Leading motoring journalist Steven Berry, a member of the Northern Group of Motoring Writers, test drives the Mini Countryman John Cooper Works (JCW).
If you’re after a sporty, small-to-medium-sized SUV that also provides 4-wheel-drive then you’re a little spoilt for choice at the moment, with the likes of the Cupra Ateca, the Volkswagen T-Roc R and the Audi SQ2.
However, if you also want a touch of iconic style and individuality then you really should consider the Mini Countryman John Cooper Works (JCW). You’ll probably save a few quid too, compared to those rivals.
Starting from £37,650 OTR the Mini-on-steroids Countryman JCW comes with a 306 bhp, 2-litre petrol engine that provides 450Nm of torque and a top speed limited to 155mph. The 0-60mph dash is over in 5.1 seconds and all this is delivered without drama via an 8-speed automatic gearbox, sports suspension (optional no-cost), a mechanical limited-slip differential and the “ALL4” all-wheel-drive system.
There have been some mild styling tweaks since I drove the car, although only the new “less-grumpy” front grille is actually noticeable. Okay, maybe those Union flag rear lights and some piano-black trim – but that’s about it.
Based on the same platform as the BMW X2 M35i, the Mini also shares the Beemer’s engine, gearbox and all-wheel-drive system but is wrapped up in a more-appealing package that somehow manages to provide more fun for less dosh.
The Countryman is the Mini’s big-brother – the one he calls on when he needs some muscle or is getting bullied by an Audi Q2 and, as such, stretches the idea of a Mini somewhat. But don’t worry, the Countryman still has the Mini DNA both inside and out – it’s just that it has more of it.
Being the brand’s largest 5-door SUV, the Countryman is much more suited to longer jaunts with the family – being wide and high and thus providing elbow and headroom that you just don’t get in other Minis. Think mid-sized hatchback rather than small SUV and you get some idea of the space and practicality of the Mini Countryman.
Boot space is generous too at 450 litres – which trumps the VW T-Roc R – with a whopping 1,390 litres available with the rear seats folded.
It’s up-front, though, where all the “Oohs” and “Aahs” occur with a typically stylish dash and retro-looking toggle-switches that are strangely satisfying to use. Everything feels solid and well put together with just some cheaper plastics appearing lower down in the cabin. The Clubman JCW’s interior feels leagues ahead of the Cupra’s though, and looks more interesting than either the VW or Audi.
Dominating the dash is the 8.8in infotainment screen – with surrounding LED lighting that changes with engine speed – that is clear and sharp and has everything you need including navigation with real-time traffic info and Apple CarPlay.
If you really want the digital cockpit, wireless charging, Amazon Alexa and some extra connected services, you’ll need to splash out an extra £1,300 for the Navigation Plus Pack – but to be honest, the standard cockpit dials are stylish enough and more suited to this retro-led interior.
Front seat adjustment is more than good enough to easily find a good driving position – although you’ll need to spend more again for electric adjustment.
I love the red toggle for the engine start/stop more than I probably should – it’s stupidly satisfying . . .
Is it fun to drive though? An emphatic “yes” is the answer. The auto box is a joy to use and very responsive indeed. It could easily have spoilt the party but, instead, it adds to the experience – as does the steering which is heavier than expected but all the better for it. Manoeuvring in car parks requires a little more effort than you’ll find in most rivals, though.
Steering wheel-mounted shift-paddles are there if you feel the need to get more involved, although I found them a little on the small side and a little awkward in use. That could just be me though . . . I’ve never been a fan.
On twisty A-roads you quickly find the Countryman JCW is no typical sporting Mini – its sheer size and bulk can’t compete with its smaller siblings when it comes to flashing around corners – but it’s not a million miles away either, with just some slight body roll giving the game away.
Understeer appears quicker than you might predict but it’s all very manageable thanks to feelsome steering – and the 4-wheel-drive system.
However, The Countryman JCW does feel quick and the torquey engine can be pushed and pushed without it – or the 8-speed auto gearbox getting flustered. Motorway cruising is a breeze and the Countryman appears to well insulated from road noise.
There are 3 driving modes you can select – with Sport being the only one of any interest and which sharpens throttle response and steering feel. It also gives the exhaust note some ballsiness with a few pops and crackles thrown in on the down-shifts. It’s reason enough to leave it in Sport mode all the time. Adaptive Suspension is available as a £700 option which is also electronically controlled.
With the standard sports suspension fitted to my car, I found the Mini Countryman JCW easy to live with. Sure, larger pot-holes cause a jolt, but nothing to write home about and with the Countryman being (slightly) raised anyway, you’ll find most imperfections are dealt with easily and without fuss.
My week spent with the Mini Countryman John Cooper Works was unremarkable in that the beefed-up Mini proved to be everything I thought it would be: Quick, playful and so stylish I had to look back at it every time I’d parked up. A mighty-fine, muscle mini that stands out from the crowd for all the right reasons.
AT A GLANCE:
Mini Countryman John Cooper Works
OTR Price: £37,650
Engine: 2.0 turbo petrol
Power: 306 bhp
Transmission: 8-speed Automatic
0-62mph: 5.1 secs
Top Speed: 155mph
Combined Economy: 34.4 – 37.2 mpg
C02: 188 – 174g/km