Words by: Adam Allen
The Mini Countryman is not new, recently celebrating its tenth birthday spanning two generations. Since its inception, pretty much every variant has passed through the Carpages Garage from the turbocharged 3-cylinder base model with a manual gearbox to a fully kitted out S-trimmed example and everything in between. The full fat John Cooper Works version- the one fettled by Mini’s in-house performance skunkworks-has eluded us until now. It shares a good amount of hardware with the BMW X2 M35i, a car that we had a blast driving last summer. Would the recipe for fun and shenanigans get lost in translation when applied to Mini’s not-so-mini model? There’s only one way to find out- ask for the keys for an important fact finding mission, because science. And because our Dad jokes game is seriously strong, please see below on how we became ‘Min-lightened’:
Min-lightenment #1: You’ll be driving it around in Sport Mode. Pretty much the entire time.
One of the first thoughts that occurred to us while driving the JCW Countryman was tinged with disappointment. “This thing doesn’t feel like it’s making the horsepower and torque on the spec sheet”, we thought as we pressed the throttle down deeper and were met with a tepid response. Oh sure, if you mat the gas it’ll jump like a scalded cat, but just puttering around it felt like the 2.0 litre turbo four wasn’t fully showing up for duty. Then you flick the toggle switch to summon Sport Mode (leave the ‘Green’ setting alone- trust us) and you-know-what gets real. The car palpably wakes up and feels full of piss and vinegar. The limp-writsted throttle response sharpens up by many factors, and a this-is-more-like-it grin covers your face. There’s a proviso here- you will need to work through the car’s settings to configure what happens when you ask for Sport mode. We found that only specifying the drivetrain to sharpen up was the sweet spot, because if you ask the chassis to stand at high alert it makes the Countryman feel too nervous and the ride becomes too punishing for use on normal, i.e. terrible, roads.
Min-lightenment #2: The ride is definitely firm, but in a welcome change of pace, it won’t beat you up.
Here are some words that have never been associated with anything wearing a Mini badge: Soft. Gentle. Soothing. As we all know, Mini’s have always resided on the stiff side of the spectrum and when you throw in big wheels and low profile performance rubber, you are effectively piloting a jackhammer on wheels which isn’t exactly kind to your fleshy bits. We have noted in the past that because every nut and bolt feels cinched tight enough to maximum tolerance that the plastic pieces inside tend to develop squeaks and rattles thanks to the unyielding suspension tuning. Our JCW exhibited ride characteristics that could only be described as, well…firm. But don’t think it’s more of the same, because this time the engineers have blessed the suspenders with enough compliancy to be usable everywhere outside a racetrack. Plus, the interior was completely absent of any unpalatable noises and we drove several kilometers in silence straining to hear anything but came up short. If you don’t ask for the chassis to be on high alert via the Sport Mode menu, we think you’ll be impressed with the compromise the engineers have managed to achieve.
Min-lightenment #3: The Countryman JCW is legitimately excellent and quietly asserts itself as one of the best hot hatches you can buy.
The hot hatch label seems best applied to the Mini Cooper lineup, but it’s malleable enough to work for the JCW Countryman. And no, we didn’t make an error in stating that the Countryman is, perhaps surprisingly, a hot hatch par excellence. The John Cooper Works guys and gals have worked some dark alchemy through their choice of hardware and lines of code which nets the result of a car that you don’t expect to be so much fun. It took a little while and a healthy number of kilometers under our belt to unearth the goodness that’s in play here. The brakes are monstrous for such a little car and scrub off kinetic energy with authority and strength that never wanes, at least not in street driving. The pedal that controls them is just chock-a-block with linear feel. Shifts come from an Aisin sourced 8-speed automatic and not the ubiquitously wonderful ZF unit but fear not- the same smoothness and assertive shift behavior are yours to enjoy depending on your mood and the paddle shifters respond to commands with an appreciated crispness. Lashed to the excellent gearbox is perhaps the best example of a 2.0 litre turbocharged four-cylinder in existence. The engine gives the Countryman a convincing turn of speed and sounds sensational while doing so- why can’t every four-cylinder BMW/Mini product be powered by this gem of an engine? Even the steering, which has never been a weak point for any Mini, seems more precise and accurate but without losing a smidge of its immediacy and willingness to change the car’s trajectory at a moment’s notice or the fast approaching set of decreasing radius turns on your favorite ribbon of tarmac.
Min-lightenment #4: The JCW Countryman makes for an accomplished all-weather transport module.
Usually, the Sun is shining and the trees are in full bloom when Minis grace the Carpages Garage with their presence but this time around we played host during a week of miserable winter weather- the kind of backdrop travel companies find ideal to get you to buy a last minute all-inclusive getaway somewhere warm. When heading out into February’s misery we noted that our tester came equipped with a good set of winter tires and sent power to all four contact patches thanks the ALL4 all-wheel drive bits, so we knew it would get us wherever we needed to go- we just don’t think it would be such a hoot along the way. All the racy drivetrain and chassis gubbins make an excellent point-and-shoot experience, and we found ourselves turning off stability control to allow for a little more rotation and flashes of oversteer while Mother Nature pelted us with the worse the season has to offer. The heated seats come up to toasty temperatures quickly and the defoggers fore and aft do a commendable job restoring visibility.
Min-lightenment #5: This is the best Mini ever.
A bold statement but hear us out. It’s the most well-rounded model in the Mini portfolio- it is big enough to excel at most tasks other than simply commuting but it’s footprint is such that it never feels ponderously large. From a driving experience perspective it feels the most fully realized and nuanced choice- practical, fun, efficient and an absolute joy to chuck around by the scruff of its neck. There are some issues that keep the JCW Countryman from the top tier of our shopping list: for example, what is car that stickers for $53,000 doing without cooled seats, a heated steering wheel and powered seats? The interior design ethos is running out steam for us and we could do without some of the cutesy touches like the changing ambient lighting and the infotainment binnacle which could use a bigger screen. But for those of you who think they know the Mini brand well, and cast ambivalent glances towards S-trimmed models, you really need to book a test drive with a JCW Countryman; min-lightenment is within your grasp.
2020 Mini JCW Countryman ALL4– Specifications
- Price as tested: $53,530
- Body Type: 4-door, 5 passenger CUV
- Powertrain Layout: Front engine/all-wheel drive
- Engine: 2.0-litre inline 4, DOHC, 16 valves
- Horsepower: 301 @ 6,250 rpm
- Torque (lb-ft.): 331 @ 1,750 rpm
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Curb weight: 1,695 kg (3,745 lbs)
- Observed Fuel consumption: 10.5L/100km (22 mpg)