The John Cooper Works version is the one to have because it’s the one that speaks to the soul.
We’ve had the privilege to test a number of MINIs this year and I’ve started to notice a bit of a trend. The mainstream models typically leave me feeling luke warm, whereas the latest crop of John Cooper Works tuned models truly do feel like something special; well worthy of the storied MINI nameplate. Would the same hold true though for MINI’s biggest and most expensive variant? With winter firmly settling into the Toronto area, what better time to put this aggressive 2018 MINI John Cooper Works Countryman ALL4 through its paces?
The first bit of good news is that while the Countryman’s dimensions might make it the largest MINI ever, both inside and outside, it retains those signature MINI looks, only amplified by the addition of the specialized John Cooper Works (JCW) equipment. Aggressive rally-inspired front and rear fascia, side skirts, prominent JCW badging and no-charge Chilli Red roof and mirror caps work well with 18” (or optional 19”) JCW alloys covering big red brake calipers. The whole look is very cohesive and extremely well detailed without being way over the top, and all with a high standard of fit and finish.
MINI interiors usually take some getting used to, and the Countryman is no exception. Getting into a MINI after just about any other car takes some adjustment. Controls tend to favor form over function, but once you’ve taught yourself where everything is, the Countryman’s cabin really is a pretty nice place to be. The test car came well optioned with full leather heated and powered sport seats, piano black accents a nice quality black headliner, and faux suede inserts in the door panels. It’s lots of black, yes, but the space never managed to feel dark. That’s credited to the dual glass sunroofs, generous amounts of LED mood lighting in a whole array of selectable colors and the massive round infotainment screen.
Gimmicks and fancy materials aside, the MINI Countryman’s interior space is actually well thought out from a practicality standpoint. There’s plenty of storage up front for daily items, including very deep and wide door pockets, a rarity in the compact segment. There’s also plenty of room in the rear seat, even for three adults in a pinch, and the rear bench is quite comfortable. That bench is split and does fold flat for bulky cargo, but even with the rear seats in place the Countryman’s trunk is surprisingly large and easily handled a week’s worth of groceries.
Now, like other MINIs, the Countryman has a fairly upright driving position; more similar to an SUV than a sports car. You get a commanding view of the road and easy ingress and egress, but sitting in the JCW Countryman it doesn’t necessarily feel all that sporty. That is, until you push the big red toggle to start the engine; a downright angry little 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder that burbles to life through the dual exhaust. While the JCW shares the same basic 2.0L turbo engine with the lesser Cooper S (reviewed here), the JCW gets more boost pushing it to an impressive 228 horsepower compared with the 189 out of the Cooper S.
The JCW makes 258 lb-ft. of torque at a super low 1,450RPM, which more than offsets the Countryman’s extra mass to make for a very peppy driving experience. The Countryman loves the throttle and you’ll want to use it every chance you get; passing at any speed is a blast only made better by the angry grunt from the exhaust, which sounds good with the car in normal mode. Flipping it into sport mode makes the exhaust crack and pop with an absolutely infectious sound.
Happily, there’s more to the Countryman JCW than just a feisty little engine. The suspension tuning in standard mode is just right providing a confident but comfortable ride, and equally balanced and responsive steering feel. Sport mode leverages the optional Dynamic Damper Control (DDC) to firm things up, and while that comes with a serious ride quality penalty, it tightens up the car’s steering response to a point where it can be very easy to forget that you’re driving a compact CUV. The brakes are right there when you need them to be, with positive pedal feel and quick grab.
To summarize, the Countryman is a blast to drive, and significantly more fun than the Cooper S model. There’s a little over $6,000 between the base pricing of the two cars, but it doesn’t take long to option up a Cooper S enough to put it into JCW territory. MINIs however, are not cheap and a base JCW starts at $38,890. Our test car came with nearly $10,000 worth of options putting the as tested price at $48,730. Options added include the Essentials package at $1,450 (panoramic sunroof, heated front seats, adjustable rear seats and additional storage bins), Wired Navigation package at $1,290 (navigation, MINI Connected XL, wireless charging and the large 8.8” touchscreen) and the JCW Style package (interior trim upgrades). In addition to those three packages, MINI allows a bunch of standalone options and ours got most of them including; Lounge Leather ($2,250), Harman-Kardon sound, and more.
The Countryman totes a bit of a rugged look and attitude, and with winter’s first real nasty blast hitting Toronto, we got to put that image to the test. As the snow accumulated and the temperature dropped into the minus-teens the JCW’s ‘ALL4’ AWD system and Bridgestone Blizzak LM-32 tires made keeping the Countryman on course effortless. Even on snow-covered roads the Countryman felt stable, confident, and completely under control.
This is where the MINI’s fun handling and balance actually become very valuable in affording the driver better control in adverse conditions. Generally, the MINI dealt with the harsh conditions and extreme cold well, the front seats get very hot very quickly, and the defrosters work well. A remote starter, heated steering wheel and heated rear seats all became glaring omissions in the cars equipment list though as soon as the weather turned.
Despite the cold and storm-induced traffic jams, the Countryman JCW averaged an acceptable 10.4L/100km, respectable for an AWD compact CUV, but not quite the 9.3L/100km combined rating that the MINI totes. That said, the Countryman gets the quick shifting eight-speed automatic that does a great job keeping the RPMs as low as possible. With the car’s low end torque, it happily cruises along at highway speeds well below 2000RPM, so under better conditions, that fuel economy average can be dramatically improved. One downside to the JCW-tuned engine though is that it does command premium fuel.
The Countryman JCW is difficult to compare to any other offering on the market today. It’s more expensive than most comparably sized CUVs, and is missing a lot of equipment that you’d easily find on others well below its price point. However, nothing else in the segment is this much fun to drive, this engaging or carries this much character, all while delivering outstanding winter driving confidence. What can be said for certain though; if the Countryman checks all the right boxes for, the John Cooper Works version is the one to have because it’s the one that speaks to the soul and makes the extra cost or sacrifices easy to forget.