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First drive: the all-new Mini Clubman Cooper S

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What’s this?

Much more than just a longer, wagon-spec Mini. The new Clubman marks a sea-change in how Mini thinks about its family of offerings, and how they’ll be built.

How so?

Underneath, the new Clubman isn’t a Mini at all. That’s not a slight at its ballooning size – 270mm longer than even a Mini five-door.

No, the critical stat is 30mm of extra width, which is unlocked by basing the Clubman on BMW’s ‘UKL2’ underpants. Beneath the kitsch bodywork, this is actually a BMW 2-Series Active Tourer.

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Surely it’d have been easier to just stretch the regular Mini into a sort of long-wheelbase model?

Here’s the thing. Mini is desperate to break free from the idea that a Mini, despite the connotations of its name, has to be small. If BMW’s revival of the classic British city car is to carry on filling Munich’s coffers, it’s got to sell bigger volumes of more profitable cars.

Forget just battling the Audi A1 and Fiat 500 – the VW Golf, Ford Focus and even small estate cars are going to feel the heat too. The next Countryman is said to ram that plan home with true SUV proportions.

Anyhow, the Clubman. It’s now got four proper passenger doors, ditching the silly ‘Clubdoor’ of the last generation, which opened into traffic in Mini’s drive-on-the-left home market.

The dimension-stretch really helps the new Mini’s detailing – it’s less bovine up front, now all the features can spread out.

And inside?

Likewise, the interior isn’t just nicked from a standard Mini, because it’d be too narrow relative to the bodywork. All the switchgear is the same cutesy stuff, but there’s an all-new wraparound dash architecture, and it’s the first Mini ever to have a proper centre console, which helpfully lifts the iDrive controller and parking brake out of the trench between the front seats.

You really feel the extra width. It all feels very grown up. Very BMW-like. Except these days, the Mini’s material choices and build quality might even shame its Bavarian foster-parent. The Clubman feels what it is: expensive.

Is this actually a practical Mini?

Umm, yes and no. The rear (passenger) door openings are small and the seats quite high, but this is a car that’s actually more spacious than it looks. Once you’re in, the rear perches are actually quite roomy. You could put adults in the back, no complaints at all.

And the stadium-style tiered seating means the view out for children is less claustrophobic than it might have been. Instantly, that’s a major thumbs-up for the new car.

Since we’re talking sensible family stuff, you might like to know that the Clubman’s oddment storage of one shallow glovebox and four pokey door bins isn’t that impressive, and the boot is an exercise in form over function. The separate boot doors can only be opened right-then-left, and work on a hesitant electric release mechanism. Shortly afterwards, the heavily-sprung door will swing forth and rabbit-punch a toddler in the face.

The boot’s doors are really thick too. Thick enough than Mini has squeezed storage pockets into the door trims themselves, big enough for a puppy or generously sized pineapple. This space-eating tactic in turn means the actual boot isn’t as big as it looks.

Officially, it’s on-par at 360 litres (1250 litres with the seats folded) and the loading sill is nicely shallow, but the opening is small. And there’s a blind spot in the middle of the back windows, easy enough to lose a half a MotoGP grid in, let alone a motorcycle.

Are we sure the retro cupboard doors are worth it?

So if it’s still not the full ticket as a family car, is the Clubman still a proper Mini to drive? All chuckable and fizzy?

All of the regular modern Mini ingredients are present. Heavy, very direct and quick-off centre steering. Chunky feeling gearchange, perfect low-set driving position. Ideally spaced pedals.

Mix it all together, though, and the Clubman is awfully grown up. Not as agile as any Mini you’re used to at any rate, and fairly staid and numb to punt along in. All our test cars were Cooper S-spec, with adaptive dampers, and rode comfortably enough, but don’t let anyone tell you this is a hot hatch.

The current Cooper S’s 2.0-litre turbo doesn’t have the character of older hot Minis, and here it’s strained-sounding and sluggish.

So as a Cooper S, the Clubman’s fairly forgettable to drive.  A VW Golf GTI is a much stronger all-rounder in all disciplines. However, take a step back from the handing minutiae and you have to admit that Mini’s policy of growing up the Clubman makes sense, because the vast majority of people won’t mind.

They’ll like how mature it is. In that case, maybe it’s the Cooper S spec to blame.

Any other options?

The sweet spot of Minis right now is the lovely 1.5-litre three-pot Cooper, but that car’s 130bhp might struggle with the Clubman’s fully-loaded family-wheels brief. Dare we say it, a Cooper D will likely be where the Clubman starts to make more sense…

What do you think?

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