Think “MINI”, and a small, nimble and incredibly fun-to-drive hatchback or convertible comes to mind. But a station wagon? It somehow doesn’t seem to fit. Take one glance at the MINI Cooper Clubman and you’re probably going to loathe the backside. Split-opening doors, wipers that look like antennae and a sore-thumb of an “outline” to surround the doors and lights.

I can’t say I blame you, because I had the same queasy stomach when the Clubman was launched in 2008. “It looks like a bread van”, I remember saying to friends.

But the Clubman is one of those cars that grows on you, and what better way than to take one on a weekend filled with driving on both great and terrible roads in Mpumalanga, ranging from arrow-straight highway to twisty mountain passes and hill climbs? The Clubman is available in three versions: Cooper, Cooper S and Cooper S JCW (the hotter “hot” version), but what was presented to me for my high-altitude photographic expedition was a Cooper Clubman automatic. Yes, an automatic MINI. And it was gold.

They list the colour as “Sparkling Silver”, and it wouldn’t be my choice. Pepper White, Midnight Black, Laser Blue (exclusive to Cooper S Clubman) or that delicious “Hot Chocolate” would be on my short list. This being a MINI, your contrasting colour combinations are endless, being able to specify the colour of your roof and the so-called “C-pillars”. And, of course, your interior colour scheme is whatever your heart desires, with leather, cloth and plastic surface choices to make your eyes water.

The most notable difference between the Clubman and the normal hatchback and convertible MINI Cooper ranges is the extra space. With added legroom and a “suicide door” on the driver’s side, it’s a lot easier for your rear-seat passengers to get in and out. And they won’t have to disfigure their legs to try and get comfortable behind you, if you’re the 6-foot-something driver. Of course, this is still a MINI, so we’re not talking Rolls Royce spaciousness, but it is a big improvement over a normal Cooper hatch, and night-and-day in comparison to the convertible.

Then of course, you get a much larger boot which has two levels and a luggage cover. The deepest level is ideal for valuable items and those things you tend to keep in the boot but don’t use too often, and it gets covered by a firm, foldable floor. Once again, it’s still mini in there but it had no trouble carting around my camera equipment and two bags of clothes over the weekend. To add to the storage options, you can order a “boot box” with your Clubman – a Bob-the-Builder-style carry box for smaller items which you don’t want rolling around all day.

The Cooper Clubman, like all other MINI Cooper models, is powered by an 88kW/160Nm 1.6-litre four-cylinder motor, and boy is it peppy! It revs smoothly, sounds like a MINI should sound and it’ll get you from 0-100km/h in 9.8 seconds, topping out at 201km/h. No, it’s not super-fast and nor can you brag about your speeding fines, but in daily traffic it’s a pleasure, especially with the automatic gearbox, and on the open road, it’s a comfortable cruiser. The 40-litre fuel tank isn’t that big but a claimed average consumption of 6.7 litres per hundred means that you’ll see around 600km between stations. On my way from Joburg to Badplaas, I saw the on-board computer dip as low as 6.7 l/100km and return an average of 7.7, but then I do have a bit of an itchy right foot.

Never in a million years would I have asked for an automatic MINI as the manual gearbox is way too much fun – slick, precise, and the racers out there will love the heel-and-toe aspect when combined with three pedals instead of two. I was in for a surprise though – the 6-speed automatic gearbox is an absolute peach. Super-smooth shifts mean it doesn’t get annoying, although I did find that it tends to hunt for gears a bit too much, especially when you hit the hills.

But, and this is the best part, all you do is push the gear-lever over into “Drive Sport”, tug on one of the two steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles and you’re in manual mode. Now the fun starts! Find your gear, aim for your corner and go for it! It’s like a baby in a pram, on a walk around a mall. Bored, niggly, whining, but only until you dangle one of those revolving mobile things in front of the tyke, and all of a sudden nothing else matters, because now there’s something to play with.

Something else that’s fun to fiddle with is the audio system. I took the Black Eyed Peas’ latest album on the trip, and the Clubman’s ten (yes, ten!) speakers blasted out the sound with seat-vibrating power, so you’re guaranteed to enjoy the sound in a Clubman at all times, whether it’s the engine, your favourite local radio jock or whatever you forgot you had on your iPod – which, incidentally, is fully compatible with the MINI’s entertainment system.

A multifunction steering wheel with audio and cruise control buttons adds to the luxury, as do optional xenon headlights, sport seats and what MINI calls the “Extended Light Package”. This is without a doubt the one feature you just have to order with your clubman – numerous LED lights are dotted around the cabin, bathing it in a cool glow at night, and you can even change the colour.

Other technical items include the all-encompassing trip computer, tyre-pressure sensors, ABS brakes, an optional limited-slip differential (read: track enthusiasts), a mountain of traction control aids, run-flat tyres (there is a space-saver spare), and six airbags.

The MINI Cooper Clubman isn’t cheap, but as I always conclude when it comes to a MINI, it doesn’t matter. You buy a MINI because you want one; because you want to have fun when you drive. At R232 100, the Clubman doesn’t have any real price-based competitors, but for similar money and fun factor you could open your garage door to an Alfa Romeo MiTo 1.4T. But, at the end of the day, a MINI defines “fun”. It’s a niche brand, and in the case of the Clubman, rare as a traffic jam in Port Elizabeth. Fun-to-drive with extra boot space: buy it!

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