Peter Hall gets in and out of the new MINI Clubman, whose extra side door has prompted some controversy
Sorry, I forgot to ask the Germans why they chose the Clubman name for the new estate version of the MINI, rather than Traveller or Countryman (yes I know there was an estate version of the old Clubman, but the name really identified the squared-off bonnet).
|The new MINI Clubman has increased legroom and luggage capacity|
I also forgot to make any jokes about the 1966 World Cup, or to mention the war.
Fact is, having voiced the main British complaint about the latest MINI, that it has turned its back on the British market, I was too busy trying to understand the answer.
The question is why the Clubman's extra side door (rear-hinged, so generically known as a "suicide" door) is only available on the right-hand side. That's the offside in Britain, so rear-seat passengers taking advantage of the wider door aperture must step out into the road rather than onto the pavement.
As I recall, the explanation went something like this: "The driver doesn't have to walk around the car to open what we call the Clubdoor, which is more convenient." And more dangerous.
"No. Only the driver can open the Clubdoor. He can see gaps in the traffic and control the passengers' exit." Not a suicide door, then, more an assisted suicide door. In London there are no gaps in the traffic. And how controllable are a couple of lively children?
"Because the driver's door must be open, passing vehicles must give you space. It sticks out farther than the Clubdoor, creating a safe area to step out into. And the driver is always in control." Maybe German Kinder are more obedient than British kids.
"And in Britain you can park on the other side of the road, which is illegal in Germany.
Have you tried it in London?
"If you are really concerned, you can always tell people to get out through the normal door, as they would in the hatchback." Okay. Safety is the driver's responsibility. But then you don't have the advantage of easy access, now that the Clubman's extra length allows the rear seats to be set farther back.
"But it only affects the quarter of British MINI buyers expected to take the Clubman. Britain is the biggest market, but it is only a quarter of the global total. Should we not make the Clubman at all, because six per cent of buyers can't make full use of it?" So it was a democratic decision?
"Having the Clubdoor on the other side, or on either side, would have meant re-engineering the whole chassis, moving the fuel tank rearwards into a less safe position, redesigning the fuel system and doing a whole set of new crash tests. It would have been prohibitively expensive." So it really comes down to cost.
"Yes." So why bother with a Clubdoor? A MINI estate would be desirable even without it. It would weigh less and cost less.
"But the Clubdoor makes things more convenient, especially for access, now that the Clubman's extra length allows the rear sets to be set farther back." Except in Germany, the driver has to walk around the car.
"Yes, but..." You get the drift. It's a circular argument, evidently well rehearsed by BMW men who expected criticism from British journalists, not to mention British motorists. But the unavoidable truth is that those of us who drive on the left are in a minority, and in the cold light of a corporate accountant's desk lamp, we count for a lot less than the rest of the world put together. Ironically, it is the structure of the British (MG Rover) design of the 2001 MINI that makes it uneconomic to produce a Clubman tailored for the British market, but then it was never foreseen that the MINI would be quite so successful, selling more than a million worldwide and spawning several derivatives. So we might have to wait for another automotive generation for a more adaptable successor. "Right now, it is what it is," said head of product marketing, Detlev Welters. "Next time we will find other solutions." At face value, then, the Clubman is a useful small estate that retains all the styling cues that have made the MINI so popular. From the driving seat forward, it is almost identical to the three-door car, but the extra 3.15in (80mm) in the wheelbase allows more legroom in the rear seats, which can now accommodate three (slim) 6ft adults without too much of a squeeze. At 155in (3,937mm) overall, it is 9.5in (240mm) longer than the hatch. And the extended luggage area will swallow 260 litres (91cu ft) of stuff - slightly more with one or more of the split rear seats locked into an upright position (acceptable for short journeys) - or 930 litres (32.6cu ft) with the seats folded flat; that's 100 and 250 litres more than the hatchback. Even with another 50 litres of space beneath the boot floor, this is not a massive capacity and the rear aperture is shallow. Yet this is the first MINI that florists or computer salesmen might consider truly practical (a panel van is not officially on the cards, but don't bet against it). Access to the luggage area is via two side-hinged doors (with apertures for the lights), like the old Traveller/Countryman; the contrasting C-pillars even offer a faint echo of those cars' decorative wood trim. The vertical strip that splits the driver's rear view is less of a problem than might be imagined, although on a straight road it could obscure a motorcycle or more distant car dead astern.
|Car trouble: the MINI Clubman’s side door is on the right side, so British passengers must step into traffic|
The infamous Clubdoor is actually very useful where you have a driveway or other traffic-free space to work in. It may only be opened (by means of a handle on the inside edge) when the adjacent front door is also open, and with a folding/sliding front seat it gives much improved access to the rear seats and any child seats thereon. The front seatbelt is anchored to the bottom of the Clubdoor (which incorporates the B-pillar) and looks like a trip hazard, but presents no obstacle to a sober adult; a less coordinated child might find it more of a problem. On the other, "normal" side, passenger access to the rear seats is no more difficult than in the hatchback, but attending to a child will be more difficult because the seats are farther back.
As for the driving experience, it feels very much like the three-door MINI, pleasantly refined but slightly lacking the much-vaunted "go-kart feeling" of the 2001 model (see our first drive of October 21, 2006 at www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring). With its longer wheelbase, the Clubman feels slightly less nimble on really tight bends. But the Cooper S versions available at the launch (all with locked rear differentials for "maximum sportiness") still felt impressively powerful and responsive, despite being some 85kg heavier than the three-door (more or less the weight of an adult male passenger); the top speed is unaffected, but 0-62mph acceleration is slower by half a second.
A small performance penalty likewise applies to the Cooper and Cooper D (diesel) variants, but by way of compensation, all are now equipped with BMW's latest brake energy regeneration system and an automatic stop-start function, which cuts the engine when the car is stationary (restarting when the clutch pedal is depressed). As a result, fuel consumption and CO\u2082 emissions are significantly improved; the six-speed automatic transmission option is slightly less frugal. Another small but welcome tweak is the addition of a digital speed readout on the rev counter, in response to complaints that the large central speedo can be difficult to read.
Although the Clubman's suspension is more compliant than the hatch, buyers would still be well advised to think carefully before specifying the ride-stiffening sports suspension and low-profile tyres, which seem particularly inappropriate on a load-carrier. The tempting options list is also dangerous territory, given that the price of even the cheapest (Cooper) Clubman starts at £14,235, with the Cooper D at £15,400 and the Cooper S at a hefty £17,210.
But just as the new MINI has outgrown its cheap, utilitarian roots, the new Clubman cannot - and does not - claim to be the last word in practical workaday transport. For that reason alone, the offside Clubdoor conundrum may be regarded as slightly academic. Patriotic petrolheads should perhaps take more comfort from the fact that the British-inspired, British-designed, British-built MINI is such a roaring success all over the world, and look forward to the next development. In a couple of years, we should see a four-wheel-drive MINI SUV, for example - although with the Oxford factory working to capacity, it might have to be built in Eastern Europe.
You can imagine the headlines if that happens. Isn't the MINI supposed to be British? Well, maybe. But don't forget that it's built by BMW, not BMC.
Price/availability: Cooper S from £17,210, Cooper Diesel from £15,400, Cooper from £14,235. On sale November 10.
Engine/transmission: 1,598cc, inline four-cylinder, turbocharged petrol with DOHC and four valves per cylinder; 175bhp at 5,500rpm, 177lb ft of torque from 1,600-5,000rpm, 191lb ft from 1,700-4,500rpm with overboost. Cooper, as above but naturally aspirated; 120bhp at 6,000rpm, 118lb ft at 4,250rpm. Cooper Diesel, 1,560cc inline four-cylinder diesel with four valves per cylinder; 110bhp at 4,000rpm, 117lb ft at 1,750-2,000rpm, 192lb ft with overboost. Six-speed manual or automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive.
Performance: Cooper S/Cooper/Cooper Diesel top speed 139/125/120mph manual or 136/121/117mph auto, 0-62mph in 7.6/9.8/10.4sec manual or 7.8/10.9/10.9sec auto, EU Urban fuel consumption 35.3/39.8/57.7mpg manual or 28.8/30.7/42.8mpg auto, CO2 emissions 150/132/109g/km manual or 168/159/136g/km auto.
We like: Extra space.
We don't like: Not everyone drives on the left.
Alternatives: For style, consider the new Fiat 500, from about £9,500 (but an estate isn't due until 2009). For carrying stuff, and for decent access to the rear seats, any supermini estate or mid-sized five-door hatchback will do the job at a lower price; the forthcoming Peugeot 207 SW GTi is powered by the same 1.6 engine as the MINI, has more boot space and should cost about £16,000.