George, Southern Cape - BMW bluntly states that the new Countryman is the biggest Mini ever built, almost as if that’s a good thing. And that, at 170kW, the new two-litre John Cooper Works engine is the most powerful yet fitted in a road-going Mini, which definitely is a good thing.
Launched alongside its Clubman sistership on the twisty mountain passes and rough gravel backroads of the Southern Cape this week, the Countryman John Cooper Works showed its true colours as a very competent premium compact SUV with considerable performance credentials. Honestly, if it wore a different badge its size wouldn’t be an issue.
Firstly, that engine, since it’s common to both models. The 1998cc long-stroke turbopetrol four delivers its 170 kilowatts between 5000 and 6000 revs, accompanied by a deliciously sharp-edged howl that BMW assures us is for real - and if it’s assisted, Jaguar-style, by dedicated reverb trunking into the airspace behind the dashboard, so much the better.
But what’s more important is the 350 industrial strength Newton-metres it delivers all the way from 1450-4500rpm. This engine’s mid-range starts just off idle like a big V-twin motorcycle, with a surprisingly deep-chest growl, and just keeps going. And that’s as welcome in downtown traffic as it is rock-hopping on badly rutted gravel roads.
All the cars on the launch drive had eight-speed Steptronic paddle shift auto ‘boxes; there is a six-speed manual version but, whether on the Robinson Pass or the nasty back road, little better than a jeep track, to Angie’s G-spot (home of the Cape’s finest melktert) we didn’t miss it.
Most of the time the car knew what it was doing, the All4 all-wheel-drive system seamlessly transferring torque from the default front axle to the the rear wheels as needed, and at the worst, all it took was a dab at the left-side ‘minus’ minus paddle going into the gnarliest tight corners to keep the engine in the middle of its generous sweet spot and the Countryman going exactly where it should.
While the suspension, when not inadvertently forgotten in ‘Sport’ mode, was a good compromise between firm stability and wallowy comfort, the real drawback on gravel roads was the wheels - 18 inch alloys shod with 225/50 radials. The ride on gravel was harsh and noisy, and we were conscious on the really rough bits that the sporty JCW-specific rims were at considerable risk from ill-intentioned rocks and gullies.
On the tar, however, they came into their own; the Countryman went exactly where it was pointed, tracked as if on rails and, with the neat, completely intuitive little sliding switch in Sport mode, delivered pinpoint steering, impressive levels of grip, crisp responses to all the controls and appropriately aggressive shift patterns.
But it has to be said that there was little or no Mini DNA discernable, you don’t get ‘go-kart’ agility on a 1610kg five-door crossover with a 2670mm wheelbase, even if it is made in Oxford.
The interior continues the theme, with premium trim on sports seat that are more comfortable than they look, quirky but not jarring design cues and quality switchgear laid out under the signature central Mini platter, which in this case is a crisp colour display that can show you everything from navigation to diary entries and reversing camera, colour-coded and customised according to which drive mode you’re in. Directly below it are the three rotary switches for the very efficient dual-zone climate control system.
After lunch we moved to the new Clubman for a 230km all-tar blast back to George - and I use that word deliberately. BMW says the ride height is 10mm (less than the thickness of a ballpoint pen) lower than that of the Countryman, while the wheelbase, chassis and running gear are identical.
But the roof of the more street-orientated Clubman is a whopping 116mm closer to the ground, and so is your bum when you drop into the Clubman’s deeply bolstered and firmly supportive front sports seats. The view from the driver’s seat is sportier, the steering, particularly in sport mode, more heavily weighted and more direct, the suspension firmer, and the all-up weight 65kg less.
The Clubman is appreciably more agile than its SUV sister, perceptibly quicker, altogether more sharp-edged. If there is a way to quantify ‘Mini-ness’, this car has it, whereas the Countryman does not.
Big as it is, the Clubman can be driven like a kart in Sport mode. It responds well to being driven on the throttle (the All4 system keeps it tracking nice ‘n tight even under an exuberant right foot) and the four-pot Brembo braking system it shares with the rest of the John Cooper Works line-up feels sharper than on the Countryman.
Dashboard layout is the same, however, except that the Clubman has a somewhat simpler aircon system and a more sophisticated ‘dynamic driving’ display on the centre panel, including instantaneous power and torque levels, and fuel consumption - very distracting when you’re trying to drive as smoothly as possible over the Southern Cape’s twistiest piece of tar!
But, because you are sitting a hand’s-breadth lower, the feel is very different. The wonder is that, given identical platforms and drivetrains, BMW has managed to create two such different cars.
The downside however, is that the lower roofline, the chunky centre pillars of the van-type rear doors and the three rear head restraints reduce rear-view mirror vision effectively to zero.
Nevertheless, if a five-door Mini with maximum punch is what you need, the Clubman is your car. But if you’re looking for a really competent small SUV with character and you’re not hung up on ‘Mini-ness’ the Countryman could just surprise you.
|John Cooper Works Clubman||R558 612|
|John Cooper Works Clubman AT||R584 516|
|John Cooper Works Countryman||R610 612|
|John Cooper Works Countryman AT||R636 516|
These include a five-year or 100 000km maintenance plan.\