Sports cars and SUVs couldn't be more different if they tried. Despite both containing the S-word, the former is designed to appeal to driving enthusiasts, the while the latter seems to be a random assembly of vaguely connected words.
Of course, with the rampant success of the SUV globally it’s inevitable that the two should meet, from twin-turbo V8 BMWs and Porsches down to compact highly-strung Mercedes-AMGs. It is clear that prestige automakers have worked out that driving enthusiasts remain enthusiastic about driving even with practical family needs to meet.
Mini is one such brand with its finger on the pulse. The previous Countryman SUV came with a hotted-up John Cooper Works variants, but unfortunately that generation car really flunked when it came to practicality.
Having realised the error of its ways, Mini’s new Countryman is a bigger car all-round, with real space in the rear, and the JCW treatment has been applied yet again, resulting in a compact family truckster that ought to keep the driving enthusiast of the household happy.
Vehicle Style: Performance small SUV
Price: $57,900 plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 170kW/350Nm 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol | 8sp automatic, 6sp manual
Fuel Economy Claimed: 7.4-7.8 l/100km | Tested: 9.4 l/100km
As the flagship of the Countryman range, the John Cooper Works sits at the head of the five-variant range and includes all- wheel drive as standard, matching the one-step-down Cooper SD Countryman as the only two variants with all-paw grip.
There’s a whole swag of standard JCW improvements too with a more powerful engine (170kW/350Nm), specifically-tuned adaptive suspension, Brembo four-piston brakes and unique aero parts - among other changes - to help justify the $5600 step-up in price compared to the Cooper SD Countryman.
But, hang on, isn’t the Countryman too big to be a Mini? And isn’t an SUV the antithesis of Mini’s go kart-like handling ethos? Mini certainly doesn’t think so, and took TMR to the highways and hills of Broadford, north of Melbourne, do demonstrate the capabilities of its rorty new all-rounder.
- Standard Equipment: Dinamica and leather trim, front sports seats, leather steering wheel, black headliner, dual-zone climate control, sports pedals, keyless entry and start, powered tailgate, LED headlights, multi-colour LED ambient lighting, auto headlights and wipers, 19-inch alloy wheels
- Infotainment: 8.8-inch touchscreen display, AM/FM/DAB+ radio, Aux and USB inputs, Apple CarPlay connectivity, satellite navigation, voice control, 20GB hard drive, centre console touchpad/click wheel controller, Bluetooth connectivity, 12-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio
- Cargo Volume: 450 litres to rear seats, 1390 litres to front seats
As with lesser Countryman models, the JCW version boasts a much longer wheelbase and more interior space compared with its predecessor.
Mini’s not been skimpy with standard features either, including items like keyless entry and start, dual zone climate control, powered tailgate, satellite navigation, digital radio, rain-sensing wipers, and auto LED headlights as standard.
Some of the JCW-specific touches include a punched-leather sports steering wheel, leather and Dinamica (suede-look cloth) trimmed sports front seats, JCW instrumentation and head-up display screens, 19-inch alloy wheels, and as of July production (the initial batch of cars missed out) a larger 8.8-inch touchscreen infotainment system.
Of course, being Mini there’s customisation options aplenty allowing you to mix-and-match roof and mirror colours to contrast the bodywork, change the interior trims, finishes, and seat design, or add a sunroof, heated seats, or a rear picnic seat for the boot lip if you’re so inclined.
Despite being bigger than before, the new Countryman is hardly oversized, and still looks every bit the compact SUV. Now with more interior space it’s possible to add a car seat for the kids without the need to shift front seats, or take a couple of extra passengers along without fielding complaints about squeezy rear seat space.
The story is similar for the boot; at 450 litres there’s workable space back there for prams or camping gear (depending on which stage of life you’re up to), with a deep sub-boot under a false floor, plus plenty of cabin storage nooks.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 2.0-litre twin-scroll turbo petrol, 170kW @6000rpm, 350Nm @1450-4500rpm
- Transmission: Eight speed automatic (tested) or optional six-speed manual, all wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link independent rear, adaptive dampers
- Brakes: Four-piston brembo front calipers with ventilated discs, solid rear discs
- Steering: Electric power steering, 11.4m turning circle
- Towing Capacity: 1800kg braked, 750kg unbraked, 75kg towball download
Mini purists with long memories will recall the giant-killing abilities of tiny hatchbacks prepared by John Cooper himself at the iconic Monte Carlo Rally. Fashionistas with shorter memories might simply align the name to rorty three-door hatches of the modern era.
How does that translate to a high-riding, heavy, five-door SUV? Surprisingly well actually.
The John Cooper Works Countryman is powered by the same engine, transmission, and all-wheel drive systems as the low-riding Clubman JCW with identical 170kW/350Nm outputs from its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine - itself a derivative of the engine used by BMW in its four-cylinder cars.
It’s a purposeful sounding engine, with a sports exhaust system (and a little artificial enhancement) creating a stroppy soundtrack to liven up the driving experience. Australian buyers will get an eight-speed automatic as standard, but a six-speed manual is also available by request.
The JCW engine tune certainly isn’t lacking for urgency, able to blast from 0-100km/h in 6.5 seconds in automatic form, making it fractionally slower than the smaller, lighter JCW hatch but no less entertaining to drive.
Mini’s ALL4 all-wheel drive system is a pre-emptive one, meaning torque gets sent to the rear wheels from takeoff to quell wheelspin and torque steer, while cornering and low-grip conditions also encourage the system to share the torque around.
To demonstrate the system’s prowess, Mini picked out an undulating gravel track, with the added bonus of plenty of rain. Not only did ALL4 keep the Countryman shiny side up, but, as promised, the JCW treatment made the whole experience an involving and engaging hoot.
Sharp steering remains a Mini hallmark, and the firm but not overly-tight suspension keeps all four wheels in close contact with the ground, be it on gravel or tarmac. Body roll is well mitigated, despite the Countryman’s higher centre of gravity compared to the Mini hatch range.
Make no mistake though the JCW countryman isn’t a go-anywhere machine. It offers the security of extra traction, but is still predominantly a road-biased machine with a little extra security on gravel roads or rain-soaked tarmac.
The eight-speed automatic isn’t the fun-sponge you might imagine it to be. It’s perhaps a little docile in day-to-day commuting, but drop the transmission into its sport-shift mode and it delivers downshifts with near telepathic clarity and even creates a little upshift bark like the best dual-clutch autos.
The ride is always on the firm side but not jarring with two modes for the adjustable dampers, mid and sport, the latter of which firms up the ride but is probably more of a gimmick than an absolute necessity in most driving situations.
ANCAP Rating: 5 stars - The Mini Countryman received the maximum five-star ANCAP rating when tested in 2017 using crash data obtained by Euro NCAP. This defines this rating as applicable to Cooper D variants only.
Safety Features: Six airbags (dual front, front seat side, full-length curtain), electronic stability and traction control, antilock brakes with brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution, rear view camera, front and rear park sensors, road sign recognition, speed limiter, front seatbelt pretensioners, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The idea of a one-size-fits-all automobile is something of an urban legend, but in the case of the John Cooper Works Countryman, Mini has successfully infused the sporty driving dynamics of its flagship performance model into the bigger, heavier and far more practical frame of its SUV.
It won’t fit all budgets, but Mini isn’t trying to be mainstream. The brand realises it can continue to ride a wave of exclusivity (and nostalgia) to its benefit, pitting the JCW Countryman against rivals like the Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 or in-house rival, the BMW X1 sDrive 25i (with its identical powertrain).
For uniqueness the Countryman is unmatched, nothing else on the road looks quite like it. The JCW has curious mix of retro and new-age design themes that shoots straight for the heart of fashion conscious buyers, while delivering a more family-friendly package without the soulless drudgery of another box on wheels.
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