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Click to view road test review picture galleryThe latest ‘must-
  have’ MINI — the
  Clubman — brings
  improved practicality
  to the brand.
  Equipped with
  cutting-edge fuel-
  saving technology
  and a 35 road tax
  liability, it’s still
  great fun to drive...”

MINI'S NEWEST FAMILY MEMBER, THE CLUBMAN, distracts you with it's party trick extra 'suicide' door on the driver's side that shares a shut-line with the driver's door and a pair of side-hinged rear doors at the upright, squared-off tail, making it easy to overlook the fact that it contains all the driving magic found in the 3-door MINI hatch. Combining the two, the new Clubman has a distinct character all of its own. In fact, it's not stretching things to say that it really does not have any direct rivals.

In a single soundbite: it's a sassy little load-lugger. And it's not just dyed-in-the-wool MINI-philes who'll want one: the 'Shooting Brake' Clubman appeals to a whole new demographic of would-be owners. Its image is unarguably cool 'n' classy. Unexpectedly, despite the extra inches of its estate bodystyle (overall length is up by 24cm; plus there's 8cm more rear legroom), it somehow retains the cheekily-compact appearance so beloved of its 3-door sibling — of which over one million have been sold worldwide since 2001!

Inside, the Clubman serves up a more desirable travelling experience for passengers — especially those travelling in the rear. There's acceptable legroom and good headroom, even for adults. In particular, the long, fixed side windows let in lots of light and provide an uncluttered view out. Access to the rear seats is easier than on the 3-door models due to the Clubman's longer, wide-opening side doors.

Apart from that, the cabin is exactly as you'll find on the second generation MINI hatch model. In other words, it's well trimmed and well thought out — witness the cooled glove-box. The trademark toggle switches are still there beneath the dinner-plate-sized speedo that looks even bigger, but that's part and parcel of its MINI-ness — and you either love it or hate it. We preferred to check our speed against the clear orange digital mph read-out in the rev-counter — a neat and practical touch. The large speedo also houses the fuel gauge, seat belt warning indicator, audio system and any optional navigation and entertainment functions. A stand-alone rev-counter with outside temperature display is fixed in front of the driver behind the steering wheel with a digital read-out of the car's computer data incorporated within its dial.

The Clubman's driving position is fine; the cloth-covered seats com-fortably accommodating and supportive, notably around the shoulders and the lower back. Standard 'goodies' include a single-slot CD/radio, Aux In connection for MP3 players, powered front windows and electric door mirrors, a height-adjustable driver's seat, a steering column that adjusts for reach and height and remote central locking. Other standard kit includes 5-star pattern 15-inch light alloy wheels, drive-away automatic central locking (at 10mph), tyre defect indicator, automatic rear wash/wipe, tinted glass, 3 rear seats (2 rear seats are a no-cost option), Start/Stop button for the ignition plus a good helping of high-tech safety systems and equipment. So, not so hard done by after all!

With the aid of gas struts, the funky twin back doors swing out 90 degrees to the left and right — where they stay, unmoving and unaffected by strong winds, until you want them shut. As a driver, you soon get used to seeing the broad back stripe down the centre of the rear-view mirror — caused by the rear inner door frames that, when closed, visually divide the rear screen.

Open the back doors and you'll find a sliding/roll-out luggage cover along with a handy twin-height boot floor and a pop-out curry/bag hook. The rear seatbacks also split 50:50 and fold flat. Okay, the Clubman's not a 'proper' estate car — but then it doesn't pretend to be. However, please note: it is visually and measurably bigger inside than the hatch. For a start, with the rear seats in use, the boot offers 260 litres of luggage space — that's 100 litres more than the MINI hatch. With them folded out of the way, this increases to an extremely useful 930 litres.

The cleverly-disguised rear-hinged, half-width Clubdoor is located immediately behind the driver's door (and can only be opened when the driver's door is already open). Similar to the rear doors on the Mazda RX-8, it has come in for some criticism from the UK media because on right-hand-drive cars it opens out onto the road when the car is parked in the direction of traffic. Customers, though, don't seem too worried about this because they're voting with their wallets and buying Clubmans as fast as BMW can build them.

However, it's not that much trouble to move across the more spacious rear cabin and get out through the front seat that moves the whole front passenger seat forward for easy access/exit to/from the rear, as one would in the 3-door hatch.

The reason people are buying the Clubman is a mix of extra-function-ality, more room (over the standard MINI) and the MINI hatch's trademark driving qualities. We tested the 109bhp 1.6-litre Cooper D which delivers 0-62mph acceleration in 10.4 seconds and a top speed of 120mph. Buyers will like it not only for the 177lb ft of torque which adds to the joint BMW/PSA-designed unit's smooth-running character, as well as ensuring a wide powerband and gutsy acceleration — but also for the amazingly good running costs.

Whenever the car comes to a stop, Auto Start-Stop switches off the engine once the driver shifts to neutral and takes his foot off the clutch pedal. To re-start the engine, the driver presses down on the clutch pedal again and the engine restarts automatically and immediately. Helped by this clever piece of engineering, the diesel-powered Clubman can return (extra-urban) as much as 78.5mpg (town; 57.6/combined: 68.9mpg). For the record, our test car returned 48mpg overall. Drivers new to this system may find it a tad disquieting at first but you can deactivate the function; however, give it a day or two and you'll forget it's even there. Another benefit of the Cooper D's engine is the low CO2 emissions — a hybrid-matching 109g/km — that means you only have to pay 35 per year to tax your Clubman.

Handling is also something to smile about — the Clubman exhibits the inherently good balance, traction and roadholding of its stablemates. As a spirited run down a challenging road quickly demonstrates: it feels secure and, like the 3-door hatch, is a hoot to drive hard. Adding to the enjoyment are six close gear ratios, controlled by a gear change action with an easy, straightforward mechanical action that encourages the driver to flick between them more frequently than strictly necessary. Suffice to say that new Clubman owners who may have expected the extra length to have degraded the trademark MINI handling are in for a pleasant surprise. Because the additional inches have, in fact, resulted in increased stability — particularly noticeable cruising on motorways.

The electronic power-assisted steering provides good feel, and is sharp enough to keep up with the Clubman's chassis. No complaints, either, with the brakes: discs all round; vented at the front. They provide strong retardation and the pedal is nicely progressive — in other words, the Cooper D stops as cleanly as it goes.

Our test car's ride quality was fine, and we'd endorse other reviews that have said it feels better than that of the hatch. A Sports Suspension set-up featuring harder springs, dampers and stiffer anti-roll bars is available as an option, although for most drivers the standard set-up's ride will be firm enough.

Beneath the skin the Clubman is well-equipped with high-tech kit. All models get disc brakes all round, ABS and Electronic Braking Distribution, Dynamic Stability Control including Hill Assist (maintains braking for a brief moment to prevent the car from rolling back after the handbrake is released and the car begins to move uphill), Corner Braking Control, Automatic Stability control + Traction — so no nasty surprises if your enthusiasm runs way with you. Six airbags (front and side driver and front passenger along with curtain head airbags) are also standard, as too are Isofix child seat mounting points on the two outer rear seats and passenger airbag deactivation. The Clubman has much to appeal to fashion-conscious families.

While it may be cheap to run, it's not exactly cheap to buy. If you want AirCon and a few other goodies you'll want to add a Pepper Pack. This costs an additional 1,110 over the Clubman's 15,405 base price but provides a leather steering wheel, velour floor mats, passenger seat height adjustment, a storage compartment pack, flat load floor, front fogs, manual air conditioning, on-board computer, interior lights pack and chrome line exterior. You may find yourself writing out a cheque for 16,515, but you won't be alone — nine out of ten MINI customers specify add-on packages.

Overall, the Clubman offers extra usability that makes it undeniably more practical than the 3-door MINI. It will, for example, easily transport four near-six-foot adults in comfort. At the same time, it really is very close in spirit to the regular MINI and it is just as much fun to drive. And if you want more 'heat' from under the clamshell bonnet, there's always the petrol-powered Cooper and the sizzling Cooper S. If you're tempted by the hottie 'S', just don't expect 70mpg!

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MINI Cooper D Clubman | 15,405
Maximum speed: 120mph | 0-62mph: 10.4 seconds
Overall test MPG: 48mpg | Power: 110bhp | Torque: 177lb ft

CO2 109g/km | VED Band B 35 | Insurance group 8

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------------------------------------------------------- MINI Cooper D Clubman