Taking the long view

发表日期:2007-12-27 摄影器材: 点击数: 投票数:

The Mini Clubman is a spectacular car in theory. But is this long Mini a good longterm strategy?

Generally speaking, we humans keep on getting better at making stuff. That doesn't of course mean old things are automatically less good than new things.

The 'Cornish' pasties you buy at motorway service stations are a travesty beside the ones my actually Cornish grandmother made, but that's not because the human race has forgotten how to do it, it's just that it seems we can't be arsed.

No, I'm talking about inventions. The Mini Clubman shows why it's a poor idea to uninvent the hatchback. Instead of a top-hinged tailgate, you get two doors that open like they used to on the original Mini Traveller. Or, if you're less than about 40 years old, like they do on a white van.

Mini Clubman

Because the law says you have to be able to see the rear lights from behind even when a car's boot is open, the Clubman has its lights fixed to the car, poking through an aperture in each door. Which seems a cute idea in theory. In practice it isn't.

Drive it and a vertical black bar, thick enough to swallow a motorbike, barges through the middle of the rear-view mirror. And when there are two people in the back, as the Clubman's extended wheelbase allows, you can't even peer around the side of it.

'Instead of a top-hinged tailgate, you get two doors that open like they used to on the original Mini Traveller'

Then when you stop and want to get into the boot, you have to open two doors in the correct order. And when they shut you have to remember to reverse that order. The closing action is soggy too, because you aren't slamming them onto a fixed pillar but against each other.

When they're open, it all looks a bit gimcrack. There are big, vulnerable rubber seals around the edges of doors, and around the light clusters you see a load of fixings, wires and hinges.

I'm all for naked engineering when it's finely crafted, but seeing this mess is like seeing the car's underwear. And we're talking about shabby Y-fronts, not silky lingerie.

If they were so obsessed with heritage, I can't see why they didn't do a flip-up glass window and a drop-down metal tailgate. The 1959 Mini had a drop-down boot lid, as did the pick-up and as does the current convertible.

Mini Clubman

Yet all this controversy pales besides the stink that Mini has created for itself over the 'Clubdoor'. This is the extra suicide door behind the right front door. Exactly like the one on a Mazda RX-8, it lets you slip fairly easily into and out of the back. At least if you've remembered to slide the bottom of the front seatbelt out of the way, otherwise you'll exit nose-first.

And in Britain, that exit will be into the path of the traffic, because they've refused to reverse the layout for us. So it's behind the driver. Apparently, it's just too expensive to do opposite body styles, especially because they'd have to move the fuel filler pipe too.

Hmmm. The Mini is an expensive car and they're always boasting how flexible is its production line, which makes this 'too hard' story sound implausible.

But take that excuse away and they field several more in its stead. Here we go: 'You don't necessarily park at the kerbside. Your house might have a drive, or you might be in a car park, and then it doesn't matter.'

And: 'It doesn't matter because both front seats fold and slide, and the front doors are the same size as on the hatch, so you can get out either side without opening the Clubdoor at all - in fact you're getting the Clubdoor for free so why complain about which side it's on?'

Mini Clubman

This last excuse is particularly preposterous. It is in no way free. A Clubman is about £1,200 more than an equivalent Mini hatch. Admittedly it sits on a longer wheelbase and offers more space, but that's still one heck of a premium for an estate.

The extra wheelbase, 80mm of it, all goes into the rear seat legroom, and if 80mm doesn't sound much, it is just enough. A Mini hatch isn't habitable. A Clubman makes it OK for an adult to sit behind an adult driver for a short trip.

'It is a good-looking car. Genuinely unusual and intriguing, especially as it's different from side to side'

You also get a bigger boot, because the rear is so upright and there's some extra rear overhang. I can't say whether this extra bootspace will be enough for you personally, but I suspect that for couples who had a Mini before and have just had a baby, it won't do. Because every modern parent seems to carry more equipment with them than the US Army.

The extra length, and the upright front and rear screens, mean that a Mini Clubman actually has a longer roof than a 5-Series Touring or even a Rolls Phantom. The designers wanted a long straight look to the glass, but then they must have felt there was a danger of going too far and making it look too long. So they broke the length by painting the C-posts in contrasting colour to match the roof.

It is a good-looking car. Genuinely unusual and intriguing, especially as it's different from side to side - on the left the rear side glass is uninterrupted. But even without the Clubdoor or the rear van doors this would be a handsome thing, very different from your usual hatch.

Mini Clubman

I suspect at the moment people are staring at it because, unlike the recent redesign, this is a Mini that is recognisably different from the 2001 version.

Incidentally, I've just had another chat with Mini design director Gert Hildebrand about the absence of change in the Mini hatch when it was renewed last year. He reckons a good car needn't change much. A 911's shape, he points out, has only changed for technical reasons or to cope with new legislation.

He's actually quite outspoken on the subject of car designers who 'build a monument to themselves' by suddenly changing the direction of a successful brand with a new language. 'What's it all for? New Edge, Kinetic Design, Flame S...' He stops himself.

Ah yes, Flame Surfacing, the invention of his boss Chris Bangle. I finish his sentence and Hildebrand smiles and gently nods. 'But Chris and I are friends, have been for years.'

He does seem remarkably free of ego. Most chief designers do want to re-invent every car company they join, but he came into the Mini project after the 2001 car was finished and is happy to acknowledge its creators Frank Stephenson and Geoff Upex. Since he's taken over, he's stayed with their direction because he thinks it's the right one.

Part of the shtick, of course, is that this Clubman is still a Mini to drive. From the driving seat, you're in the same comfy low perch, legs and hands straight ahead, windscreen close. The car envelops itself intimately around you, yet without cramping.

Mini Clubman

Engines are the same, bar the absence of a One. That leaves Cooper, Cooper D and this Cooper S - a 1.6 turbo that's smooth and torquey but maybe a little urbane for a Mini.

The surge is strong enough, but a mite short of fizz and cackle, and the extra 80kg slows the Clubman up a little, adding half a second to the 0-62 run. It comes with the Mini's standard energy-saving devices. The engine switches off when you stop in traffic and starts when you press the clutch, but the headlights, ventilation and stereo keep on uninterrupted so you hardly notice.

'The chassis engineers claim they've managed to avoid compromising agility, but that's inevitably cobblers'

And the alternator charges only when the car's on the over-run, so your electricity is free, while when you accelerate more of the engine's efforts are freed up to do what you ask - motivating the car. The chassis engineers claim they've managed to avoid compromising agility, but that's inevitably cobblers, unless the additional rear section has been cunningly fashioned out of antimatter.

The car has a longer wheelbase and it's heavier, so it doesn't dive into corners so eagerly. The chassis guys tried to compensate for this by re-tuning, but they also had the contradictory aim of making sure the thing wouldn't go all wobbly when the rear end was burdened with extra cargo. So they found in favour of stability.

OK we're talking small matters of degree here. Like they claim, it is still a Mini, just one that spears along a motorway in a straighter line than we're used to, but isn't quite such a corner-hound. The ride is a bit calmer too because the wheels are further apart.

Mini Clubman

Actually, these are trade-offs that lots of people will probably quite like, even if they won't admit it because they fancy themselves as wasps rather than beetles, cheetahs rather than rhinos.

None of this matters. Not the compromise to the driving arrangements. Not the door arrangements that frankly go beyond quirky. This is still what it always was: the most fun you can have in a car of its size. And the most individual, customisable and expensive small car.

The Clubman has a bit of extra space, but not a lot. A Mini is never going to be a spacious car so let's not pretend. I suspect many people will buy it just because they've had a Mini or two and like them but fancy a change. I like it, but only because it's a Mini. It's not my favourite Mini, because it uninvents too much of what makes the three-door so great.




《Taking the long view》


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