If you are like me and were tasked with the job of teaching your kids to drive, you will know that the hardest thing about getting a licence is the reverse park and the hill start. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t got a clue about going round corners, correct braking techniques or travelling at speed on a highway in traffic, so long as you nail those tricky slow-speed manoeuvres.
These days, of course, even those simple skills are redundant given that the vast majority of vehicles only have two pedals and a lot of new cars park themselves. And let’s face it, driving can be so distracting when you are trying to LOL with your BFF or update your social media accounts.
We had one of the original ‘new’ Minis at the time I was teaching my daughter to drive. It was about 2003 and the rebirth of the Mini had just occurred. It was a Cooper S in Electric Blue with the supercharged 1.6 and a manual gearbox. The thing just screamed fun except on a steep hill with L-plates attached, at which time it was the cause of much angst and exasperation.
Fortunately, my daughter was an excellent driver and got the hang of operating clutches, handbrakes and accelerators all at the same time, partly because of her time learning in the Mini, partly because we insisted on our kids undertaking an advanced driving course, but mainly because she loves cars and driving as much as I do.
Fast-forward many years and our interest in the Mini brand has just been rekindled with the acquisition of a new JCW Countryman. There were many prospective cars on my shopping list when looking to purchase, ranging from Forester XTs all the way through to the lower end of the Velar and Macan range. I needed a practical vehicle, but I particularly wanted some driving pleasure in the equation this time around.
My previous car came from the VAG stable, and while it was a superb conveyance, it had a few reliability issues that were enough for me to avoid treading that path again.
The choice of the JCW certainly wasn’t an automatic one. I had real concerns about whether it was big enough in the back seat for real people, and more importantly, if it was going to be too ‘focused’ for daily driving. The previous Mini in our lives was a fantastic drive, but it was a little raw and single-minded in its desire to excite, leaving not a lot of room in its personality to comfort and cosset its passengers.
Fortunately, the years that have passed since that original Cooper S have seen the brand mature to a large extent, especially in the Countryman guise, due mainly to the fact that this larger than ever before Mini is now really just a BMW X1 in hipster jeans, or clown shoes, depending on your point of view. More on the looks shortly. This means the Countryman is built on quality underpinnings, is pretty big, and feels grown up in every way.
The JCW badge on the car should mean that performance is the priority, and to a large extent it is. Enjoying 177kW and 350Nm around town is a given, especially when combined with the eight-speed gearbox. To be honest, I would have bought a manual if one had been available, but I didn’t want to wait to have one built, and I’m quite sure the auto is significantly smarter than I am and definitely quicker at swapping cogs. Highway and motorway cruising is relaxed with the excellent cruise control looking after speed-maintenance duties.
The biggest negative of the Mini is that it isn’t a quiet car. The main culprit is wind noise around the A-pillars, and the conversation that the 19-inch run-flats have with coarse-chip tarmac is a loud one. It doesn’t bother me when I am traveling alone because the Harman Kardon sound system is just so good and it comfortably drowns out the background noise, but I recommend test-driving on a freeway before buying just to ensure you and your significant other can live with it. I run the car in Green mode while cruising because the exhaust is toned down in this setting.
I am fortunate enough to live close to a number of very enjoyable roads around the hinterland of northern NSW, and have driven the Mini in what should be its natural environment. Handling is really excellent with light and direct turn-in and more grip than I am capable of properly exploiting. The JCW is a biggish car, but it always feels smaller than you would imagine, and the power is nearly always more than adequate. The only time I wish for more kilowatts is when tight corners unwind uphill, at which time the weight of the car is felt and a bit more grunt is required.
The gearbox is also surprisingly slow when left to its own devices in these circumstances, too, even in Sport mode, but this deficiency is easily overcome with the paddles. Of course, the pleasing get up and go of the Mini would mean nothing without the playful exhaust note that accompanies the use of the throttle. From the snap, crackle and pop on over-run to the cheeky little staccato burp it emits on up-shifts, the soundtrack just adds to the pleasure you get from driving this car. I deliberately leave the sunroof open as often as I can just to let a bit more of the exhaust burble in.
The X1 platform upon which the Countryman is built is a fairly new design, and as such the car feels modern and mature. Tech heads should be impressed with the level of electronic wizardry in use from cordless Apple CarPlay, wireless phone charging, a wide range of driver-determined modes for everything from driving choices to ambient lighting colours to radar cruise and the list goes on. The phone/car connectivity is seamless.
Comfort from the standard heated leather seats is outstanding, and you will be impressed by the space in the back seat for at least two big adults. Three across the back is doable, but not for long trips. There is even a pretty generous boot access via an electric tailgate with several ways of activation, including foot movement under the bumper. A bike fits with the seats folded flat and a large space exists under the floor panel in the rear and is more usable than gimmickry.
When doing my due diligence prior to purchasing the car, I came across a lot of negative feedback about the looks of the Countryman. The feedback had absolutely no influence on my decision to purchase. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all, and frankly I have never considered a Mini of any vintage or size to be a beautiful car. Cheeky – yes. A bit of a TARDIS with the space inside given the exterior dimensions – yes. Quirky, fun and different also come to mind.
The point about the appearance of the JCW is not whether it looks good enough, but whether it looks ‘Mini’ enough, and for me at least it succeeds in that regard in spite of its bulk. It certainly can look a bit awkward from some angles, but most comments about the car out in the wild are very positive.
The other big negative I have read about this vehicle seems to be around the perceived value of a $60K Mini, and again this comes back to personal opinion. I come from an era when there was outrage as the prices of full-sized Fords and Holdens rudely breached the $10K barrier, and I own a small fleet of Kia Picantos that do absolutely everything right with generous inclusions and warranty for $15K, so I get the sentiment regarding the price of the Mini.
You can spin the arguments around the value equation any way that suits your desired outcome, but for me the car is competitive in its pricing with other quality small-to-medium SAVs, and it wins out overwhelmingly for me personally with the fun factor and smiles per miles it gives me every time I drive it.
I can say with a lot of certainty that it feels like a car in this price range should, with excellent performance, quality of materials used in the cabin, safety tech, and its ability to fulfill its role as a fun but practical car.