The weird-doored, tiny-booted oddity that is the Clubman has always resisted classification by conventional taxonomy. But now Mini has given its wonky-orificed family car the full John Cooper Works treatment to create the quickest Clubman ever, muscling it straight into hot hatch territory. Is this its natural environment, or will it be firmly put, er, in its place?
On paper, the Clubman JCW has all the ingredients to mix it with the established hot-hatch crowd. It gets the same 1.6-litre turbo engine as the two-door Mini JCW, putting out the same 208bhp, as well as the full aftermarket array of scoops and skirts and chrome bits.
If you can get the power down, it's fast: 0-62mph in sub-seven seconds is true hot hatch pace. It's a big ‘if', however - like the Mini JCW, the Clubman JCW's front wheels have something of an on-off relationship with the road. With full nanny traction control on, and a damp/cold/anything-but-perfect road surface, progress is limited by a stammering series of electronic interventions. The mid-way ‘DSC' traction control setting is much better, allowing you to at least get the damn wheels turning.
Up and running, there's plenty to commend the Clubman JCW. The driving position is spot-on, and the steering is nicely weighted and direct. With its longer wheelbase, the Clubman is less twitchy than the Mini JCW when the back end gets loose (which it does, a lot), and for a car with such a firm suspension set-up, it rides surprisingly well - though gets a bit unsettled by potholes. But for a modestly sized car, it feels too heavy - perhaps the effect of all those doors - and a touch less lithe in its responses than you might expect.
The Clubman JCW's biggest problem, however, can be summed up in three words: VW. Golf. GTI. (OK, three sort-of-words.) Though adorned with nice leather as standard, the Clubman JCW costs £22,230 - only a few hundred quid less than a three-door Golf GTI (and that's before you start adding Mini's notorious options packs). That's a dangerous place to be: the Golf offers a whole lot more practicality and space, along with truer, sharper hot hatch handling.
You might argue the same criticism could be applied to a diesel Clubman against a diesel Golf. Perhaps, but in its more utilitarian guises, the Clubman can rely on its quirkiness to lure people away from more sedate, practical choices. In hot-hatch world, the Clubman's quirky packaging just seems obtuse, a heavy, impractical detraction in a sector that's all about blending sweet handling with proper practicality. The JCW isn't bad, but unless wonky doors and an anti-Tardis boot are on your shopping list, there's no department in which it beats the GTI. Niche try, but no cigar.