Hatch? Wagon? Either way, Mini's Clubman is like a breath of fresh air.

Some cars, at first glance, make no sense. The Mini Clubman is one of those cars. It's essentially a slightly larger, slightly more practical version of the standard Mini, with a couple of delivery van-style barn doors at the rear.

You could call it a mini wagon, or a six-door stretched hatchback. No wonder the ad slogan says go with your gut — you're unlikely to buy one for sensible reasons.

It's expensive, too. Unlike its humble 1960s predecessor, which had a delivery van version, this Clubman is aimed at the well-heeled weekend warrior. It's got plenty of poke, handles like a go-kart and has a funky retro interior that's more sports car than sedate hatchback.

But at a time when we're being assaulted by a wave of mini-SUVs that, despite outward appearances are just as impractical as the Clubman, the Mini begins to make some sense.

Our test car oozed character from every panel

Design

Whatever criticisms you might want to level at the modern Mini, you can't accuse it of being bland. Our test car oozed character from every panel, from the two-tone black and British Racing Green paint scheme to the black stripes and bonnet scoop.

The cabin is equally stylish and sporty. The leather sports seats have ample bolstering for those twisty back roads, while our optional sports steering wheel had go-fast red stitching. The new model isn't as slavishly retro as the previous one and the centre screen is hi-tech with legible, modern-looking graphics.

The mood lighting, which illuminates the floor and the backs of the door handles, can change from blues and greens to reds and oranges at the flick of a toggle switch. On the topic of toggle switches, they are everywhere, even down to the ignition switch that glows red when you turn the car on.

Unfortunately, a lot of our press car's character came at a cost: the paint, the stripes, the wheels, the seats, the steering wheel, roof lining … the list goes on. Options pushed the price of our Mini out to an eye-watering $52,850 plus on-roads.

The cabin is roomier and more practical than you'd expect from a Mini. Rear legroom is adequate for the size of car and the load area is about the same as a Corolla or Mazda hatch, with a neat false floor for storing valuables out of sight. Storage cubby holes are adequate if not overly generous.

About town

The good news about this Clubman is that it won't rattle your fillings out over pockmarked city streets. The ride is firm without crashing too much over potholes. We drove it after a BMW X1 and found it a comfier setup.

It's an engaging driving experience, helped by an exhaust that spits and snarls under braking

The four-cylinder turbo has plenty of pep for getting off the mark as well, with a nice note when you push on. Official consumption is 5.9L/100km and it's relatively achievable if you go easy (the engine shuts down at the lights and there's a "green" mode for frugal driving). Drive it hard, though, and the Mini's consumption quickly climbs into double figures.

On the Cooper S, standard techno trickery for negotiating the city includes reversing camera, parking sensors and autonomous braking, which warns if you're too close to the car in front and slams on the brakes at up to 60km/h.

For the commute, our test car had a $2700 multimedia option with a larger centre screen, head-up display, better satnav, an excellent 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio and digital radio tuner.

On the road

The Mini is fun to drive around town but it's in its element on a winding country road. Flick the switch on the centre console to sport and the throttle response, steering weight and gear shift points become more aggressive.

Choose the optional adaptive dampers and the suspension stiffens for better cornering control.

The steering is precise and the Clubman stays flat and composed, with only the hint of a tug at the steering wheel when accelerating hard out of a corner.

It's an engaging driving experience, helped by a great sounding exhaust that spits and snarls under braking.

Performance

The 2.0-litre (141kW/280Nm) is a beauty, delivering peak torque from a low 1250rpm for great initial pick-up. It remains strong through the rev range, too, spinning happily to the red-line. The eight-speed auto helps performance as well, shifting rapidly and smoothly.

A lot of hot hatches now deliver significantly more power than the Cooper S but you never feel short-changed by the urge at your disposal.