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Six things we learned about the Clubman JCW...

...after three weeks of driving it in the real world

By Nic Cackett / Saturday, January 25, 2020

It's better than the last one. Hands down. Not hard, perhaps - the last Clubman JCW had the motive vigour of a discarded mattress - but significant nonetheless because it makes the latest model a legitimate option rather than something to sadly shake your head at in a supermarket car park. Blame for its predecessor's lethargy fell mostly on (the previously blameless) 231hp four-cylinder motor which had apparently been given far too much to do. As you'll likely know by now, the new version swerves this accusation by being much more powerful. It shares its 2.0-litre turbocharged engine with the latest M135i, which means there's an industry hot-standard 306hp powering the ALL4 drivetrain via a standard eight-speed automatic.

This means that where the JCW once laboured - and there really is no other word for it - to 62mph in a little over 6 seconds (a supremely optimistic claim, from experience), it is now said to be capable of breaking the benchmark tape in 4.9 seconds. Does it feel as fast as a PDK'd Porsche Cayman T? No. The much-lighter-on-its-toes JCW hatch still feels much peppier. But with 332lb ft of torque available from 1,750rpm, clearly it is capable of emphatically picking up its skirts when the situation calls for it - and that's a gigantic leap forward in likability terms.

It's still, you know - a Clubman. Which means that it's not quite big enough to be a proper small estate (the Focus ST wagon's boot is the best part of 200 litres bigger) and yet not really small enough to be called a Mini anything. Then there are those split rear doors. Inheriting the bread van style from the Morris Mini Traveller makes as much evolutionary sense to me as willingly inheriting your granddad's rotary dial telephone. But clearly some people like it because (BMW) Mini has been making the Clubman for well over a decade now, and while those same people must have encountered situations where said doors are rendered completely impractical, the novelty remains. As does the novelty of not being able to see out the back properly.

Of course this is all forgivable if the Clubman fits your lifestyle. By some astonishing stroke of good fortune, the boot which in no way seems big enough for family use managed to swallow everything the mrs and I needed for a few days away over Christmas. And that included what seemed like enough presents for an entire orphanage. This is to the Mini's credit. But had we also had a child and a child's associated paraphernalia, we'd have probably struggled. And if the Clubman isn't for young families, who is it for?

It's hard to argue with the rest of the interior. Or it's hard to now point a finger at the current Mini, and accuse it of needless, cloying levels of kitsch. What seemed like a Disneyfication twenty years ago has now simply become what all Minis are like - and the multi-generation evolution has rendered a cabin that feels well put together, nice to interact with and ergonomically friendly. It still feels short of genuine originality - but no more so than the rest of the Clubman so you're better off making your peace with it. Frankly I like the toggle switches and re-skinned i Drive infotainment system.

Sharing things with BMW has typically been to the benefit of Mini, and that includes the premium-end feel. In press car format, the ambience is usually doubled down on with much more option box ticking than any sane, bottomline-paying person would indulge in, but the mountain of kit feels model appropriate to the Clubman. That said, there isn't much to get your JCW kicks from; especially if you like your 306hp Mini to come with a hip point commensurate to its badge and power output. Were someone to tell you that you'd just made yourself comfortable in the latest Countryman, you'd halfway believe it.

You'll live with it easily enough. We did. And that's despite Mini's (sometimes grating) insistence that every car it makes has to retain a kernel of the hatchback's keyed-up character. That lingering lateral firmness which encourages the entire chassis to fall into potholes that have only actually snared one wheel remains, but truthfully the here-we-go effect is becoming less and less noticeable. The Clubman doesn't often bridle - even at speed. Sure, you might still find yourself wondering if the tight rein on body control is really necessary - ditto the heavy-handed steering resistance, which is adamant you have your wrists worked at low speeds - but the Clubman feels well-sized on a narrow British one-way system, and adequately tuned to ride atop it.

You might not love it. We didn't. For all its added potency, the JCW doesn't do a particularly good job of encouraging you to indulge it. This has little to do with basic competency - there is traction aplenty and a swift enough change of direction - but the larger Clubman does not flounce about the place with the animated, incitement-to-riot character of the three-door hatch, despite the extra power. Which is a problem when it's been saddled with some of the same USP.

Some of this intransigence can be attributed to the drive modes. The default setting is (as perhaps it ought to be) adamant that you should not empty the tank 20 minutes after leaving your driveway. Cue a laggardly throttle pedal and half-mast upshifts - which would be fine if the Clubman were no more onerous than a gnat's shopping, but it isn't: it feels burly in a way that suggests it would rather sit immobile on the ground than be flung from corner to corner like a boomerang.

The JCW is far more responsive in what Mini optimistically calls 'sport' and if you change ratios for yourself - yet it fails to alleviate the nagging suspicion that deep down the Clubman isn't really up for it. Not in the way its smaller sibling is, at any rate. The pseudo-wagon feels more grown-up - and because of that, you tend to drive like one.

It's not cheap. The JCW starts at £35,360. Okay, we knew that before. But it's worth reiterating because elsewhere in the ballpark you can have something like the outgoing Seat Leon Cupra wagon - also invested with all-wheel drive and 300hp - for £33,395. The Focus ST Estate is £33,695. And if you're considering a Clubman on practicality grounds, both represent a next-level improvement.

But obviously that's academic if you're considering the JCW because you want a Clubman, and nothing else will do. Mini continues to command that kind of repeat business, and in that respect - as we mentioned five points ago - the latest model does easily enough to wash away bad memories of its predecessor. Unlike that car, if you choose to drive this JCW very quickly, it will oblige you. For devotees, expect that to be enough. For anyone on the fence, you'll need to convince yourself that the Clubman's various idiosyncrasies, some of them fundamental, are worth the premium.


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