Driven: Mini's new 225kW Countryman JCW is fast, but too firm
NELSPRUIT - 225kW and 450Nm. If those numbers look familiar, think BMW M135i. Mini has injected its new range-topping Countryman John Cooper Works model with more power than you will ever need.
I jumped into the driver's seat of the new Countryman JCW last Thursday. at its local launch in Nelspruit.
Temperatures on the ground had peaked at 40 degrees Celsius by midday and the air-conditioner in our car, with only 2000km on it, had already given up the ghost.
To say the new big-body JCW then was a bit of a sweat box, during my first encounter with it, is quite apt.
Too hot to handle
Let's get some essentials out of the way. The new Countryman JCW is the most powerful (for the road) model in Mini’s sixty year history. Its 225kW BMW-sourced four-cylinder turbo engine delivers enough grunt to keep Golf Rs honest in a straight line, and its all-wheel drive systems are always working to ensure that you have the best possible traction at any given time. It's a technological overload of gizmos and gadgets and go-faster bits that come together to create one of the most bonkers things I have driven this year.
The Countryman JCW proved fast, pleasing to the ear in Sport mode, and very well appointed (sans dead AC). The bonkers part comes in when you try and use it in a sporty way in the tight and twisties.
Through the wonderfully engaging Panorama route, the car went well in Green mode with a light foot, but when dialled Sport mode it just turned into a bouncy and unfulfilled driving experience.
Don't get me wrong, as mentioned earlier it makes all the right hisses and pops and crackles but there's just this overwhelmingly harsh and bouncy ride, which is way too firm even though it's expected in a Mini product.
In both models launched last week, the Countryman JCW and the new Clumban JCW, the punchy engine is combined as standard with a new eight-speed Steptronic sports transmission, including mechanical differential lock on the front axle, an All4 all-wheel drive system, and additional reinforcement modifications for the body structure, engine connection and chassis fastenings.
Mini claims that these enhancements help the John Cooper Works models to deliver racing sensations. Perhaps to some extent they are spot on, what with it being sharp on turn in and able to stop on a whim with decent anchors. However, that harsh ride we experienced was enough to upset the car and both drivers. The Countryman JCW also feels a bit top heavy when you really get the body moving, which didn't inspire confidence.
Nevertheless, one of the JCW's key bragging points is its engine, its fantastic engine. This four-pot motor developed for the John Cooper Works models uses TwinPower technology to make as much as 55kW more power than the previous JCW.
Maximum torque has increased dramatically too, by 100Nm to 450Nm, and acceleration performance has also improved.
The new Mini John Cooper Works Clubman turns in claimed acceleration of 0 to 100km/h in 4.9 seconds, with the new Mini John Cooper Works Countryman achieving the same in 5.1 seconds – 1.4 and 1.5 seconds faster than in the respective previous models.
More impressive than the JCW's acceleration from a standstill though is its ability to simply overtake as if it were a thundering V8 M car.
There were numerous instances on the test drive where I had to pass slower moving trucks and vehicles and in all these instances I simply had to nail the accelerator pedal to the kick-down plate for it to make ultra haste. If you're transporting kids, or mates, you can rest assured that you can perform safe passing manoeuvres thanks to the grunt on offer; the smart gearbox and drivetrain working to give you the best motivation possible too.
If you are a mom or dad and you plan on using this Countryman as your daily driver, you'll be pleased to know that it's certainly up to the task of carrying around kids and school gear. Getting in and out is easy, and large windows to look out of should help keep babies and toddlers entertained in their ISOFIX seats. The boot is relatively well-sized for its styling execution, although you'll be better off in a compact SUV such as a VW T-Cross if space (and cost-savings) is what you're after.
Our launch vehicle came standard with LED headlamps, the Mini Driving Modes, and the Mini Visual Boost audio package (including 17cm display with touch screen function and a redesigned graphical display).
Alternatively, there are also numerous special equipment options including Mini Connected Navigation, as well as Mini Connected Navigation Plus with a 22cm touch screen display.
Take the high end connectivity package if you can when appointing your car, because it's really worth it to have the smartphone integration if you use an Apple smartphone.
A Real Time Traffic Information service is also available, providing real-time data on the current traffic situation, and you get a personal Concierge service if you need assistance with nearly anything, such as booking a restaurant or finding directions to a destination.
Should you buy it?
Look, at R708 000 in standard guise, the Countryman JCW is not cheap. It's quirky yes, and it provides a driving experience that you won't get in other compact crossovers.
Firm, taut, solid. These are the sensations you'll get in it and that's probably fine if you're after something that's premium-badged, but if you travel on bumpy roads on a daily basis you're going to get annoyed after a few weeks.
At this price point, the Countryman JCW has some serious competition, such as the Golf R, BMW's own M135i and the much cheaper (albeit smaller) Audi Q3.
It really boils down to the fact that the Countryman JCW walks its own path as a funky crossover with a raised ride-height and it is different enough to the run-of-the-mill hatches and SUVs you can buy at this price level.
It's not a bad car, and if you are after something different for the parkade at work then it's worth a look, but don't discount other quirky vehicles (or larger vehicles) such as Hyundai's surprisingly good Tucson Sport or Citroen's new C5 Aircross.