Is the 2017 Mini JCW Countryman the most versatile compact SUV on the market? At first look, it seems as though it could be: it's powerful and fast, it has all-wheel-drive, it should be fun because it's a Mini, and this new-generation model is surprisingly practical.
From a different perspective, it could be the answer to a question no-one asked.
To find out which it is, we sampled the all-new John Cooper Works version of the Mini Countryman this week at its Australian launch. And based on our initial impressions, it will undoubtedly appeal to a broad range of buyers – in fact, it has much more mainstream appeal than ever before. With its aggressive JCW styling, sporty pretensions and its beefed-up turbo petrol powertrain with all-wheel drive, this thing has a few boxes ticked from the outset.
Mini invited us to test the car in a few situations where it should theoretically be right at home, including some twisty back roads and a slippery and bumpy gravel/dirt track. It's an SUV with AWD, after all.
And, despite being a fast Mini, the JCW Countryman feels surprisingly adept at dealing with rougher surfaces, due in large part to the fact it comes with adaptive suspension (dynamic damper control) as standard. There are two modes for the dampers – the softer setting is in use in Green and Mid (normal) modes, with the firmer ride reserved for Sport mode.
It dispenses with potholes and bumps well – I mean, it’s still a Mini, so it’s still on the firm side, and it still rides on fun-flat tyres wrapped around 19-inch wheels, so it’s not superbly plush. But I tell you what, this thing felt pretty much rally-ready in its compliance and body control, not to mention steering accuracy.
The all-wheel-drive system is an on-demand unit, apparently with a level of proactivity that allows it to judge if it needs to feed drive to the rear wheels. At times I wasn’t sure whether the proactive side of things was going to kick in, but sure enough, any slippage underfoot was countered by traction at the back. It was surprisingly grippy in terrible conditions.
The 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine is the equal-most powerful ever fitted to a Mini (it’s also in the JCW Clubman), with 170kW of power and 350Nm of torque. Mini says this thing will jump from 0-100km/h in just 6.5 seconds. Do we doubt that? Not at all.
It is a strong drivetrain, with its best response found with the Sport mode and transmission setting on the eight-speed auto. You can get a six-speed manual if you prefer to do the shifting yourself.
It does all the things a JCW should – the exhaust pops and crackles on the overrun, and it entertains and makes you laugh when you’re pushing it in the bends. And that’s even more the case away from the dirt, where – while hardly like the JCW hatch, which shirt-fronts the road to make you feel like you’re nose-to-nose with the bitumen – the Countryman definitely offers plenty of engagement for the driver. The shifts are rapid-fire, too.
There was some evidence of understeer on the sopping wet tarmac near Broadford in Victoria, but the AWD system helped pull the thing around corners under throttle. And because stopping is at times more important than going, the JCW’s brakes – four-piston Brembo units up front – are superb.
When you’re not pushing it, though, there are some complaints. The road noise is excessive, and there’s plenty of wind noise around the top of the windscreen, too.
Further, the eight-speed automatic, when left to its own devices in Mid mode, is quite active. That isn’t to say that it gets its choices wrong, but because the JCW has some audio accompaniment to its engine note – there is noise piped through the speakers – you hear it jumping around between gears on slight slopes or in traffic, and it can get a bit annoying.
Now, I said earlier the Countryman is considerably more practical than it was, and there’s absolutely no denying that. In fact, it is now easily the most practical option in the premium compact SUV arena, bar the BMW X1, with which it shares its platform.
The boot, which is accessed by way of a hands-free tailgate, is 100 litres larger than the previous-generation Countryman at 450 litres, and the second-row slides fore and aft to allow more boot space, or more leg room, if you need it. The level of space on offer in the second row is amazing – six-foot occupants won’t want for any more head- or legroom. And this time around there are five seats, not just four.
Up front features excellent JCW sports bucket seats, made by Recaro, which hold you in without squeezing your guts out. But perhaps one of the coolest things about the JCW is that if you don’t want those sports seats with fake suede and leather, you can option full leather trim – including beautiful quilted trim – at no cost. That said, the standard interior is sportier, with highlights such as a perforated leather steering wheel with red stitching, JCW doorsills, a JCW gear shifter, JCW instruments and sports pedals, and a dark fabric roof liner.
There are numerous options to choose from, but this version of the Countryman is very well equipped.
The media system is the 8.8-inch Navigation Professional unit with a rotary dial and touchscreen, which is teamed to a 12-speaker Harman/Kardon stereo. It also has the Mini Connected data-driven communication app that allows you to plan trips, keep an eye on the weather, and it'll even warn you if you need to leave sooner to get to your appointment based on traffic.
There's also a head-up display with JCW-specific content (driving speed, navigation info, phone and audio lists, engine revs, gear indicator, shift point).
As for safety, there’s a good array of standard inclusions – remember, this isn’t some boy racer track special… it’s more of a funky conveyance for a busy mother or father! There’s autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control that works from 0-140km/h and has a stop-and-go function, front and rear parking sensors and semi-automated parallel parking system, rear-view camera, and speed limit information.
It also comes standard with LED headlights, but it, like the other JCW models, misses out on fog-lights, but it's worth noting there is no blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, or lane-keeping assistance fitted.
There's a lot to like about the Mini Countryman JCW... except, perhaps, the price.
At $57,900 plus on-road costs, not only is it the most powerful Mini, it's also the most expensive. Is it worth it?
Well, my early opinion, based on about 150km of driving, is that there is no denying this is a fun SUV, one that is a considerably more pragmatic option for buyers who would never have considered a Mini in the past.
Do you need to stretch this far? Perhaps not. A front-drive Cooper S is a good chunk cheaper at $44,300, and arguably puts just as big a smile on your dial...
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