First Drive: Mini Clubvan

THERE are loads of van-derived cars on the market and they’re linked by the fact that none of them are particularly great looking. But Mini has turned that on its head with the Clubvan, a car-derived van based on the Clubman.

The base car is actually well equipped for van duties with its two side-hinged tailgate doors and a constant roof height from the windscreen backwards. In the Clubvan its rear seats have been ditched in favour of a plastic floor separated from the cabin by a metal mesh screen and a shallow bulkhead that stops loads sliding into the front seats.

The rear windows have been replaced with opaque body-coloured panels, too, creating an expanse that’s just begging to be sign-written. Although as standard it comes with small 15-inch wheels and a relatively blank canvas in terms of kit, the Clubvan can be customised and easily built into the best-looking van you’ll have ever seen.

And that’s the appeal of the Clubvan. People have raised eyebrows and scoffed at its 500kg maximum payload and 860-litre load volume, but they’re missing the point. It’s aimed at businesses like florists, small local bakeries, party planners and others who could benefit from an eye-catching, stylish and thoroughly likeable small van. It makes the sort of first impression that other vans can’t.

Inside it’s a van of two halves. Up front there’s the Mini cabin we know and, for the most part at least, love, and then there’s the near-empty space at the back that makes this an unfamiliar Mini indeed. It’s not entirely empty because you’ll find useful load hooks for cargo netting or bungee cables, allowing you to secure boxes and packages easily enough. There are 12-volt power sockets available as well, which means the Clubvan can carry certain types of refrigerated containers for businesses that could use them.

The rear-hinged ‘suicide door’ still works too, and although it only gives a narrow column of access to the load bay it’s better than nothing for some users.

Moving to the two seats ahead of the wire mesh partition, the Clubvan feels very much like the Clubman – as you’d expect. It feels like a slim car and does prove handy for threading around narrow streets, but there’s a fairly sizeable problem that becomes apparent as soon as you set off. The absence of rearward side windows creates a huge blind spot and there are no extra mirrors to counter it. You’re forced to approach all junctions at a perpendicular angle, because otherwise you can’t see the traffic. Some kind of retro-fit blind spot mirror is a must, really.

Elsewhere in the cabin the huge, easy to read speedometer from other Minis remains, surrounding the optional satellite navigation screen if it’s specified. The system is generally easy to use but the map zooming function is counter-intuitive in that to zoom in you have to turn the controller anti-clockwise, as if unscrewing a screw. Elsewhere are the timeless toggle-style switches, comically small door pockets and some slightly bendy centre console plastics if you give them a prod.

We drove the Cooper D version of the Clubvan, which uses a 111bhp version of the 1.6-litre diesel already seen across the Mini range. It’s a strong, willing performer even with two people and a few dozen kilograms of payload on board. It’s also capable of high fuel economy if used gently with lots of cruising included in the mileage. Realistically the Clubvan won’t be that lucky, but the potential is there. Tall gearing helps, with 70mph bringing up less than 2,000rpm.

An ace up the Clubvan’s suitably tailored sleeve is optional on-board Wi-Fi which gives a fast connection for mobile devices. It means you can set your smartphone up with navigation software and use it – mounted properly and within the law, obviously – to find every delivery address without having to fork out for in-built sat-nav. It also means that a world of information is at your fingertips, giving you access to whatever you need while out on your patch.

Upgrading the 15-inch wheels to 17s certainly does the business in the looks department but the ride starts to become a little too firm for, say, transporting eggs safely. The test route did, however, take in some particularly horrific road surfaces that shouldn’t be an everyday problem for many drivers.

Overall, aside from the issue with the blind spot, the Clubvan does a tremendous job in ways that make other small vans look completely outdated and foolish. Its looks, combined with the availability of on-board Wi-Fi and the typical excellent Mini driving experience put it streets ahead for small, style-conscious businesses.

FACTS AT A GLANCE

Model: Mini Cooper D Clubvan, £14,257.50 on the road (exc VAT).Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel producing 111bhp.Transmission: Six-speed manual gearbox driving the front wheels.Performance: Top speed 122mph, 0-62mph in 10.2 seconds.Fuel economy: 72.4mpg.CO2 rating: 103g/km.

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