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When the Mini Countryman debuted in the summer of 2010, the response was at least partially mixed with, by my best guess, the hard-core devotees of the brand being less enthusiastic than the newcomers to the scene.
The reasoning: Well, the Countryman is hardly mini in size, is it? To muddy the waters even further, despite all the hype, the Countryman did not possess the go-kart-like handling of the other entries in the modern Mini line. So, to sum up in full, it wasn’t really a Mini at all.
All of which doesn’t mean to say that the Mini Countryman isn’t a worthy entry in the small crossover segment. On the contrary, it’s an entirely worthy entry that offers no small amount of cachet, style and performance. Now, there’s even more momentum behind the Countryman in the form of the upcoming John Cooper Works (JCW) version, which is slated for production a year hence.
When the Countryman was introduced to the international media last year, there was little chance to test out the crossover’s all-wheel-drive system, apart from a very mild forest trail on the outskirts of Hamburg. For the top-secret reveal of the JCW Countryman prototype, a very different kind of experience was on the docket — a full day of winter driving in the heart of the Austrian Alps.
The day began with time in a slightly milder version of the Countryman, in this case a Mini Cooper SD Countryman All4. For this element of the program, we switched off the electronic driver aids and took to a reasonably challenging off-road course complete with snow-covered inclines, frigid water holes and icy ruts. Although the diesel-powered Mini is hardly a powerhouse — 105kW and 305Nm — it proved easily capable of overcoming such obstacles and providing more than a little fun along the way.
The all-wheel-drive system on the Countryman is an on-demand system that automatically redistributes torque as conditions warrant. The system incorporates a centre differential that sends torque to the rear wheels and a rear differential with integrated electro-hydraulic clutch to manage the torque split.
All models in the Mini fleet are based on a front-wheel-drive layout and the crossover variant is no different; thus, under normal traction conditions, 100% of the torque is sent to the front wheels. Up to 50% can then be redirected to the rear wheels in slick conditions, giving the Countryman a fairly predictable attitude in the ice and snow.
And, although the torque is split evenly, the Mini displays a tendency to oversteer when pushed in low-traction conditions. This is due to weight distribution: With 59 per cent of the heft balanced over the front axle of the Countryman, the tail is comparably light and relatively easy to swing out of line. The all-wheel-drive system also employs electronic lock differential control, which applies the brakes to either rear wheel when wheelspin is detected.
The JCW Countryman works with the identical all-wheel-drive system as its lower-powered compatriots, so there’s nothing new to report there. But there are enough changes to warrant some attention from serious driving enthusiasts.
First off, although the engineers shied away from revealing exact figures, we can expect that the JCW Countryman All4 will have enough horsepower and torque to justify the badge. In the other Mini JCW models, the 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine develops 155kW and 260Nm of torque. Insiders suggested that the engine in the Countryman will receive/has received some additional boost to compensate for the vehicle’s added weight.
Without question, during a test drive of the prototype that ran past a number of Tyrolean villages, weight did not seem to be a factor at all. In fact, the JCW Countryman fairly jumped out of the corners and sprinted off effortlessly, the combination of the added power, increased torque and well-sorted all-wheel-drive system making very light work of the snow-covered roads. (Roads, it must be noted, that were giving other vehicles all sorts of trouble.)
The JCW Countryman All4 also benefits from a lowered ride height — 10 mm closer to the ground compared with the Cooper S All4 — thicker anti-roll bars front and back, and the car maker’s sport suspension system as standard equipment. This was no track test, to be sure, but the Mini displayed impeccable road manners and a ride that struck a sweet balance between compliance and road-holding prowess. (No, it’s still not a go-kart.)
In other news, the JCW Countryman All4 also gains larger rear brake discs — 297mm versus the 279mm numbers on the Cooper S — that work well when considered in conjunction with the standard 315 mm Brembo front discs. The roads were too slick to conduct full-on brake tests, but it’s certain that these brakes would easily overpower the grip available on all but the driest road surfaces.
In closing, the 2013 Mini JCW Countryman All4 proved to be a confidence-inspiring ride, even at speeds that approached the upper limit of common sense under such wintry conditions. Word to the wise, though: Keep this crossover pegged at just under 140km/h because, at that point, the all-wheel-drive system automatically sends all the torque to the front wheels exclusively.
While I’m an unabashed fan of the Mini line — to my mind, still the best-handling compact car in the business — the Countryman has always left me feeling a bit cold due to the reasons noted at the start. It’s funny how driving this higher-performing prototype in a colder climate has warmed me to the idea of an un-Mini-like crossover.
Pricing for the 2013 Mini JCW Countryman has yet to be revealed, but it's not going to cheap.
JCW models are typically the flagship variants for every Mini line, and the most expensive Countryman - the SD All4 already - costs $54,450 ($60,890 with the Chilli pack).