Mini’s most practical Brit gains the bits to thrill all four passengers, comfortably
By Shawn Molnar
Disclosure: Travel to Austria, accommodations, meals, drinks, test vehicles and a pre-determined driving route were provided to the writer by the automaker.
A plethora of vehicles have been sold based on not-that-I-would-but-that-I-could rationale. And so it’s easy to see why Mini would release a bucking-bronco version of its already giddy Countryman S four-door stable mate. To put it simply: sex and fast cars sell. The vehicle then, surfacing from the MIni design house, is called the Countryman John Cooper Works, lovingly named after the performance tuner who turned the original Mini Cooper into a rally-winning race car.
Though our test car was wrapped in psychedelic camouflage tape – the official launch of the Countryman JCW is still a year away – if you squint hard enough you can sort of see hints of the bulbous, bulging wheel arches and gaping air intakes of Mini’s factory World Rally Championship race car. If the intention is to get people's juices flowing and meld thrilling performance into the metallurgy of a practical four-door hatchback, then modeling the Countryman after its big-brother race car makes perfect sense.
Adding excitement while losing practicality and value, however, would be a recipe for disaster in such a hotly contested premium crossover market. Read on to discover whether Mini nailed the bull’s eye.
Mindful that we were piloting one of the only Countryman JCW prototypes in existence, the slick winter roads of our Alpine locale were received as both a blessing and a caution. The snow and ice covered roads did allow us to thoroughly test the competence of Mini’s “ALL4” all-wheel drive system, but steep drop-offs and icicle laden guard rails served as eye-widening reminders during our mountain road blast to not try for any lap records.
Mini's engineers were hesitant to disclose final horsepower figures, but after a bit of arm bending and Glühwein bribing we were able to extrapolate an approximate horsepower figure of 220 ponies when the Countryman JCW is finally released for sale in the Canadian market in the second half of this year. Along with at least 210 lb-ft of torque, this power output is prodigious from a modest 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine. A turbocharger and elaborate engine gadgetry are responsible for this car’s impressive motivation.
Thanks to decent weight balance and an all-wheel-drive system that can transfer the majority of power to either the front or rear wheels, the Countryman JCW feels playful and well balanced through corners. This car is never intimidating or scary no matter how high you dial up the driving tempo. Even if you will never look out the side windows while drifting through corners like MINI’s WRC race car drivers, it’s exciting and slightly naughty to know that – with a bit of talent and cup-holders full of bravery – you can.
What sets Mini's raciest offering apart from the competition in this sporty utilitarian segment (it would be an insult to call this car an SUV) is the efficiency it delivers whilst turning out such crazed performance. We don’t have official numbers, but expect the 2013 MINI Countryman JCW to deliver near-Countryman S economy numbers, 9.4 L/100 km city and 7.6 highway. Compare that with the 12.0/9.4 mileage offered up by the competitive Subaru WRX hatchback, and you can see the balanced performance value of the Mini.
Interior fit and finish has come a long, long way since BMW purchased the British marque and reinterpreted the Cooper into its modern form. Initial examples (circa 2002) featured cheap plastics, large gaps and enough squeaks and rattles to make most drivers don ear-plugs. Thankfully, Mini has vastly improved the quality of their latest interiors and we found the fit, finish and materials quality of the Countryman JCW to be appropriate for a car at this premium price point - somewhere in the neighbourhood of $45,000 Canadian. Bear in mind that the car we drove was a prototype, so we expect some differences in the final production model; thus we will hold our final judgment until we’ve driven the mass production version.
The ergonomics and comfort of the Countryman JCW and standard Mini fare, with fun and funky buttonry and a firm but less than violent suspension negotiating bumps in the road surface. A Mini, particularly this JCW, are intended for audiences that favour sporty, fun handling over plush comfort. The sport seats felt familiar from fellow JCW cars and offered excellent bolstering and support during our sprightly drive.
The majority of Countryman buyers have set their eyes on this four-door because the Cooper is just too, well… mini. Those shopping for a new Countryman JCW will therefore enjoy standard Countryman utility with a side of excitement when called upon.
The four-seat JCW will offer 436 litres (15.4 cu-ft) of rear cargo space with rear passengers present, and a healthy 1,161 litres (41 cu-ft) with the rear seats folded down. Split-folding rear seats allow for mixed versatility depending on the people and payload.
When it comes to safety, you and your passengers can rely on both active and passive safety features including electronic stability control and advanced airbags.
If you write cheques with your heart, then you may want to distance yourself from Mini’s new Countryman JCW. Of course, if you write cheques with your brain, this car may still hold power over your pocketbook because it delivers the efficiency, practicality and utility to make it a well-rounded daily driver.
When sitting beside its nearest competitors, this Mini has the performance to thrash at Subaru’s WRX hatchback, the efficiency to best Hyundai’s respected Tucson, and enough style and verve to obliterate the Tiguan. If you can swallow that expected steep price tag of 45,000 Canadian dollars. In fact, this Mini's closest competition may come from within the fold: the $31,150 Countryman S model offers plenty of driving excitement at a bargain value next to the JCW.
We will reserve our final judgement until we've driven the production model – stay tuned to Sympatico Autos for a full review mid-2012.