The best Mini JCW model is the one starting with ‘C’
This is a car that is going to blow a few minds and offend some people. After all, the Mini Countryman John Cooper Works (JCW) is several controversial things all rolled into one retrotinged package.
First, it is a very large Mini, which upsets people who think Minis should be small. Secondly, it is an SUV, which upsets people who don’t drive SUVs and think no-one else should either.
Lastly, it is a sporty SUV, which upsets me.
It upsets me because I genuinely don’t understand why anyone would want – or need – a sporty SUV, which by its very definition can never be as sporty as the hatch, sedan or even wagon equivalent.
If you want an SUV, you want something roomy, practical and comfortable. If you want sporty, don’t buy an SUV.
That said, while the Countryman almost sidesteps this issue by being more of a larger, taller Clubman wagon, its latest incarnation has drifted closer to being an SUV than previously and it brings a far more cohesive design.
On the inside, it packs a beautifully built interior that is of a high quality throughout.
Even if it is trying too hard with the whole retro-cool thing.
The Countryman JCW shares the same engine as the rest of the Works range: a tweaked version of Mini’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo engine that produces 170kW of power and 350Nm of torque.
As it so happened, I also had access to have the two other members of the local JCW range at the same time as I had the Countryman, and it was a rather interesting comparison.
The JCW hatch is the oldest of the current range and comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission that sends the power from the 2.0-litre engine through the front wheels, although our car had an optional six-speed automatic.
The JCW Clubman not only shares the engine with the others, but also sits on the same platform as the Countryman and shares its AWDsystem and standard eight- speed automatic transmission.
The hatch and Clubman may look identical from the front doors forward, but the Clubman proves to be significantly wider when you see them side-by-side.
In all three cars, the 170kW 2.0-litre engine is an insistent performer, with minimal lag and strong responses across the rev range. It makes a wonderfully belligerent noise under acceleration in Sport mode, and makes all the appropriate bangs and pops on the overrun.
However, when compared to the hatch and Clubman, the extra weight of Countryman does dull its performance, particularly in terms of off-the-line acceleration.
While the hatch might seem to be the obvious choice for the enthusiastic driver, it was in fact compromised by the optional sixspeed automatic transmission fitted to our test car.
While it is a perfectly good transmission, a manual is always better in a hot hatch, while the newer eight-speed auto in the other two is a far superior shifter.
Where the six-speeder baulks downshifts on regular basis, the eight-speeder has a broader spread of ratios to allow more aggressive downshifting into corners. It makes a big difference.
With this in mind, it is the Clubman that represents the sweet spot in the JCW range; in automatic guise, that is.
The extra ratios in the auto, theAWDsystem and the longer wheelbase all add up to a more satisfying experience.
The performance is all but identical to the hatch, while the extra traction in and out of corners bought about by theAWD system is welcome.
The longer wheelbase brings a more controlled, less busy ride than the hatch – even on the Clubman’s larger 19-inch alloys – and the transmission is simply superb.
So where does that leave the Countryman?
Taken on its own, in its segment, the JCW Countryman stands up well to what little opposition it currently has in the small performance SUV arena.
Not as powerful as the likes of the Mercedes GLA 45 AMG, but nowhere near as pricey, its acquits itself well in this weird segment that I don’t understand the need for.
Put up against the rest of the Countryman range it falters somewhat, as it doesn’t really seem to bring much more than a bit more noise, a slight bump in performance and a big jump in price over the Cooper S.
Plus, I have always held that the entry three-cylinder Countryman is the pick of the range, and the JCW hasn’t changed that opinion.
Looked at alongside the other members of the JCW family, again the Countryman appears to add up to less than the sum of its parts.
Not as sharp or as involving as the other two, the Countryman really starts to struggle to make a convincing argument for itself when you throw in the Clubman’s AWDdrivetrain and broadly similar practicality.
That said, if you really need a small performance SUV (I still don’t know why you would), the Countryman JCW provides a lot of fast Mini charm, with an excellent interior, an impressive ride and good dynamic ability.
The Countryman’s asking price of $71,900 is a good chunk of cash, but it does deliver a convincing package for that money.
The Countryman’s biggest problem comes when you start looking at what you could get for that money in rest of the John Cooper Works range (Clubman JCW $68,900, hatch $54,500).
Hatch (right) and Clubman (centre) look similar, but latter is on the same platform as the Countryman (left).