Crossovers are supposed to be larger, more sensible alternatives to family hatchbacks, but MINI has other plans and has created a high-performance version of its largest car, called the John Cooper Works Countryman. We've had hot hatches; now it's time for the hot crossover.
In the metal
Now into its second generation, the MINI Countryman has evolved into a less awkward looking car, but still one that seems paradoxical to the MINI name. The company's largest vehicle has had its exterior tweaked to fit in with the John Cooper Works image and features such as the all-black roof rails and side sills help to give the illusion of a slightly shrunken car. Bespoke front and rear bumpers introduce larger air intakes and a more performance-styled diffuser respectively, while the car now rides on 18-inch wheels as standard, though the car tested here ran on the larger optional 19-inch rims.
Shod in sticky Pirelli P Zero tyres, the wheels fill the arches better, although it's more to do with the extra inch in diameter than the 2mm increase in front and rear track. Many of the usual John Cooper Works (JCW) styling cues are present and correct, such as the red inner grille surround and JCW badging on the front, wing vents, boot lid and even on the red Brembo brake callipers. You don't need to be an expert on MINI model variants to tell that this one is a little more special than the others.
A similar treatment applies to the interior, which has an impressively high quality to its fit and finish for the segment it occupies. Contrasting red stitching appears on the multifunction steering wheel, gear selector, along the doors' armrests and on the bolstered sports seats. Those Alcantara and leather seats also have red inserts along the sides and offer a good deal of support without feeling like full-on bucket chairs.
Even though the JCW Countryman has more of a performance theme, it has no less space or practicality. There is a total of three ISOFIX points, two in the back and one in the front passenger seat, while head- and knee room in the back are quite generous. The rear seats can slide forward and back up to 13 centimetres in a 60:40 split and can recline. Fold them down in their 40:20:40 split and boot capacity grow from 450 litres to 1,390 litres - the same as in regular Countryman models.
The JCW Countryman shares its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine with the smaller JCW Hatch and JCW Clubman, and in all cases produces 231hp. Even though the Countryman is substantially larger, and heavier to the tune of 335kg than the Hatch, it still manages the sprint to 100km/h in 6.5 seconds. That's only four-tenths of a second slower.
Much of that is to do with the standard fitment of MINI's ALL4 all-wheel-drive transmission. This system primarily drives the front wheels, only diverting power to the rear axle when the grip is lost at the front. It is this all-wheel-drive system, combined with some well-tuned suspension, that allows you to exploit the JCW Countryman's performance fully.
Our test route included some of Majorca's best mountain roads and tight switchbacks, proving a real test of the MINI's handling, acceleration and braking. Turning the rotary drive mode controller at the base of the gear selector around to Sport sharpens up the throttle, opens a butterfly valve in the exhaust and turns up the bass on the car's sound symposer. It's not quite supercar angry, but you definitely know what drive mode you're in.
The engine is eager and revs freely as the automatic transmission holds onto each gear well past 5,000rpm, which is where the peak power output arrives. Whether you choose to pull the steering wheel-mounted paddle or let the car upshift itself, there's an audible crack from the exhaust as the next gear slots into place. Lift off the throttle and you'll giggle to yourself as the exhaust pops and bangs on the overrun, too. This MINI wants you to have fun, and it knows how to do it. But push on harder and you discover that MINI has paid close attention to the setup of this car, as well.
The ride is firm, but never harsh, and the damper rates feel spot on considering the car's mass. Yes, you feel the weight of the car through bends, but there is little in the way of body roll, and even weight transfer under heavy braking seems minimal. Speaking of braking, the four-piston Brembo callipers up front can haul the MINI up in an impressively short distance and even over a prolonged and enthusiastic drive they showed no sign of fading.
The traction levels made possible by the ALL4 system and sticky Pirelli tyres are, for most average users, far beyond what is required in the real world. Still, it's reassuring to know that when you do want to push on, it can do it. One thing the JCW Countryman also does 'well' is consume fuel. Drive it hard over a distance and you'll see consumption figures in the mid-teen litres per hundred kilometres.
Chances are though you won't be driving this at ten-tenths every day, and in more normal traffic situations the MINI performs well. The Mid and Green driving modes provide light steering, a comfortable ride and a start-stop system that is quick to react in traffic. You can have a six-speed manual gearbox, but we prefer the ease provided by the eight-speed auto in this car.
What you get for your money
MINI Ireland has yet to confirm the full model specification, but all models will come with the ALL4 all-wheel-drive system as standard. Other standard features include LED headlamps with cornering function, 18-inch alloy wheels and a Brembo braking system, while inside, the 6.5-inch colour MINI Visual Boost display including satellite navigation with Bluetooth and USB connectivity will also be included. Other standard features are set to include Comfort Access and rear parking sensors, while a head-up display is likely to be offered as an optional extra.
Finding itself in a somewhat unique place in the market, the MINI John Cooper Works Countryman could be seen as a bit of a novelty. It is a refined and hugely capable performance crossover that fills a niche in the market that could be set to grow.