Johannesburg - When the three-door Mini hatch was launched in latest John Cooper Works form in 2015, BMW shouted from the rooftops that it was the most powerful production Mini ever made with 170kW and 320Nm. But now, with last month’s introduction of the Clubman JCW, there’s a new king Mini on the block with just a smidge more gusto beneath the bonnet.

Actually, it’s the Clubman and its big-bodied sister the Countryman JCW which together lay claim to the most powerful Mini titles, as both pip the three-door with 170kW and 350Nm. But please take note: these two models may have the most oomph, but they’re not the fastest. The hatch is still quicker even with a 30Nm torque deficit.

Why? Because of weight. Not only are the Clubman and Countryman much bulkier cars, but they’re also fitted with Mini’s All4 all-wheel drive system. These models may get a traction advantage off the line, but the extra componentry needed to send drive to the rear axle counters the slight torque increase.

Mini quotes 0-100km/h in 6.1 seconds for the front-wheel drive automatic JCW hatch, and when we put it against the clock it nearly matched the factory claims with an actual 6.16 seconds. The Clubman JCW auto on the other hand, comes with a 6.3 second claim, and our Vbox test equipment showed a best real world figure of 6.54.

With these outputs, and these acceleration figures, the Clubman JCW is spot on in performance comparisons with the Golf GTI. But as an all-wheel drive station wagon, it fills a hole unoccupied by rival cars. Audi’s S3 Sportback is probably the closest in concept, but with way more power, much quicker times, and a heftier pricetag, it’s not really an accurate competitor.

This Mini’s a niche car, and not only in numbers. As mentioned, the Clubman qualifies as a wagon, but with a unique set of side-hinged barn doors where a conventional liftgate should be at the back. Yes, it’s an over-engineered way of accessing the boot, and the design severely inhibits rear visibility from the driver’s seat (especially with the three back headrests in place), but I quite like the unusual body style and found the door design convenient at times.

When tossing in a small item it’s possible to open one half of the barn setup only, like a refrigerator door, and then close it again with one hand. I did bash my forehead on the JCW-spec rear wing more than once though, when reaching inside.

The Clubman’s a little shorter in overall length than an S3 Sportback, but it’s wider and a bit taller, so this is indeed a fairly large car. But that impression diminishes quickly from the inside, where things do seem a little cramped. Loads of dark materials, including a moody black headliner add to an illusion of confinement, and if the front seats are spatially acceptable the back is less so. Knee-room is limited by the JCW’s racy front buckets, and that tapering roofline does interfere with headspace.

The luggage compartment is also impeded by the chassis structure which uses a lateral brace between the wheels. It’s more of a deep well than a flat floor, and the already limited cargo hold is further hampered by three small bags for tyre repair and first aid kits, and a warning triangle which are either velcroed or tethered in place. The back seats will fold for loading of longer objects, but if you’re thinking this hot little wagon would be perfect for hauling your weimaraner to doggy day-care, think again.

I suppose space constraints can be excused given we’re talking about a car actually named “Mini”. This is a brand more focussed on fun factor than ergonomic ideologies, and the JCW piles on the fanfare in heaps. From the colour-changing mood lighting, to the animated graphics in the circular infotainment display, to the tartan-patterned centre console storage tray, the Clubman is a refreshingly light hearted option in a normally quite serious segment.

It’s fun to drive too. There’s a cheeky burble and occasional overrun pop from the exhaust, the steering is sharp and direct, and the 2-litre turbo engine delivers with plenty of pep.

Because it gets a much longer wheelbase than the three-door it’s also less prone to suspension bobble, and Mini’s done well to dial out some of the suspension harshness that afflicted older John Cooper Works derivatives. It rolls on low profile 225/40/R18 tyres so you can still feel a road’s surface in great detail, but the nasty jarring we remember from previous JCWs has been kept to a minimum.

Of course all-wheel drive plays a big part in this Clubman’s refined ride, and where the torque-steery three-door will pummel your arms with lactic acid, this one just calmly grips and goes where you point it. Sure, some of the hyperactivity of a firmly sprung, front-wheel driven hot hatch that hops around, rather than carves through corners is missing here, but a station wagon is supposed to appeal to a more grown up crowd. Right?

FACTS

Engine: 2-litre, 4-cylinder turbopetrol
Gearbox: 8-speed automatic
Power: 170kW @ 5000-6000rpm
Torque: 350Nm @ 1450-4800rpm
0-100km/h (tested Gauteng):6.54 seconds
Top speed (claimed):238km/h
Price: R584 516
Warranty: 2-year/unlimited km
Service plan: 5-year/100 000km

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