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First drive: MINI Countryman John Cooper Works ALL4. Image by MINI.

First drive: MINI Countryman John Cooper Works ALL4
The hallowed JCW badge makes its comeback, complete with snazzy new graphics, on the latest Countryman but is it worth the effort and expense?

   



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MINI Countryman John Cooper Works ALL4

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5

The widespread electrification of MINI is now spreading from just the regular three-door Hatch model to all the products in the company's range, and the first to benefit is the Countryman crossover. However, that doesn't mean petrol is dead for the MINI SUV - not yet, anyway - and so the John Cooper Works ALL4, otherwise known as the 'JCW', is back for another outing as the flagship of the Countryman's internal-combustion-engine range. The question is, should you bother with nasties coming out of the tailpipe of your 300hp MINI family chariot, or should you just stick with the 313hp Countryman SE electric?

Test Car Specifications

Model: 2024 MINI Countryman John Cooper Works ALL4
Price: Countryman range from 29,325, JCW ALL4 from 41,520
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Transmission: seven-speed Steptronic dual-clutch automatic, ALL4 all-wheel drive
Power: 300hp at 5,750-6,500rpm
Torque: 400Nm at 2,000-4,500rpm
Emissions: 177g/km
Economy: 36.2mpg
0-62mph: 5.4 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Boot space: 460-1,450 litres

Styling

Although you know you're looking at the all-new, third-generation model of the Countryman - development code U25, fellow BMW nerds, following on from the R60 of 2010 and the F60 of 2016 - what with its squared-off daylight running lamp signatures at the front and the floating C-pillar for the roof and the rear light clusters which can have one of three designs in them (yes, one is still the Union Jack, but the JCW defaults to twin-L-shaped affairs to line up with the vertical reflectors in its chunky rear bumper), it's not exactly a drastic departure from the appearance of the Countryman Mk2. It's perhaps a bit blockier and it can look a trifle fussy from certain angles, but in the main with its pleasing stance, contrast roof options and usual MINI aesthetic accoutrements, we'd be inclined to say it's a good-looking thing overall. As ever with a JCW, it gains meatier styling touches to bolster its appearance and make it stand out above its stablemates, like 20-inch alloys, an enhanced body kit and quad exhaust pipes, while it also sports the new JCW logo that looks like a stylised flag flapping in the wind - it's an emblem echoed in the 'Windmill' wheel design.

Interior

MINI has gone for the 'chips all-in on the touchscreen' approach for its new models, the Countryman included. That means you get a central 9.4-inch OLED circular infotainment master display, which handles pretty much everything in the car. There is something called the 'Toggle Bar', on which you can select gear, fire up the engine, cycle through the 'Experience Modes' and fiddle with the volume - one small round knob is even the parking brake - but other than that, you'll be referring to the central circle for almost everything. There's not even much in front of the driver, save for the steering wheel and one of those pop-out head-up displays, which never look quite as classy and neatly integrated as the systems that beam info directly onto the windscreen.

Sure, there's smartphone mirroring and voice control and even a digitised dog called Spike which can all work as your 'AI' assistants in managing various functions of the car when you're on the move, but what you make of the touchscreen-dependent ergonomics will depend on how tech-savvy you are; for what it's worth, we didn't think the MINI's interface was too bad, with nice graphics and fast responses, but it's still not as intuitive as simply using some physical switchgear.

Otherwise, the Countryman JCW's cabin is a generally high-quality place to have to spend some time, and we particularly like the natty fabric treatment of the main dash fascia, albeit we have a few reservations regarding a few details. The plastic surrounding the window switches, for instance, is suspiciously cheap to the touch, while - for a supposedly driver-focused model - the JCW's paddle shifts on the wheel are denuded little rounded-off items and nothing like as substantial as they need to be.

Practicality

Without wishing to draw attention to the exterior size of the Countryman Mk3, in the way of that sneering 'MINI is no longer mini any more' attitude which has long since passed its sell-by date anyway, the larger physical dimensions result in the most usable, comfortable cabin in any MINI product since its inception as a marque in the early 21st century. Rear-row seat space is generous enough for tall adults to be comfortable back there, while a 460-litre boot residing under the tailgate is decent reward for picking the Countryman SUV. Fold the 40:20:40 standard-fit split seatbacks down and the cargo area swells to 1,450 litres, a most impressive figure for any crossover of this ilk.

Performance

Sharing much of its underpinnings with some BMW products, namely the X1 and X2 SUVs, the MINI Countryman JCW uses the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine as deployed in those cars, a development of the same unit which saw service in the previous-generation high-performance MINIs. Here, it makes nice, round maximums of 300hp and 400Nm, but if you're laser-focused in on your modern MINI history, you might note that those outputs make it less powerful than the previous Countryman JCW and the related Clubman, which both received the 306hp/450Nm iteration of this powerplant from the previous BMW X2 M35i in 2020.

The reason for these 6hp and 50Nm deficits, which results in a 0-62mph time which is half-a-second slower than the car it replaces (the 2024 JCW manages the benchmark sprint in 5.4 seconds now), is down to the number of gears in its automatic transmission. It might be called Steptronic, just like the old gearbox, but this is a seven-speed dual-clutcher (DCT) this time around, rather than an eight-speed torque-converter slushbox. This means the torque has to be limited, although the DCT was selected for the twin reasons of improved fuel economy and the speed of its shifts.

While pub-boasting stats like 0-62mph times are, as with the top speed of 155mph, utterly irrelevant to 99.99 per cent of drivers, they do speak of a certain blunting of the JCW's speed in more regular road usage. They're only marginal output deficits from the 2.0-litre engine and it's not as if the Countryman has got way heavier this time around, but the new car never feels as insistent and rabid as the older 306hp version. That will only bother you if you've managed to sample both of them, of course, but it's a shame that a more advanced, sharper-looking new car feels like a half-step backwards from the machine it is designed to replace.

It also doesn't help that this is far from the most tuneful four-cylinder turbo engine we've ever heard. There's a kind of satisfying hard-edged growl to it with the car in its sportiest settings, and there's little doubt the lack of turbo lag plus swift-shifting DCT and unimpeachable traction of the ALL4 AWD combine to result in a decently responsive crossover-SUV, when all's said and done. But it never gets the hairs on the back of your neck standing up, even with a bit of muffled thumping and popping from the exhausts mixed into the acoustic, er... batter.

Ride & Handling

This is another area where the new JCW feels like it's not quite operating at the levels the old Mk2 JCW was. While the latter car was never a seminal driving experience in its own right, it still had quite a lot of the handling vivacity and sparkle that befits MINI products. The latest one, though, has followed a path trod by the three-door Cooper S over the years. In that, it has grown up in terms of ride comfort and refinement, at the expense of outright driving thrills.

There's much to commend here, naturally. The steering is good, for instance, direct and weighty, with even a little bit of feel filtering through the slightly-too-fat rim. The JCW has masses and masses of mechanical grip, so you don't get much in the way of understeer, while its firm and controlled damping keeps a good hold of the tall body. You will very quickly be able to get the Countryman JCW into a fast, flowing groove on an interesting road with little effort.

And therein lies the rub. Anyone could elicit this handling performance from it. You don't learn anything new about its dynamic capabilities after driving it with reasonable earnest from mile one. And surely, surely, the use of MINI's most hallowed three letters of JCW means that this car should stand out head and shoulders among its line-up as the driver's choice? Something with some extra reward to testing out the limits of its road-holding?

The pay-off for the kinematics which have been polished to a too-smooth lustre is that the Countryman JCW is an incredibly refined crossover of this size. The vertical abruptness of its adaptive sports damping is occasionally discernible over the worst surfaces, but for the most part it rides with assured aplomb, with very little tyre noise cavitating around in the roomier rear of the MINI. Its bluff windscreen does introduce a bit of bluster around its base at speed, but it's nothing terminal to the overall excellence of the Countryman JCW's rolling refinement. That said, the electric powertrain of the SE model is likely to be an ever better fit for the sophisticated manners of the new Countryman, which further undermines the case for the supposedly focused JCW.

Value

One place where the JCW fights back against the other high-power model in the MINI Countryman range - the twin-motor, 313hp SE electric - is on price. While a 41,520 list price is hardly something we can blithely ignore or hold up as a shining beacon of affordability, the JCW is nevertheless a good 5,660 cheaper than the SE. And it's quicker too, despite its 13hp power disadvantage, because it's a heck of a lot lighter than the EV, which does 0-62mph in 5.6 seconds.

Standard equipment is also generous on the JCW to justify its outlay and positioning as the flagship of the range, including the big alloy wheels, four-piston sports brake callipers in Chili Red, a Harman/Kardon surround sound system, dual-zone climate control, heated seats and steering wheel, adaptive sport suspension, a larger fuel tank (54 litres instead of 45), the head-up display, dynamic cruise control, navigation, a powered tailgate, Comfort Access with mobile phone key, wireless smartphone charging and much more besides.

Verdict

There's more than enough about the MINI Countryman JCW ALL4 to ensure it will be a success, while we should applaud the continuation of a 300hp driver-focused model with petrol power in the MINI canon in 2024. Smart looks, a quality and spacious interior, and accomplished driving manners all add up to a compelling package, especially as it's not the most expensive Countryman. However, it does feel as if the JCW has lost its keener edge in the transition to the Mk3, while there's more than an evens-chance that the electric powertrains will suit this more mature MINI model better than the 2.0-litre turbo in this car. That last nagging doubt is, ultimately, what keeps the John Cooper Works from scoring a higher mark this time around.



Matt Robinson - 20 Feb 2024



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2024 MINI Countryman JCW. Image by MINI.2024 MINI Countryman JCW. Image by MINI.2024 MINI Countryman JCW. Image by MINI.2024 MINI Countryman JCW. Image by MINI.2024 MINI Countryman JCW. Image by MINI.

2024 MINI Countryman JCW. Image by MINI.2024 MINI Countryman JCW. Image by MINI.2024 MINI Countryman JCW. Image by MINI.2024 MINI Countryman JCW. Image by MINI.2024 MINI Countryman JCW. Image by MINI.








 

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