unrefined. The new engine’s low down torque is both a strength and weakness. There is some minor turbo lag, but really, the powerplant will get you moving with a minimum of fuss. It really is a great engine. However, that low down power does induce some torque steer. It’s not bad by any means, but it is there.

By moving to turbocharged power, the unmistakeable supercharger whine has been lost to the MINI range and that is a definite shame. Though, I am pleased to report that the new engine does offer enough sweets to overcome that initial bitterness. I was also pleased to hear that MINI have been able to tune the exhaust note to all but match the crackle and pop on overrun of the older models. Apparently, this effect is more noticeable in the Clubman which has a slightly longer exhaust due to the extended wheel base.

Fuel economy is a strong selling point for the Cooper S engine—the sticker on the windscreen indicates a combined figure of 7.0l/100km. These government figures can sometimes be a tad optimistic and it is hard to get a true feeling for a car’s fuel economy in one weekend. However, I drove over 350 kilometres and, if the fuel gauge is to be believed, there was still over half a tank of fuel remaining when I handed the keys back. When you consider that tests such as these are not always the kindest on a car’s fuel consumption, I was quite impressed.

The six-speed manual transmission is still very well matched to the rest of the drivetrain and, if anything, is a slightly slicker shift compared to my MINI’s notchier changes.

MINI Clubman Cooper S

I must give a special mention to both the run flat tyres and the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system, which is standard equipment across the Clubman range. Firstly, the run flats, these have been vastly improved over the tyres fitted to first generation MINIs. Now they grip much better, ride infinitely better and keep quiet when the going gets tough. All areas the previous tyres struggled with and the main reasons plenty of owners couldn’t wait to fit conventional rubber as soon as the opportunity arose. If I were to buy a new MINI now I would have full confidence in the OEM run flats. A big tick to BMW for that. Likewise for the DSC system, which has also been greatly improved. To be fair, it was only really the traction control component of the DSC that needed attention. In my car a quick, snappy change from first to second can bring with it such intervention from the traction control that it feels as though you’ve just slammed into a wall. It can be brutal. In the Clubman, though, I could not get the traction control to act in a manner that met my disapproval. No matter how hard I tried. When driving home from my photo shoot it started to rain, and even though I was almost home I took the chance to really test out the DSC under more pressing conditions. Again, it didn’t fail to impress. The only way I could get the car to really break traction was to dump the clutch from a standing start in a manner that was, well, pretty pointless. Under regular driving conditions the car seems virtually unflappable. It’s just a shame that MINI does not offer DSC standard across the entire model range. Hopefully MINI will address that shortcoming before too long.

So, what of those initial driving impressions where the feedback through the wheel through those bumpy corners was quite violent? Well, after my new found confidence with the car I had begun to really look forward to driving the Clubman, be it in anger or just for a quick dash to the local shops. There’s a few patches of road near my home that need some attention from the local road workers and I took the Clubman through a few to see if I could recreate those initial poor impressions. I couldn’t. And not for lack of trying. Generally speaking, the car dealt with those bumps with the composure one would expect from a MINI. That’s to say, it wasn’t always a smooth, velvet like ride, but at no times did I feel anything but connected to the road and in full control. There are occasions where the Clubman does feel a little twitchy at town speeds, but it is also only a minor issue, that, for the most part, is non-existent. So, it seems as though those first impressions were something of an oddity. Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to retrace that initial route from when I collected the car to see if this quandary could be settled once and for all. That said, I had certainly experienced enough to put my mind at ease.

The controls for the DSC and Sport mode are found in front of the gear stick. When DSC is switched off a permanent reminder is found in the small display area in front of the driver’s eye. However, when Sport mode is activated the only visual clue given is a small light near the button itself. This is often shielded from view by the gear stick and an easier to see reminder, similar to DSC, would be welcomed.

MINI Clubman Cooper S

In conclusion, then, I found the Clubman Cooper S to be a car that faltered on first impressions, both visually and behind the wheel. However, with time spent driving and using the car, these impressions proved to be false and were gladly overcome with no lingering feelings of strong distaste. As a pure driving tool the Clubman Cooper S is a car that gets better the harder you push it. As a city car, the engine’s low down torque makes it easy to drive and a delight to use. So, is the Clubman a genuinely practical option? With pricing for the Clubman Cooper S starting at $43,200 there are probably more practical options available for the money. But remember, buying a MINI has never been about making a sensible choice void of emotion. In reviving the MINI brand, BMW has given consumers a product that offers an experience beyond the conventional. The Clubman does nothing to diminish this fact. Don’t think of the Clubman as a practical car, think of it as a practical MINI. With that in mind, BMW has delivered the goods for the MINI brand. Again.

Pros:

  • Improved build quality
  • Smooth and economical engine
  • Rewarding driving experience
  • The Clubman remains true to the MINI brand

Cons:

  • Counter intuitive radio controls
  • Moderate torque steer
  • Can get unsettled over bumps
  • Like all MINIs, they come at a price, and the options list is long

MINI Clubman Cooper S

Note: This is AUSmotive’s first Tried & Tested review, which is a longer, more extensive test compared to our Drive Thru reports. Please give me your feedback in the comments sections below. Was the review too long, or too short? Are there too many pics, or not enough pics? Is the text informative and does it give you a feel for the car? Your honest appraisal will help AUSmotive continue to improve and grow. Oh, if you’ve got a Clubman, are considering a Clubman or have just driven one, please share your thoughts below as well.