The hunched form of the Mini Cooper S Clubman growls contentedly as it coasts over the coarse Swedish tarmac in the tranquil farmlands north of Stockholm. The only humans you will see here are in far-flung localities such as quaint Orsundsbro, where pretty houses line the road like a scene out of a country quilt. Heads turn as the car sidles by at all of 30kmh – the strictly enforced speed limit in small municipalities with schools. The townsfolk squint at the vehicle in a bid to identify it.
Viewed from the front, it’s undoubtedly a Mini. There’s no mistaking the doleful round headlights, humped bonnet, and grilles conveying a perennial expression of mild surprise. What’s giving everyone pause is the uncharacteristic size of its 4.25m-long body – that’s 18 and 14 per cent longer than the iconic Cooper and Cooper S models, respectively. It now comes with four doors – six, if you count the barn-style trunk. For a brand that has “tiny” in its name, the Clubman is remarkably, well, medium.
Enter the second iteration of the Clubman and an entirely new chapter in the history of the British carmaker, which is unabashed about moving into a new size category: compact wagons. It’s still the smallest vehicle among its new brethren, meaning it’ll slide into tight spots with room to spare. Naysayers may scoff at the decision – “just call this one the Maxi already” – but carmaking is a business, and an entire market segment has been cracked open by this entrant.
And a fine example the Clubman turns out to be. The Mini DNA is strong in this one, from its enlivened design philosophy to its performance on the road. Combine that with a sudden abundance of space, both in the trunk and the rear seats, and the “toy car” of yesterday is now a serious and practical contender for that last garage spot. If your heart has always wanted a Mini but the head said “too small” or “too few doors” – the Clubman is the answer.
We are given 300km of well-paved road and two days to put the car through its paces – and cultivate a love for fika and meatballs while at it.
The watchful eyes of the Swedish speed cameras are an alarmingly omniscient presence, looming up even in the remotest areas and punctuating otherwise picturesque landscapes. The law is unforgiving – a transgression of even 3kmh above the speed limit results in a fine, and word has it that an errant journalist on the same trip found himself slapped with a 300 euros (S$460) bill.
Thus, in a car as powerful and quiet as the Clubman, which can hit 100kmh in 7.1 seconds on automatic transmission, monitoring the current speed is paramount to the wallet’s health. This task is rendered almost effortless by a non-intrusive heads-up-display (HUD) located behind the steering wheel, onto which the speed, navigation instructions and even the road’s speed limit are projected. Using the HUD becomes so intuitive, you’ll find yourself wondering if traditional meters are superfluous.
That said, there’s only so much that driving within the highway’s 110kmh speed limit can reveal, particularly when the law-abiding Swedes form well-organised lines that discourage overtaking.
Within those boundaries, however, the Clubman performs admirably. Flooring the pedal results in first a dramatic pause, then a satisfying roar from the four-cylinder engine and a heady surge of speed that presses you into the electronically adjustable lumbar supports.
The manual version feels a bit slow to the punch, but not by much. The automatic Steptronic transmission does a great job at anticipating the driver’s demands, and serves up the right amount of pickup to each level of pressure from the foot. This makes coasting through the chaotic cross-junctions of Stockholm, which often aren’t regulated by traffic lights, a smooth experience. There are no infuriatingly long revs or uninvited spurts of speed.
As expected of a bigger car, some of the giddy zippiness in the flagship Coopers has been traded in for a more mature and reserved litheness when making bends. Hardline Mini enthusiasts will lament the loss of manoeuvring ease, but, then again, the car is about fitting three full-sized luggage cases and three fully grown adults in the rear.
Noteworthily, the handling has improved by leagues compared to its predecessor, the 2007 Clubman, of which the experience has previously been likened to driving a mattress. Thanks to implementations like cornering brake control and a torque redirection system, even the tight turns in the winding forest trails of Uppsala County are easy to execute and ultimately addictive. Off-road handling is a breeze, too – we discover that after a wrong turn landed us on private land. Our hasty exit over a mud trail and what looked like some well-tended geraniums was a smooth, if not exactly guiltless, adventure.
For nuanced driving, the Clubman comes with three modes that can be toggled between by twisting a ring around the gear shift. The green and regular drive modes are self-explanatory, but there’s no debate: the Sport Mode should be any Mini driver’s go-to. Heading out of the twisty wooded roads onto the straightforward expanse of the northbound Route 55 is a bit of a downer. We flick the fun switch on, and LEDs lining the circular instrument panel pulse an ominous red, like a jukebox heralding a rock anthem. That’s exactly the kind of music you need when a twitch of the steering wheel rewards you with an instantaneous list which makes even a lane change feel adventurous, or when a tap of the foot makes the car leap.
For sedentary trips with young children or precious cargo, twist back into regular (or even green), and the electronic systems take the gusto down a few notches.
BELLS AND WHISTLES
Marrying form and function has long been Mini’s strong suit. Like those before it, elegant contours and circles define most of the instrumentation and controls, down to the round door handles and side and rearview mirrors. The front door’s inner bezels sweep back gracefully, and when the Clubman enters a tunnel or as dusk falls, they become a lightshow in themselves. They’re laced with LED lights that cycle soothingly through a user-defined spectrum of colours. While they can’t pulse in time to the beats of music streaming from your smartphone via Bluetooth, that suggestion is put forth to the Clubman’s chief designer during the tour. “Sounds like a great idea, we’ll table it,” says Danish-born chief designer Anders Warming over a dinner of reindeer steak. He was also the man behind the first-generation BMW Z4 Roadster, so he’s no stranger to eyebrow-raising overhauls.
The Clubman’s design was drawn up on a clean sheet, with members as young as 19 on the team – which speaks volumes about the brand embracing new ideas and perspective. Warming is confident that the marque will take off. “We will have, with this car, successfully brought the Mini experience to a wider audience.”
Test-driving members of that audience concur. There’s a comfortable blend of mainstay and innovative features that any driver will come to appreciate. The clickwheel-controlled interface sports the typical suite of in-car navigation and phone-call options, both intuitive and responsive, and we mastered the system in a matter of minutes.
There’s a novel way to open the trunk doors, perfect for when both hands are bogged down with bags or bulky items. Make to kick the space below the rear bumper, and the rear doors pop wide open, as long as your key fob is in range.
Now walk around to the driver’s side, and your faithful Mini rolls out a welcome mat, a projected Mini Logo, via a side-mounted projector. Retract the sunroof and zip to your next destination. When the first batch arrives in Singapore, owners will be able to parallel park the Clubman using only a foot on the accelerator and brake pedal, as the car takes over the steering controls. A technological solution to an age-old hassle that plagues both new and seasoned drivers alike.
As we hand over the keys at Arlanda Airport, there’s a twinge of sadness. Combining the advancements in electronic and driving technology, a robust dollop of the Mini flavour and most notably a size upgrade, the Mini Cooper S Clubman has endorsed and advanced the standing of the British marque as a stylish and fun ride. As the Swedish proverb goes: “Shared joy is a double joy, shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” This car multiplies joy by five in fine style.
The Mini Cooper S Clubman will be available in Singapore in the first quarter of next year. The models tested were the automatic and manual six-speed Cooper S Clubman. Some features mentioned are options. www.mini.com.sg