MINI Clubman gives much more

Remember Postman Pat’s van? The red one with the gold Royal Mail logo on the side? The one with the black and white cat in the passenger seat? The one that bore a striking resemblance to the Morris Mini Traveller circa 1970? Yes?

Well, the latest MINI Clubman is nothing like it. Even though the new arrival is a natural progression of the classic Traveller, Austin Mini Countryman, and Mini Clubman Estate. And there’s certainly room in the back for a mailbag or two.

But this Clubman is no rough-hewn panel van (it’s too refined) or staid station wagon (too nippy). Instead it’s a MINI that offers more: on top of the unique, funky styling and that much-touted “go kart handling” synonymous with the brand, there’s more space, more practicality, and (surprisingly) even more handling stability.

Want specifics? Adding 24cm to the standard model’s length translates into 80mm more legroom in the back – which is more than adequate for two adults. Getting three men in there might be a bit optimistic though: the cabin narrows to the rear, so shoulders will rub up against each other long before knees start knocking. Luggage capacity increases from 160 to 260 litres, which can grow all the way to 930 litres (standard MINI 600 litres) if you go for the optional flat luggage compartment. That’s good for quite a lot of mail.

And getting those bags into the back is made easier by two new developments: split-swing doors opening to either side where the boot usually is, and the so-called Clubdoor. Situated immediately behind the driver’s door, it opens in the opposite direction and allows you to get stuff onto the back seat (or shimmy in there yourself) without the driver having to get out. In theory these innovations are impressive; in practice they’re a little niggly. The central join of the back doors creates a vertical bar in the middle of the rear window, obscuring your view. And you can only use the Clubdoor when the driver’s door is already open – but that minor inconvenience is being sold as a benefit: with the mini-door opening onto the road side, you don’t want passengers (especially kids) just jumping out into the traffic. The problem could be solved by moving the “quick escape hatch” to the opposite side of the car, but that’s proved to be prohibitively expensive from a development perspective.

Blame the engineers, certainly, but also give them credit where it’s due – which, on the new Clubman, happens to be everywhere else. They just seem to have got everything right with this one – especially the performance and ride.

Sweeping through the bends with little trace of under- or oversteer, the car figuratively straightened that winding, narrow road between Gordon’s Bay and Cape Hangklip.

So too the Clubman neutralised the tight hairpins thrown at it by the Franschhoek Pass; a quick change down into third, a stab on the accelerator, a quick turn of the steering wheel and the zippy little tyke stuck to its course as if it were a cokehead and the white line cocaine.

Simply put, even though this MINI looks cheeky, it’s no rebel – the Clubman goes exactly where you want it to, partly thanks to the rejigged suspension and the speed-sensitive power assisted steering. The chassis’ additional 8cm and the car’s overall 80kg weight gain play their part too, helping to anchor the wheels to the tar and adding a real sense of self-assurance to the drive.

But even though the Clubman has put on the pounds, it’s certainly no slouch. Both the Cooper’s 1.6-litre four-cylinder (88kW, 160Nm) and 1.6 with twin-scroll turbocharger (128kW, 240Nm) in the Cooper S have no problem pushing up that needle on the giant speedometer in the centre of the dashboard. In fact, the Cooper accelerates to 100km/h in 9.8 seconds on to a top speed of 201km/h; the S, which redlines at 224km/h, does the 0-100 sprint in 7.6 seconds. Of course these are all claimed figures – the boys in blue, their cameras, and pesky traffic regulations prevented us from pushing the cars to their limits – but both Clubman models proved as adept at stop-start city driving, the traffic light getaway and high-speed cruising as tackling those bends.

Most impressive about both engines, though, is how well they fit the car. The Cooper model doesn’t feel in the slightest bit underpowered – even when pushed uphill, with the aircon blasting; the S packs even more of a punch, but without feeling like a caged animal. A perfect package, then.

Postman Pat never had it this good…

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