Overall rating: 3/5
Technically the MINI JCW Countryman is quite impressive. It features the most powerful engine currently offered in a MINI, offers four-wheel drive for the first time with the John Cooper Works badge and has bags more room than the other JCW cars. However, it seems to answer a question few people have asked. Perhaps it'll make more sense when conditions are slippery.
In the Metal:
The looks of the Countryman divide opinion even more so than the quirky MINI Clubman, and the JCW model will intensify that as it moves further away from the original 'Mini' concept. Personally, I don't like the black and red finish of the launch cars, but there is a choice of seven exterior hues with the roof and door mirrors optionally red, white or black. Even in the most subtle of finishes it'll be difficult to ignore the beefier body addenda front and rear. The back bumper in particular with its protruding exhaust pipes leaves you in no doubt that you're looking at the fastest Countryman. The new 18-inch alloys fill the arches convincingly too, thanks in part to a 10mm drop in ride height.
Inside, it's the usual sporty JCW theme, with a chunky leather-rimmed steering wheel, decent sports seats and darker instruments. Buyers can choose a two- or three-seat rear layout and it's as flexible as ever with sliding, tilting and folding seats. The 350-litre boot is a usable area and with the rear seats folded there's up to 1,170 litres of luggage space. Other bespoke trim sets the JCW apart, though the shiny plastic bits may not be to everyone's taste.
As the Countryman's engine produces an identical peak power figure to the recently announced MINI JCW GP model we assumed they share the same unit, but it turns out that's not the case. To cope with the extra weight of the bigger car this twin-scroll turbo engine has been tweaked to produce a beefier torque curve. That's thanks in part to the BMW Valvetronic style variable valve management system. On the road there's loads of go and it impressively accelerates to high speeds on the autobahn even without dropping a gear or two in the six-speed manual gearbox. Once you've experienced the better response offered in Sport mode you're unlikely to drive it any other way - and it sounds considerably sportier in this guise too (see below for more on that).
After our drive in Germany we came away without a definitive verdict on the car's dynamics. It's certainly firm, as you'd expect, but there seems to be more compliance in the suspension than the average hot MINI. That's a good thing. It can still take some hanging onto when driven hard down a twisting, bumpy road, but the four-wheel drive system (and perhaps the weight of the Countryman) make it less frenetic. There's certainly no uncouth wheel scrabble as found in the maddest MINI hatchbacks. Neither it is quite as engaging as those though.
If you pile into a corner with your foot planted on the throttle, hoping for the shift in torque to the rear wheels to bring the rear around a little you may be disappointed - certainly on dry roads. This car will still understeer if driven like that. Set the car up before the apex though and you can get on the power earlier than in the front-drive MINIs, as the rear helps balance the attitude. The first you'll know of the limits of adhesion is a little chirrup from the rear tyres as presumably the cornering brake control (CBC) system does its thing. It's fun in an unusual way and undoubtedly quick at covering ground, but we found ourselves pining for the more tied-down feel of a regular MINI. Saying that, we suspect that the JCW Countryman could really come into its own when the road is slippery with rain, mud, salt, snow, etc.
What you get for your Money:
At €47,110, the JCW Countryman is more than €9,000 costlier than the Cooper S version. Its looks and performance set it apart from that model, though this premium is sure to make it a niche model. We struggled to think of any real rivals on the market. The four-wheel drive Volkswagen Golf R and forthcoming Audi S3 Sportback come closest, though they're more expensive again.
The standard specification of the JCW model is good as you'd hope and buyers can even opt for a six-speed automatic gearbox.
For some reason it has never crossed our minds to question why a lot of MINIs have exhausts that burble and pop and crackle on the 'overrun' - i.e. when you take your foot off the throttle. In Sport mode the JCW Countryman does this particularly loudly - so much so that we switched to normal guise when passing through sleepy villages on the test route to avoid attracting even more attention. MINI confirmed our assumptions that the spark timing was retarded in these situations momentarily, allowing a small amount of unburned fuel into the exhaust, where it then combusts, creating the highly evocative noise. We were assured that it requires tiny amounts of fuel so shouldn't have a significant effect on consumption or emissions.
The breadth of the MINI line-up really is quite bewildering. We're not convinced that many MINI fans would have dreamt up a John Cooper Works specification Countryman, but it should appeal to those that love their fast MINI hatchback yet find themselves needing more space. Along with that it marries the JCW performance and look with four-wheel drive, making it more capable more of the time.