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Driven: MINI John Cooper Works Countryman. Image by Matt Robinson.

Driven: MINI John Cooper Works Countryman
Trying to balance performance and practicality, the JCW Countryman feels a little confused.

   



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MINI John Cooper Works Countryman

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5

Good points: Looks, practicality, interior, strong drivetrain

Not so good: Expensive, JCW's performance and handling blunted by Countryman's extra weight

Key Facts

Model tested: MINI John Cooper Works Countryman
Price: Countryman range starts from 23,035; JCW Countryman from 30,875
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: all-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Body style: five-door crossover
CO2 emissions: 169/km (VED 500 first 12 months, then 140 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 38.2mpg
Top speed: 145mph
0-62mph: 6.5 seconds
Power: 231hp at 5,000- to 6,000rpm
Torque: 350Nm at 1,450- to 4,500rpm

Our view:

Over the years, we've cultivated a bit of a love-hate relationship with the MINI brand. OK, hate is perhaps a bit strong. But there's just something about all the enforced quirky Britishness that surrounds the marque, something about all the Tommy Tryhard interior gimmicks - graphical MINIs thinking of rockets and go-karts when you select 'Sport' mode with the rotary collar at the base of the gearlever, or a dot-matrix MINI winking its headlamp at you coquettishly from the instrument cluster as you get in - that sometimes (and just sometimes) gets right on our goat.

It doesn't mean we don't admire MINI hugely, though, not least for the revolution the company kickstarted in terms of customer individualisation. All the graphics packs and contrast roofs and different interior trims available on that original 2001 car were a work of genius. So much so that every other manufacturer out there has had to follow suit and get similarly funky, trendy machines out there in order to compete with the Oxford-based showroom juggernaut.

We also like MINI because the company, still under BMW's umbrella, has shown time and again that it can knock out a bloody excellent performance car with a scintillating chassis. And the peak of this type - if you ignore the rather intense GP limited-edition models of the past, or the current Challenge track-focused variant - is the John Cooper Works, or JCW. Ever since the JCW badging first appeared on the original supercharged MINI in 2002, the formula has been simple: take whatever the contemporary version of Cooper S is at that point, and make it - in the inimitable words of Daft Punk - harder, better, faster, stronger.

So much so that we are now at a point where the output from the current JCW's 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine is a healthy 231hp, a figure that used to be possessed by the 3.0-litre straight-six E46 BMW 330i. And, in a three-door MINI hatchback, the results are epic performance, superb noises and the sort of vivacious handling that the marque has come to be known for in just 16 short years.

However, the JCW name is no longer just reserved for hatchbacks, finding its way onto the back of the MINI Convertible, the MINI Clubman and the company's crossover, the Countryman. This is now the physically biggest MINI ever built, replete with ALL4 all-wheel drive and a price tag (30,875) of sufficient heft to match the Countryman's bulky 1,530kg kerbweight. The question is, are we going to love the JCW Countryman, or hat... sorry, not love it so much?

Well, there's a lot we do like. While we wouldn't go so far as to call it attractive, the current generation of Countryman is far easier on the eye than its predecessor and in this strident red, white and black colour scheme, with a whopping set of black alloys wrapped in 225/45R19 tyres, it really does look the business. It manages to appear athletic and not in the least bit paunchy or bloated. Good work, there, MINI design team.

Inside, excluding the minor graphical annoyances we've already listed, the cabin of the JCW is a huge success. It looks and feels shot through with quality in all departments, and for the first time ever (current Clubman excepted) on a modern MINI, we've got an interior that's packaged properly, so four tall adults can sit onboard in comfort. There's also a boot into which you could comfortably stash more than a couple of HB pencils, which is usually the MINI norm. So as a family-derived crossover, this should work fine.

There's also a lot to like about the way the JCW Countryman drives, because it's deeply impressive for a tall, four-wheel-drive machine like this. There's a lack of notable understeer at most sane road speeds, the steering feels wonderfully positive and precise, the body control is first rate and yet there's not an overly crashy, uncomfortable ride as a pay-off. The engine feels as muscular as you'd expect, while the exhausts do the burbling and cracking and popping thing that is befitting of a JCW. Trail it off on the throttle for cruising and it feels massively grown-up and hushed, which makes it far better on the motorway than many a fast MINI that has gone before.

The problem is, if you've sampled a JCW hatchback with this same engine, you'll know just what a compromise you are making by opting for the Countryman instead. Sure, it's more spacious inside, but if you're buying a MINI for interior space first and foremost, we might politely suggest you are doing the car purchasing thing all wrong. For once, we're going to advocate sacrificing rear seat space and sticking with the three-door version of the 231hp MINI, because it is much livelier to drive than the Countryman, it's much better on fuel and it's a good seven grand cheaper.

OK, we can perhaps temper those first two points by admitting this JCW Countryman sent to us was very young, as press demonstrators go. It had covered less than 600 miles when it rolled onto our driveway, so the engine is probably tight; that might explain the slightly blunt feeling of the performance, and go some way to mitigating a fuel return of 35.9mpg across 555 miles (yep, we doubled its overall mileage... ahem!), most of which were conducted on a motorway. So maybe it will get quicker and a little less thirsty as the 2.0-litre motor loosens up.

But we can't legislate for the 31,000 asking price, and that's without options. If you want a Countryman, you'll be better off with a Cooper D model, which will drive almost every bit as well as the JCW while giving back a far better economy figure - it also kicks off at 25,000, which is a much more palatable figure whether you buy cars on PCP or not. Conversely, if you want the sheer thrill of owning and driving a JCW, the hatchback is a much better proposition; sharper, hungrier, more exciting. The Countryman simply never lights your metaphorical fire in the same way, good though it undoubtedly is.

It's a shame, because in our complicated personal history with MINI, this JCW Countryman is a long way from being the most annoying model from the company we've ever driven. But we think it's a little bit confused about what it wants to be, which means we can't give it a higher overall rating. Even though we really quite like it. Odd, eh?

Alternatives:

Nissan Juke Nismo RS: The Juke is starting to show its age and the rock-hard ride of the Nismo won't be to all tastes, but the Nissan feels a livelier performer than the weighty MINI.

Kia Soul Sport: Bizarre decision to drop the Cee'd GT's engine into the boxy Soul crossover, without doing a lot else to the chassis. It's loveable, if flawed - but usefully cheaper than the Countryman.

SEAT Leon ST Cupra 300 4Drive: If you want a more traditional performance estate, the four-wheel drive SEAT is a good bet, although its interior is nothing like as snazzy as the MINI's cabin.


Matt Robinson - 21 Aug 2017



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2017 MINI Countryman JCW drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 MINI Countryman JCW drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 MINI Countryman JCW drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 MINI Countryman JCW drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 MINI Countryman JCW drive. Image by Matt Robinson.

2017 MINI Countryman JCW drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 MINI Countryman JCW drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 MINI Countryman JCW drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 MINI Countryman JCW drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 MINI Countryman JCW drive. Image by Matt Robinson.








 

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