The Clubman: how this new 'stretch MINI' is pushing small to its limits
First Drive: Mini Clubman in Stockholm
For a while this was weird, in a nice sort of way. Driving the new MINI Clubman estate was a bit like getting used to a bigger apartment. The previous was, by comparison, a tidy bijou residence. This, with increased individual dimensions, has undergone a substantial extension.
Not only that. Instead of a rear, side door that opened 'backways' onto traffic, it now has a conventional pair that make it easy to get to the back seats. Once there, even I found space. In the old one it was cramped. I think there is good room now for two adults or three children (the middle slot is a bit tight) - a marked improvement.
There are two other little doors too - the tailgate is split - and they were so handy for lobbing stuff in or getting it out of the boot. As an aside I thought the rear-light cluster on my Cooper S version was the business.
Generally speaking I expected the Clubman to be a bit unbalanced visually but it wasn't. It's still most definitely a MINI. But it's a 'stretch' MINI that is bigger than the current Countryman.
Its 4,253mm length is up 293mm, width +115mm and height +16mm. Overall that's 270mm longer and 73mm wider than the 5dr.
The wheelbase is increased by 100mm - that helps generate extra internal space. Large bijou now.
The boot is good at 360 litres but fold the rear seats and you get a highly respectable 1,250 litres.
Based on the same front-wheel-drive platform as the BMW 2-series Active Tourer, the Clubman weighs 1,300kg (Cooper). That's an extra 155kg but there was no suggestion of it being burdened when we drove the 2-litre Cooper S. A real pity we didn't have the 1.5-litre 3cyl petrol or diesel to try as they are part of the starting line-up later this month.
Prices will start at €29,560 on-the-road (OTR) for the Cooper model, €32,570 for the Cooper D and €35,760 for the Cooper S version.
Engines and chassis are the heartbeats of any MINI. This has three engines initially - with more to come. An SD joins later in the year. The start-up crop includes:
* A Cooper D Clubman 4cyl diesel (150bhp (68.9mpg,109g/km, €190 road tax).
* A Cooper with a 3cyl petrol (136bhp 55.4 mpg, 118g/km, €200 road tax) petrol. This will be of interest. Small petrols are making a comeback.
* A top-of-range Cooper S with a 2-litre 4cyl petrol (192bhp, 45.6 mpg, 144g/km, €390 road tax). It had loads of power, pep and pull.
We didn't push the car too hard on open Swedish roads; nor did we tax its handling but we got enough to know it has lost little by way of MINI sharpness. The steering feed was excellent and tyre noise, which can be an issue, was well subdued.
There were three of us on board, each with plenty of room, and our baggage stowed in the boot, so it was a good replication of real-world conditions (we could adjust the front seats electronically too - that's a first in this).
I had both the 6spd manual and auto versions; I think I preferred the manual; clean and crisp. There is a new 8spd Steptronic too.
It's typical MINI in the cabin; they've brought in an electric handbrake for the first time to leave more room for BMW's rotary controller which slots in between the front seats. It was handy in finding our way around the Big Ben central circular display (6.5ins or 8.8ins screen) for infotainment, phone or sat nav (now standard).
I'm still not a fan of that circular extravaganza but this somehow wasn't as garish looking as the one in the 5dr.
The speedo and rev counter instrument cluster are easily viewed through the steering wheel. The elements that still drive me mad in a MINI are the toggle switches. MINI say they are 'loved'. I disagree. They are all over the place, like a cockpit in a plane. It's surprising they haven't been more coordinated because MINI can be so clever in other areas such as glove box and door compartments that hold one-litre drink bottles.
And they expect a lot people to opt for what they call the Chili pack which includes cloth/leather upholstery, heated sports seats, park distance control, automatic air con, LED headlights/foglights etc.
It was inevitable I should ask myself how big a MINI can get before you call it something else? This is now chasing potential buyers of the likes of the Mercedes GLA, A3, VW Golf - and countless others - despite being the shortest in its small-premium segment.
There's no doubt the Clubman will challenge our perceptions of what we expect a small estate to be.
The question now is: will people opt for an estate that happens to be a MINI or a MINI that happens to be an estate?