Join the club: Mini's new and improved JCW Clubman
New and improved Clubman has Darren Cassey smiling
BMW-owned Mini has long traded on the heritage of the British brand to sell cars - and the John Cooper Works Clubman is the perfect example of this.
The 'Clubman' name refers to an estate-like shape in a relatively small package with van-like rear doors. Then there's 'John Cooper Works' bit, which is the name for the firm's performance brand, named after the racing legend.
Brought together here, they form an intriguing proposition in the hot-hatch market. With more power than ever before, the question is, is this just a quirky alternative or a genuine threat to more mainstream-looking rivals?
Mini has given the JCW Clubman a thorough going over for what is actually a facelift upgrade. The engine's had a big boost in power, making this, and the updated JCW Countryman SUV, which has received similar fettling, the most powerful road-going Mini ever.
There's a new eight-speed automatic gearbox, all-wheel drive that features a mechanical locking differential on the front wheels and a reinforced body structure that makes it stiffer. There's also a new exhaust system that's said to be noisier despite an emissions-friendly petrol particulate filter.
What's under the bonnet?
The engine is essentially the same 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol unit that we saw in the Cooper S models (and the new BMW M135i), but Mini's engineers have made plenty of improvements to give it top-end hot-hatch performance.
Power is now 302bhp and torque is 450Nm, up about 75bhp and 100Nm on before. That's a healthy gain that puts it on a level pegging with the Mercedes-AMG A35, which the firm considers a direct competitor. To achieve this, there's a new crankshaft, uprated internal components and a bigger, boostier turbocharger.
What's it like to drive?
The defining feature is the engine - the increased power output is noticeable. Put your foot down and the gearbox is fairly quick to respond, feeling a fraction lazy even in manual mode, but once engaged you surge towards the red line surrounded by a fruity four-cylinder thrum.
You quickly discover, however, that this is a car that doesn't like to be chucked about, instead preferring you to find a smooth rhythm on a winding road. It feels quite heavy, particularly under braking, so although it's capable in corners it perhaps lacks that highly responsive go-kart feel that fast Minis tend to have. An A35 certainly feels faster.
Our test car had the standard-fit sports suspension, which we'd recommend avoiding. It means that no matter what drive mode you're in, the suspension is hard, so you feel every ripple in the Tarmac. We didn't get a chance to test the adaptive suspension - a £700 option - but the choice to tone down the ride would be welcome.
How does it look?
The Clubman's unique selling point is that it offers something different. It's so easy to dismiss modern cars as incapable of having character, but this Mini manages to mix retro-inspired styling with a quirky looking but perfectly usable rear hatch that's much more interesting than a regular estate.
In JCW trim, its looks are amplified with a sporty body kit and a spoiler above the rear hatch, while the optional Union flag rear tail-lights are a fun nod to the brand's heritage. It's something of a Tardis, too, looking compact on the outside but feeling spacious inside.
What's it like inside?
Something Mini has long nailed is interior ambience. Everything you see and touch looks and feels premium, from the dashboard materials to the satisfying feel of the aeroplane cockpit-like buttons in the centre console.
The large central infotainment screen is divisive, though. There's a large circular light bar, which takes some getting used to, but the actual screen itself is clear and easy to use.
The overall sensation is that Mini continues to offer high-quality interiors that are ergonomically excellent while still managing to fit interesting design into the mix.
What's the spec like?
Opt for a John Cooper Works Clubman and you're looking at a premium over the Cooper S, which is next in the trim hierarchy. That model starts at £23,900 compared with £34,250 for the JCW.
As well as the extra performance and mechanical upgrades, there's also a decent amount of equipment offered to justify the price tag.
On the outside there are 18-inch alloy wheels, a JCW-specific body kit, performance brakes and a sports exhaust. Interior equipment includes sports seats, leather steering wheel, piano black interior trim, satellite navigation and a suite of driver aids.
The Mini JCW Clubman is a unique proposition: A small family car with estate-like looks, genuine character and hot-hatch performance.
Opt for the adaptive suspension and it should be comfortable enough. However, if the driving experience is key, you might be left wanting. The Clubman feels heavy and isn't as direct in its responses as rivals. If character's more important though, the Mini has it in spades and still has enough performance to keep most happy.
Facts at a glance
Model: Mini John Cooper Works Clubman
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Max speed: 155mph
0-60mph: 4.7 seconds
Emissions: 169-161 g/km CO2