The club door on the driver's side has proved controversial

BMW's updated icon of motoring eccentricity may not be the most practical estate car, but it is fun, says John Simister

Price: from £14,235 (Cooper D from £15,400, Cooper S from £17,210)

Engine: 1,598cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 120bhp at 6,000rpm, 118lb ft at 4,250rpm

Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: 125mph, 0-62 in 9.8sec, 51.4mpg official average

CO2: 132g/km

Mini too small? You need a bigger one. But would it still be a Mini? Dimensionally, not really. Mini design chief Gert Hildebrand dismisses this notion, claiming that because it measures under four metres in length, the new Mini Clubman is still a small car. Small, maybe, but not exactly mini. Never mind. It's still clearly a member of the Mini family and that's enough.

The Clubman is a Mini estate car, square of tail, longer in the wheelbase and fitted with van-like, vertically-split rear doors. Just like the original Mini Countryman and Traveller, but without their timber mock-framework. But why "Clubman", when the concept car shown two years ago at the Frankfurt show bore the Countryman name? It turns out that "Countryman" is licensed to someone other than BMW, and "Traveller" was too suggestive of commercial travellers. Hardly the right image.

So Clubman it is, the name used on the curious, square-nosed alternative Mini whose decade-long lifespan was comfortably bracketed by that of the cuddlier original. There was a Clubman estate, too, initially with an unpleasant fake-wood appliqué along its flanks. British Leyland was very keen on saving money back then.

A Mini estate. The problem with the hatchback Mini is there isn't enough room in it. It's hard to see where the space has disappeared to – my daughter's little Peugeot 106 has much more space than a Mini – but the rear legroom is minimal and the boot no better. The Clubman fixes this. Two adults can travel in the back without their knees buried in the back of the front seats, and behind the individually shaped back seats is a properly usable boot. It has a false floor with a hidden space underneath (provided you order your Mini with one of the Pepper or Chili equipment packs), and with the seats folded there's a long, flat load bay level with the rear opening.

Ah yes, the rear opening. See where the hinges are? They're round the corner from the doors, so the entire rear corners of the Clubman open up, leaving the tail lights where they were and a light-shaped hole in each door. This complication is done partly for practicality (it lets the load opening be as wide as possible), partly for elegance and partly for reasons of legislation (the rear lights must remain fully visible with the doors open). The door-catches are electric, and the doors are helped open on gas struts. It's all a long way from the original Minivan.

And now, the Club Door. This has proved controversial, because this abbreviated rear-passenger door (there's only the one) is mounted not on the left side, as you would expect it to be, but on the driver's side.

At this point we can huff and puff and be annoyed that this British-built Mini, evolved from a British automotive institution, has suffered a Germanisation too far at the hands of its BMW creators. But to have mounted it on the left side would have demanded a redesign of the fuel-filler system, besides which, making different versions for left-and right-hand-drive markets would have been too expensive. Ditto fitting rear passenger doors to both sides for all markets.

Anyway, says BMW bullishly, it's great to have the door on the right. You can open it and sling your bag behind the driver's seat, and much of the time when you're loading and unloading rear passengers you're not parked by the kerb anyway. Whatever, the rear-hinged Club Door is a very solid construction, as it needs to be given that it incorporates the latch mounting for the front door and the driver's upper seat-belt anchorage. With the Club Door open, that belt is pulled just far enough away not to trip up those entering the rear seat.

Is the Clubman as cute as a regular Mini? You could hardly call that bluff tail beautiful, its bluffness accentuated by the contrasting colour of its frame. It will always be either black or silver, to choice, but never the same as the main body although it is allowed to match the roof. Beautiful or not, the example I was about to borrow from BMW GB's headquarters was surrounded by fascinated apprentices as I drew near. It was the first new Clubman they had seen.

It was also in fairly typical specification, with the Pepper option pack, 16in wheels and, being a Cooper (there's no 1.4-litre Mini One Clubman) the 1.6-litre, 120bhp, non-turbo engine. Our photographs show a Cooper S, but there's little visual difference apart from the S's fake air-scoop in the bonnet. The nominal price of a Clubman Cooper 1.6 is £14,235, but this car's options took it to £16,435 – again, typical for a new Mini because most of them wear a hefty load of options.

It's longer and heavier than the hatchback, two things which you would expect to chip away at the Mini driving feel in which agility is key. But the suspension is altered to suit, and apart from the fact that the view in the interior mirror has a vertical bar the driving experience is much as normal. There's the usual strong grip, instant "pointability" and firm-but-bearable ride.

I hadn't tried a Mini with this 1.6-litre engine before, although I know it from various Peugeots that also use this BMW-designed unit. It's matched here to a very smooth-shifting six-speed gearbox, all gears of which are needed to stoke the engine into action, upon which it feels quite eager and emits a sporty engine note. Pull from low speeds is lacking, though; it's no surprise, then, that there's no 1.4-litre Mini One Clubman, given that smaller engine's feeble feel and minimal economy advantage over the 1.6.

New for Minis, and now fitted as standard, is a version of BMW's Efficient Dynamics package which dramatically improves fuel economy. It helps the Cooper D diesel version to a CO2 figure of just 109g/km, and even the petrol Cooper manages an impressive 132g/km.

There are two elements. The first is regenerative braking, in which the alternator (which charges the battery) is engaged only when slowing down or braking. So the engine has to work less hard and the act of charging contributes to the braking effect. The second is a stop-start system, which cuts the engine when the Mini is stationary and in neutral provided the engine is warmed up, the battery is properly charged and it's not too cold outside. Pressing the clutch pedal starts it again, instantly and smoothly.

So that's the Clubman, a Mini with more room and more usefulness. The Club Door is a bit of a gimmick but it's also a talking point. Good car? Undoubtedly. Better than a more conventional, five-door, supermini-based estate car that's almost certainly cheaper? Practically, no. But you'll have more fun owning it.

The rivals

Peugeot 207 SW 1.6 VTi, from £12,575

Good looks, lots of space, same engine as Mini. Pleasing to drive, rear shelf access to boot.

Renault Clio Sport Tourer 1.6 VVT, from £12,800 approx

This is a Clio with a longer tail and a racily-raked tailgate. It's a promising mix.

Skoda Fabia estate 1.6, from £11,800 approx

Majors on practicality without looking as wacky as the Roomster. Likely to be excellent value.

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