Car reviews - Mini - Countryman - JCW
Torquey 2.0-litre engine, rorty exhaust note, butch exterior styling, good NVH and ride comfort for a performance model.
Room for improvement
Extensive black cabin plastics, poor-resolution digital instrument cluster, feels heavy around corners, infotainment not as slick as BMW counterpart.
Boosted power outputs increase appeal of butch Mini Countryman JCW small SUV
1 Apr 2021
IT IS no coincidence that the truly pint-sized models of days gone by are seen less and less frequently, as safety regulations and buyer requirements have seen most cars grow in size to the point where brands like Mini can hardly match their name.
The most obvious example of that is the Countryman – Mini’s offering in the small SUV segment, which is admittedly a key segment in this day and age.
Despite being far larger and heavier than the original Minis of the 1960s, the new breed can arguably offer a more dynamic experience than its forebears thanks to a marked increase in not only handling dynamics, but outright power.
We took the most powerful member of the Countryman line-up – the potent JCW variant – out on the road to see whether extra power is a worthy replacement for light weight.
First drive impressions
While the previous Countryman JCW was only available in one price and spec level, the new version will be offered by Mini Australia in three grades, starting with the Pure from $61,915 plus on-roads, which like the BMW M Pure varients is a stripped-out, performance oriented version without the unnecessary luxury options.
Next up is the Classic from $67,818, and finally the top-spec Signature at $71,103, which was the variant tested here.
Revealed in updated guise in the middle of last year, the JCW is immediately identifiable from the rest of its Countryman stablemates by its more aggressive design touches, including a more pronounced front bumper and grille, 19-inch light alloy wheels and chunky dual-exit exhaust pipes.
Combined with the boxy, purposeful styling of the Countryman, the JCW has an attractive look that is equal parts butch and sporty. The two-tone roof adds an element of visual flair, while the black cladding around the skirting and roof rails signify its SUV intentions.
Moving into the cabin, the Countryman JCW immediately feels like a Mini, with its upright A-pillars, strong forward and side visibility and signature circular dashboard design, enclosing the landscape-oriented 8.8-inch touchscreen infotainment system.
Despite being the most expensive and luxurious version of the Countryman, we did feel a little let down by the amount of black plastic found throughout the cabin, as well as the lack of contrasting colours with the whole arrangement decidedly dark.
While the key touchpoints are covered in either leather or Alcantara, black plastic covers most of the dashboard and centre console, differentiated only by piano black trim which just adds to the dark look.
The sole strip of colour comes from the light ring around the infotainment screen, while the infotainment system itself is largely similar to BMW’s OS, including its iDrive-style controller.
While useful for navigating the operating system, the controller is calibrated to turn the wrong way to what seems logical – turning clockwise scrolls up while anticlockwise turns down.
The system is otherwise easy to use, with only slightly less functionality than the BMW system as well as slightly reduced graphics quality.
Speaking of, the 6.5-inch digital instrument cluster display, while being fine in terms of functionality, has a particularly low-res screen, which seems odd in this day and age.
The inclusion of a head-up display is welcome, however we would have preferred one projected straight onto the windscreen instead of using the slightly goofy flip-up display.
The Countryman’s leather seats are comfortable, while as mentioned, driver visibility is excellent, with plenty of natural light coming into the cabin through the broad windows and nice split sunroof.
Considering its small SUV size, rear legroom is strong, while its tall silhouette means headroom is no problem.
With a two-stage removable boot floor, luggage space is generous at 450 litres, adding to the Countryman’s strong all-round usability.
Under the bonnet of the Countryman JCW lies the BMW Group’s B48 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine, feeding power through an eight-speed automatic transmission to a front-biased all-wheel-drive system with an electronic diff lock at the front axle to aid handling.
While JCWs of the past were tuned to produce a Golf GTI-like 170kW/350Nm, the newer version ups the ante considerably to a far more potent 225kW from 5000-6250rpm, and a chunky 450Nm from 1750-4500rpm.
Given the JCW tips the scales at 1605kg, the extra shove from the uprated 2.0-litre four pot is most welcome, and provides the small SUV with a new level of dynamism that helps it compete with European rivals like the Audi SQ2 (221kW/400Nm) and Mercedes-AMG GLA35 (225kW/400Nm).
In particular, the 450Nm of torque on tap helps make the Countryman feel smaller than it is, hauling it up to speed briskly while providing the driver with a relaxed feel in everyday driving situations.
The four-pot likes to rev and delivers a meaty punch when pushed, and is accompanied by a fantastically rorty engine note.
Power is a little lacking down low in the rev range, but once the turbo has spooled up there is plentiful performance on hand.
The eight-speed auto, like most eight-speeders in BMW Group vehicles, is a smart and slick-shifting unit, while its relatively short gearing means the engine is in its sweet spot more often than not.
Despite being a dedicated performance engine, the B48 mill is able to blend hardcore driving with everyday usability, making for a pliant and smooth mill when needed.
Over our day of mixed driving we averaged 9.8 litres of fuel per 100km, a slightly thirsty figure but not unexpected for a 2.0-litre mill that pushes out over 200kW/400Nm.
Despite being the most performance-oriented Countryman and riding on 19-inch wheels, we found the ride quality to actually be fairly compliant, with a comfortable and settled feel when in normal mode.
Switching to sport mode stiffens things up, but it is otherwise perfectly liveable for day-to-day driving.
When pushing the JCW through the twisty stuff, its small SUV body does hamper dynamics somewhat, with the Countryman certainly feeling like the biggest Mini – which it is.
The front-biased ALL4 AWD system does a fine job of channelling power to the road, and in dry conditions, helps get all that 450Nm to the ground when accelerating out of corners.
Some drizzling rain was encountered on our drive, which resulted in some unwanted understeer in hard driving conditions, with the JCW’s kerb weight being felt. There is also some occasional unwanted torque steer when pushed, despite the LSD.
The steering is on the weightier side of things but provides the driver with plenty of feedback and is well calibrated.
Like the comfortable ride quality, noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels are also surprisingly strong – the Countryman’s boxy shape does produce some wind noise at higher speeds, and some tyre roar can be found on coarser surfaces, but otherwise the cabin is a quiet and comfortable place to be.
Overall the new Countryman JCW is Mini’s best yet – the uprated engine produces plentiful performance while its mix of style and practicality will resonate with buyers and it’s a little quirkier than the average small SUV.
While over $70,000 is a lot to pay for a Mini, the JCW actually stacks up fairly well with the likes of the GLA35 ($83,700), whereas the SQ2 ($64,400) sits in between the Pure ($61,915) and Classic ($67,818).
Some interior finishes let it down somewhat, but the Countryman JCW should be on the list of those looking for a blend of performance and practicality in a diminutive package.
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