Driven - Aug 2021

The XL Italian Job – The Mini Clubman John Cooper Works

We recently got to spend a few days rapidly emptying the fuel tank of the unexpectedly fast and fun Mini Clubman John Cooper Works (JCW), a deceptive car that doesn’t look as fast as it is!

As most of our generation will already be aware, Mini’s modern day popularity can be greatly accredited to a pop culture film titled The Italian Job in the remake of a 1969 feature sharing the same name. Starring our very own Charlize Theron, her drop-dead gorgeous looks were often sidelined to the real stars of the show; the refreshed and retro-designed Mini Cooper. 

Since the film’s debut in 2003, Mini has grown their portfolio with models that have deviated somewhat from the embodiment of the brand name. In addition and contrary to Alec Issogonis original and revolutionary blueprints of a transversely mounted engine powering only the front wheels, Mini have also produced a few models with ALL4, an all-wheel-drive system that sends power to each corner of the car. 

While the recipe for some of Mini’s models has ushered in cars that seem a stretch from the characteristics that made these cars famous half a century ago, there is a market for more spacious and practical, four door models that simply could not be ignored after their takeover by profit-focused BMW. This is where the quirky, retro models like the Clubman and Countryman were intended to fill the gap. The latest generations of these models are no stranger to the world, being produced for over a decade each, they may just seem less popular than the more compact and recognizable 2-door Cooper. 

One can therefore deduce that they are lifestyle vehicles that fill a niche in the market. Sure, they still have the same funky interiors, bubbly personality and overall aesthetic of the rest of the lineup but they still lacked that purity of a Mini. The Clubman John Cooper Works is even more niche with a price tag starting from R783 840, an obese length and width of 4266mm and 1800mm respectively while its planetary mass of 1520kg is almost 3x the weight of the original Mini. 

Despite this though, our favorite Union Jack-inspired vehicle manufacturer has produced a model that feels very well powered to cope with the additional bulk and is incredibly fun to drive. This might not be the car to tackle a narrow Monte Carlo Special Rally stage but it is one that inspires confidence on a day-to-day basis of slow, tight cornering, banked highway onramps and on a loose road surface.

For this, the ALL4 system is commendable for its functionality and additional safety and assurity it offers buyers to live with everyday. But I question whether it is necessary in a car like this, as most buyers would probably never fully utilize its capabilities.

But if you do choose to head out on a spirited drive, once you flip the jet age inspired starter switch and hear the turbocharged inline-four petrol engine, it all comes to life. It is the same motor that spurs the F40 M135i xDrive forward, while the new BMW has received criticism for deviating from its lineage of in-line six motors, there are absolutely no complaints from the driver’s seat in the Mini!

The up-tuned 225kW and 450Nm is delivered via a slightly lethargic 8 speed automatic transmission to all four wheels, even in exhaust-burbling and neighbour-annoying sports mode. Cruising is an easy and comfortable task though, with engine revs below 2200rpm at the maximum national speed limit. That being said, it is also easy to make the honest mistake of going above and beyond this limit as acceleration seems as effortless as a leaf blowing in the direction the wind commands it to. 

While a combined fuel consumption of 7.7l/100km is claimed, we didn’t experience anything below 10, although sports mode dominated our time with the car. We did test its frugality in Green mode once the fuel indicator frighteningly sunk below the ¼ tank mark and efficiency was immediately improved. What remained is a comfortable car that could still pick up speed and overtake at a fraction of full throttle input.

On the inside, the narrow shaped cockpit continues the same circular theme from all other retro designed Mini’s, the part analog/part digital driver display is sufficient but small numbering on the speedometer becomes ambiguous with an illuminated display during night-time driving – a shortcoming the HUD makes up for.

There are some subtle Union Jack design cues placed on the headrests and embossed studs on the seats that give the car more of its own unique Mini identity. 

Where the second generation Clubman begins to show its age in the interior is the center console. Although the gear shifter and some of the surrounds have been updated in accordance with the more recent model years, crucial interaction points like the 8.8” infotainment screen remain unchanged from the original 2015 derivative. The reverse camera is also rather small as it doesn’t cover the full width of the screen when engaged, and the user interface seems obsolete. 

As we mentioned earlier, the Clubman John Cooper Works starts from R783 840 including a 5 year/100 000km maintenance plan but despite how much it impressed me, I remain to be convinced.

For the money to be spent, there are other better equipped and equally capable cars that would feature on my purchase list before the JCW. The likes of the less upmarket Golf R for example may be significantly smaller in dimensions but has a cargo capacity of 343l which is only 17l down on the much bigger Clubman. The Mercedes-Benz A35 is probably the best bet of having a potent hatchback with refined and classy interior finishes. Mini remains a lifestyle brand that is embodied by style conscious consumers and the Clubman is the bigger, more practical version of the 5 door Cooper hatch.

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