FRANKFURT, Germany—Gotta hand it to Mini’s mettle. The BMW brand’s Stateside invasion seemed complete by 2013, the year it sold 66,502 of its Teutonic-inflected tiny cars to twee-addled Americans. Fuel prices were sky high, the crossover invasion hadn’t yet received its adrenaline boost, and the boys in Munich were bold enough to believe they could muster up enough momentum to sell 100,000 units per year—until of course, the golden carriage became a pumpkin. With SUV-ier offerings crushing the small-car competition, Mini quickly devolved from wee-car novelty to automotive afterthought. In spite of a rabid fanbase with practically Muskian evangelic fervor, Mini sales continued to sag. At last count, sales are holding at a tick over half of that peak figure.
How do you pull a fabled nameplate out of a nosedive? The brand has hinted at entering the crossover game—as they very well should, since virtually every premium brand has done so in order to survive these strange, supersized times. But the key to thriving in a challenging climate also requires sticking to your strengths while expanding your repertoire, a tactic embraced by the 2020 Mini John Cooper Works Clubman which aims for superlatives by offering the most powerful engine in the brand’s 60-year history: a new, 301-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that takes the diminutive six-door hardtop to an electronically limited 155 mph, also making it the fastest Mini ever.
Why is Vmax relevant in this age of oppressively crushing traffic? For starters, we sampled the new model in the verdant countryside outside of Frankfurt, which just happened to be near several wonderfully open stretches of unrestricted autobahn where it was relatively easy to attain maximum velocity. But before we get to the fast stuff, first some basics. Mini’svehicles have swollen in size since the then aptly named brand joined the U.S. market in 2002, and the Clubman—which got longer and more spacious in its last redesign—has interior proportions that have expanded in kind: It is now entirely possible for rear passengers to sit comfortably without having to bend their knees or contort, something that can’t be said for many of its competitive set. Incidentally, that surprise sense of spaciousness is a hallmark that goes back to the classic Minis, whose then remarkable front-drive packaging yielded impressive interior volume.
The Clubman, with its four full passenger doors, is an eminently usable vehicle, with seating for five and twin rear doors that swing open with a spring-loaded boing and a reassuringly solid shut. There’s enough room back there behind the split doors for 12.7 cubic feet of cargo, or 44 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down. Up front are familiar modern Mini hallmarks, including a big analog speedometer ahead of the driver flanked by a smaller tachometer and the obligatory massive central circular multimedia screen. While the dashboard’s physical toggles mimic the more button-intensive setup of earlier-era cars, there is quite a bit of reliance on the touchscreen for many of the system controls, which can be tricky to manage when the car is in motion.
Despite the John Cooper Works’s racy pretensions, the four-cylinder mill fires up relatively innocuously, though tapping a toggle to switch to Sport mode will immediately fill the cabin with more of a hum piped in through the speakers. BMW bore the brunt of criticism for being among the first to introduce the acoustically enhanced feature, but in all fairness, the practice has become commonplace in the industry, especially since tightening noise regulations and decibel-strangling gasoline particulate filters are making it harder than ever to produce sexy mechanical sounds. Incidentally, one engineer anecdotally notes that Euro-spec models reach their peak sound levels within the first half of the rev range, while non-Euro cars sound their rowdiest around 5,500 rpm.
Its off-the-line acceleration feels zippy enough to dart away from stoplights with verve, but momentum and accumulating turbo boost help this Mini seem even speedier as it gains miles per hour. The claimed zero to 62 mph time of 4.7 seconds makes this the quickest factory Mini in history, while the 331 lb-ft of torque and increase of 73 horsepower work with all-wheel drive to minimize wheelspin during hard launches. Power was gained through a bigger turbocharger with more pressure, new injectors and pistons, better cooling and beefier con rods. The new Euro 6d-TEMP– compliant engine ekes out more efficiency while incorporating the gasoline particulate filters for the European market, impressive considering its power gains. Aiding cornering is a mechanical front differential that vectors torque, while the primarily front-drive-focused drivetrain uses an BMW X1 and X2–derived setup with two clutch packs that diverts up to 50 percent of torque to the rear wheels when needed.
Just over 300 horsepower is quite a bit of oomph for such a relatively small car, and the engine’s power band is flexible enough not to draw attention to any torque deficiencies, especially since peak twist is available from 1,750 to 4,500 rpm. However, the transmission tuning is incongruously punchy in Sport mode, with the standard Aisin-sourced automatic gearbox delivering hard-slap cog swaps during aggressive acceleration, especially when triggered by the small (but easy to grab) paddle shifters. Strong launches paired with slight wheel turns can yield incremental torque steer, that yaw-inducing tendency that’s reviled by many but adored by hooligans. Handling is a bit less controversial, with a somewhat mild steering ratio and relatively lengthy wheelbase yielding flat, easy-to-manage entry into corners and predictable dynamics that benefit from the reinforced chassis and retuned suspension. Our test car was equipped with standard fixed dampers, which offered responsive cornering and a firm, but absolutely livable ride. An available adaptive suspension setup will offer variability via adjustable-valve dampers, though the base hardware was well-tuned and tight enough to prove satisfyingly nimble on tight, twisty stretches through the German countryside.
As Mini struggles to find its footing in an increasingly competitive market, pundits are bound to ponder whether the $41,400 John Cooper Works Clubman is potent enough to warrant a second look, especially when blue-chip hot hatches like the $36,300 Honda Civic Type R or $40,129 VW Golf R offer such harmonious performance. What the German-owned British brand may lack in absolute cohesiveness it makes up for in quirky personality and likable style, offering an irreverent take on the ever-so-charming zippy hatchback package. Want to go full bonkers? Wait for the smaller and lighter, limited-production John Cooper Works GP edition, which will send those 301 horses and 331 lb-ft to the front wheels only when a production version debuts in early 2020. Can’t accuse Mini of not trying: When the battle to win the hearts and minds of car buyers is becoming harder than ever, it cranks up its playlist to the max—at least until more Mini crossovers possibly arrive.
2020 Mini Clubman John Cooper Works Specifications
|ON SALE||Late 2019|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 301 hp @6,250 rpm, 331 lb-ft @ 1,750 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE||21/29 mpg (city/hwy est)|
|L x W x H||167.9 x 70.8 x 56.7 in|
|WEIGHT||3,500 lb (est)|
|0–62 MPH||4.7 sec (mfr)|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|