Mini JCW Countryman: Country mouse and city slicker

Hot-rod one day, grocery-getter the next, this new variation on the John Cooper Works Mini appears to be in a class all by itself.

R?DESHEIM, GERMANY?You know you’re doing something right when, throttle floored, you power-shift into second and, from the shotgun seat, you hear a whispered blasphemy.

As I squirt Mini’s latest pocket-rocket around the backroads of the Rhineland, I keep wondering: If I were in the market for the John Cooper Works Countryman, what other vehicles would I comparison-test before I signed the deal?

I come up blank because the Countryman presents itself as all things to all drivers ? a versatile, practical car that is solid fun to drive. I can see it being equally at home in the downtown condo garage of a young-and-eligible urbanite or the suburban driveway of an empty-nester couple with a little fire left in their bellies.

Which is why Mini plans to market it across the board. ?It’s aimed at anyone who’s active,? a company spokesperson says. ?You could have either a surfboard or a pair of skis on the roof ? with the potential to use them both in the same day.?

Or you could take it to the dragstrip and hold your own.

North American specs haven’t yet been finalized but expect to see the JCW Countryman here early next year. We may or may not get the optional six-speed automatic or three-person rear seat ? although the people tripling-up in the back would be very friendly by the time they got out.

Horsepower from the newly developed turbocharged 1.6-litre four-banger should be comfortably over the 200 mark, making it the most powerful production Mini ever.

All this grunt goes through a six-speed manual to an all-wheel-drive that defaults to 100 per cent on the front wheels. But the computer sends the power where it’s needed most, up to 100 per cent on the rear.

Blast off hard enough from a standstill and there’s a twitch of torque-steer. By the time you hit second (stop taking holy names in vain over there!) the computer has caught up, half the power is going through the back wheels and the Countryman is roaring in a straight line to 100 km/h in a blink over seven seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 225 km/h.

At 185 km/h on the autobahn, the car is planted solidly enough that you could take your hands off the wheel. Not that you ever would (or your eyes off the road). It’s no boulevard cruiser but early criticism I’ve read of the ride being on the harsh side seems unjustified. It strikes me as being well-suited to covering long distances comfortably.

It’s on the twisty bits, of course, where Minis really shine. ?Go-kart handling? is probably the auto-writer’s hoariest clich? but. . . the JCW Countryman handles like a go-kart.

Even without pushing the Sport button, which, among other things, adjusts the power-steering inputs, the car simply goes where you point it. On decreasing-radius curves, it tucks itself in and tracks around without a fuss.

So there’s a reason why the main instrument is a large analog tachometer, red-lined at 6,500 r.p.m., with a digital speed readout almost as an afterthought. The car almost begs to be worked through the gears.

The box is slightly notchy and it’s possible to get third and fifth or fourth and sixth mixed up. I also embarrassed myself once by engaging reverse instead of first. But that’s a matter of use, as is the slightly baffling turn-signal switch. Given time, I’m sure I’d figure out when I need to cancel it and when it’ll take care of that by itself.

With its lower stance, side skirts and front and rear aprons, the JCW Countryman is chunky and no-nonsense. Without meaning to be sexist, size-ist, or any other ?ist,? it puts me in mind of the plucky girl in an Indiana Jones flick.

There will be several colour choices. The one that’s getting the attention now is the Chili Red and Black combo. I wasn’t impressed when I saw photos but it’s better in the flesh.

To these eyes, the dual exhausts look flat-out wrong. I’m not sure what, if anything, they contribute to performance but I suspect they’re mainly cosmetic. I’d take that back to the drawing board.

These are minor cavils. The price, though, may make you blink. It hasn’t been finalized but the JCW Countryman will likely be in the $35K range, or maybe a little higher ? serious money. But shop around (I’m sure there are comparable cars out there, even if I can’t bring any to mind) and you could find yourself paying more and getting less.

A lot of Mini aficionados are happy to let their hearts rule their wallets. Hot-rod one day, grocery-getter the next; this new variation on the theme may give them just the bang they want for their buck.

  • Mini JCW Countryman: Country mouse and city slicker
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