The new Mini Clubman is the biggest Mini ever. But can such a classically small car be turned into a family runabout that could conceivably be purchased instead of a VW Golf?

In this review we aim to find out, by putting the Clubman through the ultimate test of a family car: a holiday. We collected our review Mini from San Sebastian in Spain, threw all our clobber on board, then made our way back to the UK via France over three days. When we got home, just for good measure, we moved house, the Mini being our supplementary helper.

Once relocated we did all the day-to-day duties that a family car needs to perform for yet another a week, just to really put the car through its paces. And it's a car we're familiar with: our earlier 2008 Clubman Cooper S is regularly pressed into service as the nursery-run or tip wagon, but as a family car it's actually not ideal.

The new-generation Clubman changes that. It's more of an estate car inside than its hatch profile suggests, which pays dividends. It has a total of six doors now too, so while the rear barn doors stay — for access to that all-important Ford-Focus-sized boot — on the side of the car you get two normal opening doors, rather than one per side.

We've already driven the Mini Clubman Cooper D in the UK. But Minis have always been about fizzing, petrol powered engines — so for this review we went for a Cooper S petrol, complete with the automatic 8-speed gearbox. Here's how it shaped up and why it's a notable improvement on the last generation model.

Pocket-lintMini Clubman Cooper S - 3 copy

In the hip environs of San Sebastian the Clubman cuts an unusual dash. The Spanish locals out in the early hours are definitely giving the Clubman a second glance, although this could be because we've illegally parked it in the pedestrianised zone to take pictures. Are they impressed? It's hard to tell, and our Spanish isn't up to asking.

We think the Clubman is a curious mix of the good and the odd, design-wise. Its platform suffers from an overly long front and bulbous nose, but that balances out compared to the Mini hatchback thanks to a longer wheelbase.

But it's a colour- and wheel-sensitive design. If you've an eye on looks when speccing it out, be aware it looks under-wheeled on anything below an 18-inch design. Roof colour, mirrors and stripes options need to be chosen carefully too. Personally, we think that the black roof and deep silver grey of our test car suits the design — but the bonnet stripes are overkill, and jar with the Clubman's more mature vibe.

Delivering on its mini-tractor name, the Clubman is a full 9cm wider than the ordinary hatch model, which makes it roomier on the inside but porkier on the outside to quite a surprising degree — something we learned to our cost having kerbed an alloy when getting out of a tight underground car park in France (sorry Mini).

Pocket-lintMini Clubman Cooper S - 35 copy

Inside, that extra space is welcome. Indeed it's in here that the new Clubman's design really comes into its own. Not only is the cabin light, bright and airy — particularly with the (optional) panoramic roof fitted — but two things really stand out: how much more elbow and shoulder room you've got over a regular Mini; and how high quality this car feels.

That second point is heightened if you spec-up the Clubman with the Chili Pack and leather seats. Then almost everything you touch is soft-feel, covered in leather. The Clubman is up to the top-of-the-class with the Audi A3 in this regard.

But it's the attention to detail that impresses. There are backlit panels in the doors, Union Flag leather patterns on the back of the headrests, and little checkered rubber mats in the door pockets. They're little things but add up to make the Clubman feel genuinely special.

And while the design theme is familiar to other Minis, the dash is wider and less cliff-like. The focal point centre-aligned screen pushes through the dash surface, offering best-in-class ergonomics and graphics when specced in its Media XL format — as you'd expect from a system lifted wholesale from £70K BMWs. You control it not via a touchscreen but a control wheel and buttons on the centre tunnel. Again, this is easier to do in the Clubman than in the regular Minis because BMW has raised the controller up off the floor onto the centre tunnel.

And when you're trogging across France with all of a family's kit in tow, the extra space, numerous storage pockets and bins all help make the Clubman an easy car to live with.

Pocket-lintMini Clubman Cooper S - 44 copy

It's always been that combination of personalisable, special design and go-kart like driving feel that's made the Mini appealing. Translating that brand DNA into the bigger Clubman has thankfully maintained plenty of Mini's fun factor.

If you're a keen driver then the Clubman in its Cooper S form won't disappoint. Flick it into Sport mode and there's a distinct shift in character, with the engine note changing and a much more distinct exhaust burble that's augmented by a series of pop-pop-pops if you change down through the gearbox in quick succession when braking.

This Cooper S Clubman feels nicely quick, if not outright fast. Let's just say it's got enough poke to make getaways from French Autoroute Peage tollbooths put a smile on your face. The steering is a little lighter than the last model, but the ride is still taught without being too harsh, while the handling for a front-wheel drive car is impressive.

Mini has managed to keep enough fun factor, then, but has refined too, making long motorway slogs and town traffic easier to deal with. You get an occasional odd resonance in the back of the cabin at speed, but it's still possible to hold very clear phone calls at high speed. The seats also prove to be incredibly comfortable — even on days when you happen to cover 500-miles.

We weren't sold on was the automatic gearbox though. The 8-speed unit sees service in many BMWs, Jaguars, Audis, and so on, and is generally smooth, slick and does what you want. But in the Clubman its first gear is set too low and short (just as the manual is in the Mini Cooper Convertible, as tested here), so no sooner have you set off than the thing's jumping up into second. A brief experience with another manual Clubman suggests that despite the car's more grown-up character, the manual box suits better — it saves you over a grand on the list price too.

Pocket-lintMini Clubman Cooper S - 15 copy

Having crossed France, almost back in the UK, we noted that the Mini had averaged just under 40mpg on our run from Northern Spain. Not bad.

Better still, after a quick pit-stop at Calais, we found room for three boxes of wine to go with our luggage. And enough space to squeeze some Borsain in-between. The under-boot floor proved useful here, and later when moving house, where we made use of the Clubman's cargo net — which is included if you tick the Storage Pack option.

If you've always fancied a Mini but need the space of a small family car, we reckon the Clubman is a truly feasible option; even our massive rear-facing baby seat fitted into the back seat with ease.

After 1,100 miles in the car we'd reached a clear view on what we would and wouldn't specify, were it our actual car. It's worth saying that things can quickly get out of hand in the options stakes — as witnessed by this review car's final price of £32,990 given all its options.

So while you pick your jaw up off the floor, we'll say that the first (and potentially only) option you should tick with any Clubman is the Chili Pack. Granted, it's a whopping £2,785, but nets you the leather interior, parking sensors, LED lights, heated seats, 18-inch alloys, Storage Pack, a centre armrest, keyless entry, climate control and more. It also vastly improves the residual value of the car, so you'll claw some of that price back later, which makes the big price tag easier to swallow.

Given that we're techies, we'd also be tempted to push the boat out for the Media pack (£1,010), bringing XL navigation (widescreen display, real-time traffic info and a touch-sensitive/handwriting recognition pad on the controller), enhanced Bluetooth (music streaming and multiple phone connections) and connected services. You can bump up from this to the Tech Pack for another £1,000 to get a rear-view camera, Haman-Kardon sound system and a head-up display (HUD).

But despite the above being in our test car, we weren't convinced we needed them. The HUD, for example, isn't a true "reflect in the windscreen" job, but projects on a small secondary screen which doesn't work as well in your eyeline.

Pocket-lintMini Clubman Cooper S - 24 copy

Other things we'd do without? The panoramic roof, variable-rate dampers, Driver Assistance Pack, bonnet stripes, metallic paint and the sport automatic gearbox — all big culprits in pushing up the list price. One cheapish option we think makes the Clubman more useable is the Storage Pack, which gets you extra cubbies, nets and hooks in the boot and cabin.

Oh, and the lack of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto functionality is a serious black mark against a brand with a definite youthful, modern vibe too.

Ultimately, stick with a manual box, spec Chili Pack and Media Pack and, for £26,670, you've got a car that's a Golf GTi rival, with a whole load more kit than its rival.

Verdict

Over long road trips you tend to either bond with cars or grow to hate them as their small irks wear you down, mentally and physically. We were worried that the Clubman might fall into the latter camp, because for all the last-generation model’s fun factor, that Clubman was a compromised package (we've owned it for time, so know all too well).

But this new-generation Clubman wormed its way into our affections quickly. Mini has tiptoed a very clever line by keeping lots of the stuff that makes a Mini a Mini, some unusual bits like the Clubman’s rear barn doors, but then giving the rest of the car a level of polish and space which mean it’s a capable family car.

As specced here, it is pricey though. But even without thousands of pounds worth of extras the Clubman is a fine cabin to sit in and comes with kit that is non-standard in rivals, like a basic navigation system.

Some will take issue with the way it looks, of course, but if you buy into the quirkiness of a Mini and are looking for something different from the norm, the Clubman is well worth a look.

Mini has produced a car that can stands toe-to-toe with the best that the family hatchback market has to offer. It's even a worthy rival to the VW Golf, Audi A3, Ford Focus, et al.