‘It’s a Mini with zip and the original’s character’
Certain cars are just in your DNA. Forty-six years ago, in 1971, the year that the UAE was formed, 7,000 kilometres away in south-west England, my parents were undergoing a momentous 12 months of their own. They got married and bought their first car, a turquoise 1963 Austin Mini. By the time they had driven it into the ground and moved on to headier drives (including a Triumph TR4 and GT6), the tiny thing was a rust bucket fit only for scrap. But it made such an impression on them that my father to this day can recall the car’s registration. You never forget your first time.
The pumped-up version that is today’s Mini is a wildly different proposition, and in its latest Clubman incarnation, it’s even a little larger than the previous model year. But it still retains a heartful of the same loveable charm that made my parents count up their newly minted pennies in the early months of British decimalisation.
With the might of BMW behind Mini nowadays, you need to do a little more than scrounge around the back of the sofa for coins: its German paymasters are keen to position Mini as a premium brand, displaying none of the free love than swirled around the original car in its 1960s heyday. Nowadays, even a base Clubman will set you back about Dh140,000.
Our Cooper S edition test car, with John Cooper Works embellishments, certainly takes you back to The Italian Job days, in classic red with white racing stripes. In a more-modern context, the Clubman's trademark barn doors are equal parts cult appeal and practicality – although they spring open rather violently when opened automatically, so be sure not to park too close to the car behind you, unless you perversely enjoy terse exchanges with fellow motorists and visits from Saaed patrols.
Inside, it’s a funky car to be in after dark. The interior is a riot of transmogrifying colours that come alive when you operate certain functions.
You don’t need to thrash the Clubman to enjoy its punchy charms, but when you do, the sensations are accentuated by the fittingly dinky steering wheel and the row of dash-based switches, including the red nuclear-button-esque start-stop knob.
All of which makes the Clubman the best of both worlds for those of us with more to think about than pure driving thrills: it’s a Mini with zip and the original’s character, but also fits in your children and groceries in scaled-down refinement when required, without being inflated beyond its original chromosome layout.
'What ruined me forever about this car, though, is everything about its boot'
Having never driven a Mini Cooper before, I’m surprised how much the experience reminds me of hanging out in a tiny nightclub.
From the green light illuminating my foot on the accelerator, to the festive green and red dotted flourishes on the door to the big round swath of colour-changing light illuminating the circular dash, it all feels quite disco. That’s not even taking into account the nifty but slightly embarrassing hologram logo that shoots out on to the pavement from the door handle.
I have so much fun zipping this car around Abu Dhabi. What stands out is how decidedly solid it feels, like the four wheels are somehow suction-cupped to the road as I change lanes or hug corners.
It rivalled my Volvo for stability, which I found surprising.
The acceleration is so effortless that I have a very hard time sticking to the speed limit, and I’m still fearful that I might have accrued a speeding ticket or two.
Although I still consider Mini Coopers fairly ridiculous-looking cars, this one almost gets a pass due to its larger size: the extra 28 centimetres in length from the regular Cooper and 7.4 centimetres in width make a massive difference – and reasonably roomy back seats.
There are so many touches that I like, including the heads-up display panel that rises from the driver’s dash upon ignition. However, it did incorrectly advise me at one point in the Sheikh Zayed Tunnel, indicating that the speed limit was 80kph rather than the established 60kph.
The car is a little jarring when it reignited after the stop-start technology kicks in while idling, and a few times as that happens I feel it jump forward just a little bit.
It’s negligible, but I remind myself to leave more space from the car in front of me. And I do love the vast sunroof, which extends almost the length of the car.
What ruined me forever about this car, though, is everything about its boot. There’s just something about facing the rear of your car, easily swinging open its spring-loaded double doors and not having to lift groceries or a heavy gym bag out over even the most minimal lip, that feels incredibly easy and care-free.