My first drive in a Mini was in Paris in the late 1970s.
It was about 5 in the morning and the empty streets were damp with dew. The little car skittered and slid over the cobblestones in a way that was possibly illegal and probably unsafe — but so much fun.
I haven’t been that amused by a Mini until now, after a week of driving the Mini John Cooper Works Clubman ALL4.
It’s a hooligan hot rod — with trunk space
The car I drove in Paris was a stripped-down, stick shift commuter car. In those pre-“Austin Powers” days, it wasn’t considered particularly cute or especially chic. It was just good, cheap transportation — easy on fuel consumption, easy to drive on narrow city streets and easy to park in jampacked Paris.
The new Minis are but distant cousins. They look like minivans by comparison, weighing twice as much as their predecessors and covering much more acreage.
The Clubmans, especially, are particularly not mini. Though they still have a square go-kart stance, they stand broad and tall compared with their storied ancestors.
Indeed, the new Minis advertise for size. The new Countryman boasts more headroom than an Audi Q3 and more cargo capacity than a Mercedes GLA 250.
The John Cooper Works line of Minis are the company’s performance cars and can be had in all Mini models.
This Mini is no mouse. The Clubman iteration of the John Cooper Works version features a twin turbo 2-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine that puts out 228 horsepower and 258 pound feet of torque.
That power is kept on the ground by MacPherson strut suspension on the front end, married to electronic stability control, ABS and an electronic braking control system that magnifies the Mini’s cornering ability.
The model I drove also had Dynamic Damper Control, a $500 upgrade.
It was also the ALL4 version, which means the engine and transmission are putting power to all four wheels.
This makes the drive very, very sticky. The Mini felt glued to the corners and seemed likely to go through rubber in a relatively short period of time.
That could get expensive. Like the BMWs with which it shares ownership, it’s fitted with run-flat tires, which cost considerably more than regular tires.
But it also means the ample trunk space isn’t being used for anything like a spare tire or tire repair kit. You can toss your niblicks and mashies in the back and shred all the way to the golf course.
The engine is mated to either an 8-speed automatic or 6-speed manual transmission.
The stick shift is what I had, and it heightened the car’s hooligan characteristics. With very little turbo lag, in “sport” drive mode setting, the power came on fast and stayed strong through the rev range.
Very zippy under acceleration, it boxed its way around corners and held the road marvelously — unlike the skidding Paris Mini of my youth, but safer, and just as much fun.
But it can also be well-mannered. On the freeway, though I stayed far, far below the claimed 147 mph top speed, it was surprisingly quiet and comfortable. In fuel-sipping “green" mode, the Mini ticked along at 70 mph at barely over 2,000 rpms.
The infotainment screen is bordered by a circle that changes colors when the driver adjusts temperature, driving mode or radio volume. Why? No idea. (BMW North America)
Things to do with a Mini Clubman
- Go faster around corners than you should.
- Use the surprisingly robust horn to let people know you’re there.
- Enjoy the pleasurable sensation of people asking, in gas stations and at stoplights, if you want to trade cars. The best offer I got was from a young woman driving a vintage VW Thing.
Things not to do with a Mini Clubman
- Expect to use the head-up display if you’re wearing polarized sunglasses. I found the display useless during daytime driving.
- Expect to safely retrieve your coffee cup from the cup holders, which are placed so far forward in the center console that you need gorilla arms to reach them.
- Figure out the slightly distracting ambient lighting system, which colorizes a ring around the infotainment screen from a palette of green, blue, red and purple. Though they’re pretty, I never did understand what the changing colors meant.
- Pay for maintenance during the first three years or 36 months; it’s included in the purchase price.
Attention to detail
Mini Cooper has a long, proud history — the first Mini was shipped in 1959 — and like other English carmakers prides itself on craftsmanship.
This Clubman I drove had a hand-stitched leather steering wheel and attractive Alcantara interior upholstery on the doors and dash.
It also had some technological features that eased the driving experience. Unlike many modern cars, the key fob opens all four doors with the click of one button — and doesn’t require additional clicks to open the passenger doors, a common safety system I find maddening.
The key fob also swings open the twin rear hatch doors with the push of a button, which is very helpful if you’re carrying a mess of groceries.
The Clubman’s manual transmission also includes a “hill hold” feature, which prevents the car from rolling backward or forward when the driver is coming off a red light, stop sign or parking space on a steep hill. As the resident of an extremely steep neighborhood, and the owner of several stick shift cars, I don’t require this, but I do appreciate it.
The car is also fitted with a driver’s window sun visor, matching the one that folds down to shade the windshield. This is a small but welcome addition.
The back seats offer a lot of headroom and legroom — for a Mini. The front seats, identified as John Cooper Works Sports Seats, were plenty comfortable around town, though I wouldn’t necessarily bet on them for a long road trip.
The proliferation of Minis on L.A. city streets can partly be explained by finance. A base level Mini hardtop two-door starts as low as $21,800.
The lowest priced four-door Mini starts only a hair higher, at $22,800, with the Countryman and Clubman models starting from closer to $25,000.
The John Cooper Works versions jump up from that. The Clubman JCW costs about $10,000 more than that normal Clubman.
But it also costs considerably less than other sports cars that deliver a comparable thrill, and this Clubman combines playful power and practical cargo space in a way that a lot of cars can’t.
Me? I’m ready for the next sequel to “The Italian Job.” And I’ll always have Paris.
2017 Mini John Cooper Works Clubman ALL4
Times’ take: Small car, packed with performance
Highs: A lively, cargo-carrying go-kart
Lows: Increased likelihood of speeding citations
Vehicle type: Four-door, five-passenger hatchback
Base price: $35,950
Price as tested: $40,250
Powertrain: 2-liter, 4-cylinder gas engine
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Torque: 258 pound feet
EPA fuel economy rating: 21 miles per gallon city / 31 highway / 24 combined
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