What is it?
If you want a clear indication of how the car industry has evolved in the past 50-odd years, look no further than Mini. Specifically the car we have here, the Mini Countryman JCW.
When the original Mini Cooper S launched in the 1960s it was the epitome of compact performance, and the forerunner to the modern hot hatch. It was pint-sized, agile but had enough performance from 1.0-litre engine to embarrass bigger, more expensive cars.
Fast forward to 2020 and Mini is now a premium brand, a division of German giant BMW and making cars that, while small by modern standards, dwarf the original.
The Countryman is Mini’s entry into the booming SUV market, rivaling the likes of the BMW X1, Audi Q2 and Mercedes-Benz GLA. While it’s available in a range of models, we’re sampling the top-of-the-line JCW version.
Does it have any racing pedigree?
JCW stands for John Cooper Works, which is the brand’s high performance model designation and a tribute to Formula 1 legend John Cooper. For those unfamiliar, Cooper was the constructor of the mid-engine F1 machines that took Sir Jack Brabham to his first two world titles.
But Cooper was involved in more than just F1 and convinced Mini’s then-owners, British Motor Corporation, to let him create the original Mini Cooper S to use in rallies and other competitions. The rest, as they say, is history, with the Mini Cooper S going on to enjoy success on both the special stage and the racetrack – including the 1966 Bathurst 500.
What’s under the bonnet?
While bigger than most hot hatches the Countryman JCW follows the same principles as the rest – with a small, turbocharged engine for motivation. Specifically its a BMW-designed 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol unit that’s also found in the BMW M135i.
It’s one of the great modern hot hatch engines, boasting plenty of punch with 225kW of power and 450Nm of torque, while also feeling refined and flexible across the rev range.
Mini pairs it with an eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive, with mechanical limited-slip differential for maximum traction.
It’s a sweet combination, offering excellent performance right across the spectrum. There’s a kick in the back when you take-off, strong pulling power through the mid-range and it keeps pulling hard all the way to the redline.
It’s not quite as sprightly as a hot hatch, because it’s a compact SUV, but it will still manage to launch from zero to 100km/h in 5.1 seconds, which is rapid for a vehicle of this size.
How does it handle?
Under BMW’s control Mini has always touted its ‘go-kart-like handling’ and while the Countryman has elements of that character, if you want the best-handling Mini JCW then you need to buy the smallest – the three-door hatch, it’s the pick of the bunch thanks to its compact size.
What the Countryman offers is something different, sportiness and space, blending the fun and excitement of a hot hatch with the practicality of a small SUV. Obviously it’s bigger and taller than an ideal performance car should be, so you notice more lean when cornering than you’d ever find in a go-kart. And it obviously feels heavier than a standard JCW Hatch, let alone a go-kart.
It’s still sharp though, with direct and communicative steering combined with a chassis that may be slower to react than some, but it’s predictable. And that makes it enjoyable to drive.
Where would you most like to drive it?
JCW may have its origins on the track, but the Countryman JCW would be more at home on a rally stage – a twisty mountain road (sealed or not) that would allow you to extract the best from its firecracker engine and poised, all-wheel drive chassis.
What’s the interior like?
Modern Mini is as much about style as anything else. The company has nailed the balance between retro and modern design as well as incorporating the latest technology and trends.
The Countryman JCW has those classic Mini design elements, including the huge round centre screen that harks back to the original central speedo but is now home to the infotainment functions.
Every element of the Mini cabin feels well thought out from a design perspective, from the comfortable, leather-lined seats to the old-school switchgear.
The benefit of the Countryman over the rest of the Mini range is the extra space offered in the back seats. There’s genuinely room for four adults in the Countryman, which makes it a good car for road trips with friends or family; although the boot is a relatively small 450-litres.
Is it good value for money?
Priced from $65,990 the Countryman JCW fills a niche in the market and offers good value for those who want luxury, performance and style in a single package.
Ironically the closest competitor is the closely mechanically-related BMW X2 M235i, which starts at $69,900. The Mini looks even more appealing when you look at the Mercedes-AMG GLA35, which offers 225kW/400Nm but starts at $82,935.
Audi has the more potent RSQ3 but that boasts 294kW/480Nm from its five-cylinder turbo and starts at $89,900, which makes the Mini more appealing for those looking to save their dollars.
Would I buy one?
I understand that compact SUVs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, particularly those looking for a performance car. But the Countryman JCW does an impressive job of combining the classic Mini style with modern performance.
2020 Mini Countryman JCW price and specifications
|Price:||From $65,900 plus on-road costs|
|Engine:||2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol|
|Power:||225kW at rpm|
|Torque:||450Nm at rpm|
|Transmission:||8-speed dual-clutch automatic, all-wheel drive|