Some vehicles almost defy categorization, and finding direct competitors can be challenging.
Take the Mini Countryman: In everyday guise it’s an ordinary subcompact crossover; but when the speed geeks at Mini’s John Cooper Works performance division get their mitts on it, the least mini Mini model becomes a monster. Is it a hot hatch? A zany sport-ute? A funny-looking but wildly amusing little car? Yes – to all of it.
The all-wheel drive Countryman All4 starts at just over $31,000, while the version you see here tops out at an eye-watering $53,530. Of course, for that money the John Cooper Works model comes with more than double the power of the three-cylinder version, and with nearly $10,000 in options, it’s got lots of extra stuff, too.
But geez, tip-toeing past the $50,000 mark puts it up against a well-optioned BMW X1, or even a no-options BMW X2 M35i – two corporate cousins that share the Countryman’s platform. Even the absolutely bonkers Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 wasn’t far off that price when it was available, and there’s a new one coming soon. And from the hot hatchback standpoint, a comparably equipped, all-wheel-drive Volkswagen Golf R undercuts the JCW Countryman by a good margin.
What does all this mean in the value equation? Well, if you’ve got your heart set on the hopped-up Countryman you’ve got to pay to play. Keep the options in check, however, and there’s not much like it for the money.
The Countryman is the biggest model in the Mini lineup, and while it has plenty of visual cues that make it an unmistakable part of the family, it nevertheless looks like a Mini 5-door that’s been stung by a bee. It’s rather blobby and bulging in spots, and downright awkward from some angles. Making it taller and more slab-sided – and adding a set of roof rails – is supposed to legitimize it as a crossover, but it ends up just looking sort of, well, weird.
In JCW trim, it spawns larger skirts up front and around the sides, and adds a ring of crimson lipstick on its grille that works to better effect on other JCW models than it does here.
Inside, all contemporary Minis are creatively styled. The dash is dominated by a large, lit-up circle that contains a few buttons and a touchscreen for the infotainment system. The speedometer looks as if it’s been stuck on top of the tachometer, slightly offset to the left. The row of toggle switches for the seat heaters, drive mode, and ignition are a neat touch, and there are LED lights throughout the cabin, including some carved into the dash.
User Friendliness: 7/10
Although a bit gimmicky, the little toggle switches are easy to find and operate when driving. Likewise, the small-diameter steering wheel feels good in hand and offers simple buttons for cruise control and infotainment operation. The infotainment system itself is a reskinned BMW unit that offers touchscreen control, as well as a rotary knob controller. The screen is a bit small, but offers crisp graphics and easy-to-decipher menus.
The model tested had almost everything one would expect of a $50,000-plus car, including a panoramic sunroof, head-up display, adaptive cruise control, built-in navigation, and an upgraded stereo system. The fancy leather-and-Dinamica-trimmed seats are heated but not cooled, and, surprisingly, offer no power adjustability – even for the driver’s seat.
The lack of power adjustability of the seats isn’t a big deal unless you swap drivers on a regular basis. What is concerning, though, is the way the adjuster to slide the seat fore and aft sticks out and occasionally digs into the driver’s calf muscles or catches a shoe when climbing into the car. Aside from that, the seats are very firm but impressively supportive, both from a long-haul comfort perspective and in terms of keeping occupants well-contained during hard cornering.
Backseat space is more than expected for a Mini, and there are seat belts for three across. Stuffing a trio of adults back there would be snug for width, but a pair of grown backseat passengers should have ample space.
The JCW Countryman’s ride is very taut. This tester was equipped with the optional $500 adaptive dampers that can electronically take the ride from pretty bouncy to paint-can-shaker at a moment’s notice. The noise in Sport mode is also considerable, but that’s done purposely with plenty of amplified engine noise pumped into the cabin – although like a friend who can belch the national anthem, it’s more amusing than musical. [Who do you hang out with, Jeff? – Ed.]
The big news for the 2020 JCW Countryman is, of course, its new engine. The 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder that’s also found in the BMW X2 M35i and BMW M235i Gran Coupe is a vivacious little mill that spins out 301 hp and 331 lb-ft of torque at only 1,750 rpm. The not – so-spicy Mini Cooper S Countryman’s 2.0L turbo makes do with only 189 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, making the new JCW the most powerful Mini by a long shot.
All that power is directed through BMW’s venerable eight-speed automatic transmission (replete with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters) and out to all four wheels.
There’s a serious amount of gusto from this engine and MINI’s little sport-ute-thing accelerates ferociously away from a standstill, making passing very easy. In Sport mode, the transmission snaps off shifts rapidly and responds well to the paddle shifters, though they can be a little choppy at times. Other drive modes do better to smooth shifts.
Few suspect the funky-looking crossover to be a performance machine, so rocketing away from a stoplight with such gusto certainly catches fellow motorists off guard, especially with the exhaust pipes angrily popping and crackling away.
Driving Feel: 8/10
One of the best things about Minis is how frenetically they go about their business. The steering is lightning quick, making even subtle wheel inputs result in big movements for the car. As large as the JCW Countryman is, it maintains Mini’s trademark friskiness, squirting through traffic and changing directions with wild fun. Yet it’s all very controllable. The handling is solid, and with so little body roll and excellent grip from all four corners, the JCW Countryman can be driven with foolish exuberance, even in the snow, as discovered during testing.
Still, the Mini’s all-wheel drive system is a front-biased setup, and in low-traction scenarios it’s possible to feel the front wheels lose grip before power is redirected toward the rear. Likewise, pulling away from a stop with a heavy boot-full of throttle gets the steering wheel a little squirrely with torque steer. Braking from the JCW Countryman is excellent. The Brembo brakes have fierce initial bite and strong stopping power, which is welcome given how quickly this car gets up to serious speed.
Fuel Economy: 7.5/10
A happy surprise when opting for the powerful JCW engine is a slight improvement in fuel efficiency over the Cooper S version. Rated at 9.0 L/100 km (versus the Cooper S’s 9.1), it’s refreshing to see no penalty for all that extra power. It’s an easily attainable figure, too. Despite driving almost everywhere in Sport mode and churning through winter weather, I still saw an indicated overall average of 8.9 L/100 km for the week.
And while I prefer the styling of the sport-wagon JCW Clubman to the taller Countryman, the Clubman’s smaller fuel tank would limit its range compared to what the bigger Mini provides. It’s also noteworthy that JCW Minis require premium fuel.
The reason people buy extra-sporty sport utility vehicles like the JCW Countryman is presumably to have a modicum of practicality without giving up driving fun. While all subcompact crossovers like this are limited in their cargo-carrying capability, the Countryman does maximize its space by offering a 40/20/40-split folding rear seat. With its five-passenger capacity, decent fuel efficiency, and all-weather traction, the JCW Countryman is fun and sporty and can be used year-round, even as a small family vehicle.
The JCW Countryman’s capable handling, excellent traction, and strong brakes should help it avoid trouble, but MINI also fits it with dynamic stability control, eight airbags, and forward collision mitigation, but no lane-keep or departure warning.
With the implementation of the 301 hp engine, the Mini John Cooper Works Countryman adds surprising performance chops to the brand’s sort-of subcompact crossover. It’s plenty of fun carving up back roads and slicing through traffic, but can be dialled down to comfortable daily-driving duties when necessary. It’s costly though and its styling is an acquired taste suggesting that its X1 and X2 cousins from BMW could be a more appealing alternative to many.
|Engine Cylinders||Turbocharged I4|
|Peak Horsepower||301 hp @ 5,000 rpm|
|Peak Torque||331 lb-ft @ 1,750 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||10.0/7.8/9.0 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||450 / 1,390 L seats down|
|Model Tested||2020 Mini JCW Countryman ALL4|
|Price as Tested||$55,875|
$10,440 – PREMIER+ package, $5,000; JCW Circuit 2Tone RFT, $800; Interior illuminated trim panel, $250; Chili Red paint, $590; Dinamica/leather combination seats, $2,250; Driving Assistant, $1,000; Dynamic Damper Control, $500; Performance Tires, $50