It isn't the obvious choice for the John Cooper Works treatment but the result might just surprise you. Jonathan Crouch takes a look at a rather rapid MINI Countryman.
Ten Second Review
There is a certain logic in deciding that if you're going to buy a big MINI, then it ought to have a correspondingly big punching engine under its bonnet. The MINI John Cooper Works Countryman packs a 218bhp haymaker, skittling it to 60mph in just 6.7 seconds, helped by that all-wheel drive chassis. It's quite a package.
Indulge me here. You might think this is a monstrous heresy, but I'd like to draw a comparison. Remember the seminal Audi Quattro 20v back in the Eighties? If you do, then you'll recall something of an automotive legend. With four-wheel drive punch for traction in all weathers, a turbocharged engine capable of 217bhp, space inside for five people and the ability to leap to 60mph in less than seven seconds, it was quite the tool. Weird to think that all those qualities that once made the Audi such a supercar slayer are now available in, of all things, a MINI. A MINI that would crush the Quattro when it came to fuel economy, safety and space. True, that's the inevitable price of progress, but it just demonstrates how far we've come in what is still a relatively short space of time. The car in question is the MINI John Cooper Works Countryman. It's not cheap at almost £30,000 but it is extremely talented all rounder. If you can get your brain around a big, powerful and rather pricey MINI, there's a lot to like here.
There's no getting away from the fact that this car is quick. Seriously rapid. It'll smash through 60mph from a standing start in just 6.7 seconds and the ALL4 permanent all-wheel drive distributes power seamlessly between the front and rear axles courtesy of an electromagnetic centre differential. In addition to that, traction is also helped by the fitment of Dynamic Stability Control with Dynamic Traction Control and Electronic Differential Lock Control. In other words, you'll not want for grip, wet or dry. The front end is suspended by fairly conventional MacPherson struts, while the rear features a complex central-arm rear axle adapted specially for the MINI John Cooper Works Countryman. Firmly tuned springs and dampers keep the big body in control, while heftier anti-roll bars and a 10mm drop in ride height respectively help to quell roll and reduce the car's centre of gravity. Power is deployed through a six-speed manual gearbox, top speed is a reassuring 140mph and peak torque is rated at a chunky 280Nm. There's also an overboost facility, kicking in when the engine is under particularly heavy demand, say when you're overtaking, to boost this to 300Nm. Remember that legendary Audi? 220Nm. Wow.
Design and Build
Okay, so it's obviously a MINI, with its round headlamps and wheel-at-each-corner stance, but there's clearly a decent amount of wheelbase and, when parked next to a 1960s original, the Countryman appears a behemoth. Get inside and there's a decent amount of space, the 350-litre boot offering more room than the Clubman estate. It's still a long chalk short of what you'd get in something like a Volkswagen Golf or a Ford Focus, but that's the inevitable price of making a style statement. It does style quite well though. Surprisingly so for those who recall the first examples of these modern Countryman models as frumpy looking things. The JCW version gets an aero body kit, the John Cooper Works logo on the radiator grille and tailgate, front foglamps fitted as standard and a contrast paint finish for the roof and exterior mirror caps. This can be either white, black or a red exclusive to the John Cooper Works models. And it'll probably be hard to resist those optional body stripes in either white, black or red as well. Lightweight 18-inch Twin Spoke light-alloy wheels are fitted as standard, with 19-inch rims available as an option. You can also specify the rear seat of the Countryman as either a three person bench or two separate chairs.
Market and Model
The John Cooper Works Countryman won't give you much change out of £30,000 and anything you do keep from that, you'll probably spend on the endless options list. That kind of money is either a lot for a MINI or not very much for a rapid all-wheel drive sporting car, depending on your viewpoint. We happen to take the latter view and there are plenty of very boring diesel hatchbacks that can approach this sort of sum and not be particularly rewarding to own. As well as the external styling kit and the big wheels, the JCW Countryman includes some quite choice extras indoors too. There's a special John Cooper Works cockpit design, with sports seats, sports steering wheel, interior trim strips in Piano Black, an anthracite-coloured roof liner and dark speedometer and rev counter dials. You also get John Cooper Works door sills and if you want to delve into the options list, there are a whole host of ways to personalise your car, including sports seats with 'Lounge Leather' trim and interior trim strips in 'Chili Red'. Other standard kit includes air conditioning, electric windows, rear parking sensors, roof rails, Bluetooth compatibility and a DAB digital radio with a USB input. Safety-wise, stability control and the usual braking and traction aids are standard, along with six airbags and a tyre pressure monitoring system.
Cost of Ownership
You might remember the original JCW cars as horrendously thirsty things, but the latest generation models use far more fuel efficient engines. The 1.6-litre turbo unit fitted to this Countryman gets almost universal praise and it turns in some very decent fuel economy figures too. For a 218bhp car, the combined fuel consumption of 38.2mpg isn't at all bad. Go for the optional automatic model and that drops to 35.4mpg, but that's still hardly catastrophic. Emissions are rated at 167g/km for the manual and 187g/km for the auto. Remember to factor in the cost of any options when calculating the residual figure. Stick to the basic car and you shouldn't be stung with heavy depreciation. MINI has worked at improving the car's efficiency with a comprehensive raft of measures dubbed MINIMALISM and which include Brake Energy Generation, Auto Start/Stop, Shift Point Display, Electric Power Steering and demand-based ancillaries such as the alternator.
I'm still a firm believer that MINIs should be small. The smaller the better. That said, it would be churlish in the extreme not to recognise the John Cooper Works Countryman as one heck of an achievement. Yes, it's a fairly big car without a lot of room for your bags, but that aside it barely puts a foot wrong. Even those grumbling about the price need to look at it in the context of the amount of capability that buys you. Where else for this sort of money are you going to get a 4WD sporting car this fast backed by BMW-style standards of engineering? The John Cooper Works Countryman is never going to be the obvious answer to any 'which car?' question. It's just too niche a proposal for that. Even so, I have a sneaking suspicion that this car might suit quite a large number of people very well, assuming that they could be persuaded to consider the thing in the first place. It's fast, nicely built, looks good and won't cost a fortune to run. If those don't sound like the ingredients for a very promising car, then I'm not sure what does.