INTERNATIONAL LAUNCH: Luke-warm contender in the hot hatch club
This car business can be a depressingly relentless biosphere of rapid evolutionary development.
Things that don’t sell well enough for the business plan die quickly. Mini quietly shed the Coupe and lost the Paceman, too. And didn’t it have two convertibles a few months ago?
Things that sell well simply seem to mature into more of the same, usually longer or wider but visually similar. Ideas that worked on something once are often shoved screaming against their will into unworthy vessels and even successful revolutions only ever deliver the briefest of advantages.
The whole John Cooper Works (JCW) thing started out as an idea that worked in a package that didn’t. That supercharged four-pot quickly overpowered the Cooper hatch that tried to swallow it and turned it into a wildly-shrieking, barely-guided missile.
The simplest way to fix that would have been all-wheel drive, but that wasn’t in Mini’s DNA at the time. Instead, that original ill-discipline turned JCW into a badge that today sniffs vaguely of wickedness, to the point where you wonder whether the dastardly on-the-limit handling of the original was less of a mistake and more of a branding exercise.
And, because Mini customers today are cut from a more genteel cloth than once they were, the badge gets stuck on all manner of things that are far removed from the footpath-frightening original. And that, folks, is how we need to approach the Mini Clubman JCW; with the light of history shone brightly upon it.
On balance, it’s not a bad little machine, though our first drive in winter in Austria’s Tyrolean mountains meant winter tyres, which meant the handling’s core abilities beyond about seven-tenths could be either awful or simply sparkling and we could only guess at which.
But despite Mini’s claims of "authentic race feeling", it’s nothing like that original JCW Mini, unless it’s a race to the buffet. At 6.3 seconds to 100km/h, it’s not Oh, My God fast in today’s money, but merely brisk. In spite of Mini’s claims, it’s not hot. You could hold your hand on it as long as you like without ever provoking a blister, but for most people, most of the time, it’s quick enough.
It’s composed, it’s calm as it goes about its business and it even has a fuel-sipping Green mode, whereas the original JCW left you feeling as socially responsible as a man over London in a rapidly descending Stuka.
It didn’t really matter how much power and torque the original one had, because you couldn’t use more than about half of it at any given time without unwittingly forcing pedestrians to leap into the hedges. This one has more sophisticated suspension, smoother power delivery and better electronic controls so you can just stomp on the throttle at any time and expect nothing more dramatic than convincing forward motion. How dull is that?
That ease of operation at any point of the performance envelope is down to two things. First, the Clubman is a big machine; the biggest Mini there has ever been (a title it will hold until the Countryman shows up next year). It’s 1,550kg and it has a 2,670mm wheelbase that would damn-near accommodate a 1950s Mini.
Second, it’s all-wheel drive. It’s not just all-wheel drive, but it’s actively all-wheel drive, using the same powertrain layout as the BMW X1 and even the all-wheel drive versions of the 2 Series Active Tourer. It can be a 100% front-driver (on highways, for example) or a 100% rear-driver, or anything in between. It even sends drive to the rear to help counter understeer, and then can send it back to the front to counter oversteer.
Combined, those two factors alone rein in any tendencies the 2.0l, four-cylinder turbo motor might have had to wickedness, assuming it had them in the first place.
It’s a strong thing, but it has a level of technical and aural sophistication that might be surprising. Besides a turbocharger integrated into the cast steel exhaust manifold and up to 2.2 bar of charge air pressure, there’s variable valve timing and lift, variable camshaft timing on both the inlet and exhaust sides and centrally mounted, direct fuel injection.
It’s tremendously undersquare (82mm bore versus a 94.6mm stroke), with the BMW Group having to work hard to turn a core layout built for mid-range strength into something with a sporty bent.
They’ve done it well, even though the JCW tacho can only count to seven, and only then for decoration. It gets to 170kW of power between 5,000 and 6,000r/min and revs up until 6,500 happily enough before the cut-out intervenes, just when it’s sounding like it’s having fun.
The core of it, though, is that it only needs 1,450r/min to deliver the torque peak of 350Nm, and it’s all still there at 4,500r/min. Sure, the 0-100km/h time is strong, but the real core is that it takes 6.9 seconds from 80 to 120km/h, which is more than a second quicker than the cheaper Cooper S Clubman.
It gets 29kW more power than the Cooper S Clubman and 25% more torque, too, and gets to 100km/h 0.7 seconds faster.
It can be a surprisingly unobtrusive motor when you want it to be, too. In the car’s fuel-sipping Green mode, the engine is almost silent until you force it down a gear or two, while it’s calm and comfortable in the default mid-level mode, too.
It only gets properly urgent when you flick the ring around the gear lever to the Sport mode, and that starts an entirely new level of raucousness. It sounds a lot deeper, richer and louder and you begin to understand why it costs extra money.
Then you lift off the throttle and it pops and bangs so loudly and frequently it’s like you’re driving over bubble wrap, and it takes surprisingly little exhaust energy to make it happen.
In this mode, the car is actually fun, regardless of its heft and length. And width.
But there are degrees of fun. Oddly, it’s less fun as a manual than it is as an automatic. The auto is more fluid to drive, easing through ratios quickly and comfortably, ripping through them harder and more positively in Sport mode and blipping the throttle neatly on the way down the box. It’s even better driven on the wheel-mounted shift paddles, and the Sport mode even has its own graphic so you can see the computer’s throttle inputs for such things, as well as how much power and torque it’s using.
The all-wheel drive system proved a boon on mountain hairpins, which tended to be covered (at -10°C) in everything from salt and grit to the de-icing gunk they spray on the roadside Armco. Get the nose turned in and stand on the throttle and the JCW just pulls out of corners. No understeer, no oversteer, an occasional all-wheel drift but otherwise, just forward speed being added on, comfortably, controllably and without visible exertion.
It rides surprisingly well on its 225/40 R18 boots, too, and it’s quiet and calm at highway speeds, with little wind noise and a bit of overtaking authority always on call beneath the foot. The four-piston fixed caliper front brake setup from Brembo never showed a trace of fade on our two-day test, though slippery alpine conditions didn’t exactly encourage demon late braking.
Inside, it’s the same package as the standard Cooper S Clubman with some nicer materials, the odd unique thing here and there and the same 360l of luggage capacity in the back, which can be boosted to 1,250l by dropping the 40:20:40 split-fold rear seat.
It gets touchless opening of the split rear doors, which is just as well, because the horizontal handles seem to be perfect dirt harvesters. Those doors also carry the practically pointless tail lights (the real ones are in the bumper bar, for legislation reasons).
There is a standard 6.5-inch central multimedia display or the optional 8.8-inch version that screws into the same spot. The whole thing starts off a big red toggle switch beneath the screen, while the rest of the interior delivers a folding armrest, two cup holders, the multimedia controlling scroller and plenty of other bits and pieces.
There is an optional head-up display that looks like it comes from a Spitfire, but now actually shows the tacho and the gear selection, which is surprisingly handy in Sport mode. So get that.
And get the Clubman JCW, too, if a warm small wagon is the kind of thing you’re after. There’s nothing much wrong with it (though it’s still light on luggage space) if you view it through that lens.
But if you turn up for a test drive expecting the JCW badge to give you something naughty and feverishly hot, you might be disappointed.
Mini Clubman JCW auto
On sale date: February 2017
Max power: 170kW
Max torque: 350Nm
Top speed: 238km/h
0-100km/h: 6.3 seconds
Combined consumption: 6.8l/100km
CO2 emissions: 154g/km
Star rating out of five: ***