Gentle Monster: Driving the F54 Mini Clubman JCW LCI

I’ll have to admit, there’s going to be bias. Not just because I love everything MIni but also because I have some amazingly fond memories of driving a John Cooper Works Clubman from Frankfurt, Germany, through the Netherlands towards The Hague before we loaded up onto a Ferry to conclude our journey into the UK at the International Mini meet in Bristol.

That mini-adventure gave us not just a taste into a world of the wonderfully eclectic and eccentric Mini fans but also, through our rapid cross-country drive, demonstrated our choice mode of transport’s versatilities and capabilities on a variety of roads tackled with a delightful variety of velocities.

It was in my mind, the most complete Mini ever made. Fun to drive, great to look at, comfortable to thunder across vast swaths of land with, yet was still full of character. 3 years on, it’s time to revisit the Clubman John Cooper Works once again.

For those curious about what a John Cooper Works is to Mini, it is basically what M-Division is to BMW. And along with that, in a simple sense, what the standard 3-door JCW is to an M3/M4, the Clubman JCW is to an M5. More power, more poise, better usability, all with a hint of stealthiness.

That hint of stealthiness, derived from its less flashy “estate” style body might fool the casual observer but for those with a little more than a keen eye, the more aggressively restyled front and rear bumpers, the large big brakes, fancier alloys and numerous hot-rodded aesthetic touches are a dead giveaway that this is not an ordinary Clubman S.

That extraordinariness comes in a big part by way of its powerplant, a 2-litre 4-cylinder Turbocharged heart that pumps out 306 riotous horses and 450Nm of torque.

While these are the exact same power figures as the limited edition John Cooper Works GP, the Clubman JCW is able to pull even harder than that lightweight special thanks to its ALL4 all-wheel-drive system, allowing this “Estate” to hit 100km/h in a rapid 4.9 seconds, 0.3 seconds quicker than the GP. Making this not just one of the most powerful Minis ever made, but also now, officially the quickest from the factory.

That little firecracker of an engine isn’t the only bit of engineering that’ll keep most other road users trailing in your Union-Jack-motif wake because Mini has also gone under the skin of the Clubman to give it the body structure more reinforcement, along with even more rigid axle components, new swivel bearings to alter the front wheel camber, tweaks to the suspension mountings and tuned spring and damper rates. 

Whilst the tuned suspension settings have been done so to give a better ride, the initial response is still on the firm side, though not harshly so and delivers a more mature ride characteristic than any of its 3-door stablemates.

Whilst still communicating the road’s surface really well, the Clubman JCW’s start to smoothen out the further the speedometer swings and it is at these slightly more “enthusiastic” velocities where its magic starts to shine through.

First impressions threading through a series of bends (in the wet no less) is just how much grip there is, with the Clubman JCW steadily pawing down rain-soaked roads with little to no drama, push the throttle in and still it hangs on, eager to play and please. Allowing each successive corner to be enjoyed with an increasing amount of confidence as the Clubman JCW’s exterior dimensions start to slowly shrink around you.

Steering is sharp, direct and quick, a defining trait of all modern Minis, allowing little adjustments to the car’s cornering attitude to be easily effected with simple minute hand movements.

Hustling the Clubman JCW in the dry with sport mode full engaged though truly showed just how much more willing it was to engage with the driver as it held on through numerous long sweeping high-speed bends, tenaciously clawing at the tarmac with its Bridgestone Potenza gloves whilst constantly egging you to push harder on the exits and nudging you to enter the next bend at ever-increasing velocities with a lively soundtrack.

All the while staying balanced and planted with little of the edginess you’d find on its shorter wheel-based JCW sibling. Allowing you to slowly but surely increase your trust in its chassis dynamics and engineering with each joyful turn of the wheel and stab at the throttle.

Pair everything back a notch or two and the Clubman JCW’s more mature side will start to show, allowing itself to settle down into a slightly less spicy long-distance cruiser. Nowhere near 7-Series’ levels of refinement but comfortable enough for the young and young at heart. Especially with the improved levels of space and accessibility over its smaller siblings with 4 proper doors now to assist with ingress and egress.

Once inside, figure-hugging sports seats covered in both leather and Alcantara quickly differentiate the JCW from its “lesser” siblings and do a mighty fine job of holding you in when the need arises while those in the back, now with more room to be swung around in, will have to make do with their seatbelts.

With the way things are going at BMW, this generation of Minis are also most likely the last we will see of the current infotainment layout with a move to a more screen-focussed user experience.

I do hope they keep most of the wonderfully tactile toggle switches and even the rotary climate controls. Clear, concise and easily accessible when on the move, something that on-screen buttons just can’t replicate.

Clear and concise also sums up Mini’s digital speedometer, whilst not entirely a full digital display, the flat graphical treatment of the dials flanked the central screen certainly added to the illusion.

The Clubman’s defining rear barn doors are of course present here, increasing the JCW’s versatility, whilst not quite in the same league as other Estates, does allow for a decent 360-litres of boot space and for those with dogs, the rear barn doors work a treat at being much less stressful for our furry friends than an entire rear hatch closing down. Bonus points for being able to load up small bags (and dogs) with just 1 of the barn doors open too!

So, 3 years on, is the Mini Clubman JCW still as good as I remembered?
No, because after getting to know the Clubman JCW more, I think it has gotten better. Still the most complete Mini ever? Definitely.

The only drawback is the price. Because at current COE levels, the Clubman JCW checks in at a rather sizeable S$286,888. Making it not just the quickest Mini on offer, but also one of the most expensive. Still, if money isn’t a concern, the M5 of the Mini world is the one to have. A gentle monster.

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