ROAD TEST: Mini John Cooper Works Countryman
MINI is on a charge, with performance-oriented John Cooper Works variants at the fore. More than 10 per cent of local sales are for JCW-badged vehicles - double the global average - and the arrival of the tweaked Countryman has boss Tony Sesto predicting that number will climb.
"We're hoping the JCW will account for 12-13 per cent of sales this year in what is going to be record growth for the brand,” Sesto says.
"We're pushing hard (on JCW) because they're the cars our buyers want: Mini style with all the performance you need.”
The JCW Countryman, though not an absolute rocket, fills that brief. The engine, suspension and steering are specific to the go-fast model, bolstered by the latest driver assistance aids plus comfort and convenience features such as semi-automated parking and sports buckets trimmed in leather and faux suede.
That pushes the vehicle into similar pricing territory as an all-wheel drive Audi A2 but the Countryman's standard gear is on the Audi options list, from adaptive cruise control to LED headlamps and head-up display. Not that there's any shortage of Mini options, mind you.
The list price of $57,900 is up $1000 from the initial launch price after Mini added wireless Apple CarPlay connectivity - but not Android Auto - and wireless smartphone charging, which only works on Android phones.
The Countryman is a hefty Mini, having grown by more than 170mm to 4.3m long. Rear passengers benefit from the stretch with good legroom adding to the decent head space.
Just as importantly, the boot is now a grocery-or-luggage accommodating 450L, up from 350L in the predecessor.
That makes the JCW version a practical SUV for small families with enough get-up-and-go to satisfy drivers who still occasionally feel the pulse rate lift when they see a series of corners.
The car is differentiated from its lesser siblings with red highlights around the grille, a different front bumper with bigger air intakes - necessitating the removal of the fog lights to help cool the brakes - and a unique rear diffuser and roof-mounted spoiler to improve airflow.
ON THE ROAD
A core part of Mini's marketing is the "maximum go-kart feel” mantra and the JCW epitomises that approach.
That applies to the three-door hatch but it isn't as evident in the longer and higher Countryman, even in JCW guise.
What is obvious is the chassis balance and quality of the ride. With drive mode set to normal, the Mini is soft enough not to jolt over big hits without leaning too much through the turns.
Move up to sport mode and things harden up to make this a quick and sporty SUV, to the point you need a Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 to beat it for handling and pace.
The official 0-100km/h time of 6.5 seconds is good but most impressive is the mid-range acceleration from the 2.0-litre turbo. The all-wheel drive software directs most power to the front wheels until it detects - or anticipates - slip, then shuffles more grunt to the rear tyres. You can feel it working through hairpin turns but it is still possible to generate a bit of front-end slip before the electronics do their thing.
Mini says the JCW Countryman adds $10,000 in value over the second-generation performance SUV. The automatic is now about $2000 cheaper at $57,900, or about $64,630 on the street.
Adaptive cruise control with stop-start is now standard, as is a colour head-up display and wireless Apple CarPlay, wireless (compatible) smartphone charging and satnav on an 8.8-inch touchscreen.
The step from a 1.6-litre turbo to a 2.0-litre adds 10kW and 70Nm. In combination with an eight-speed auto (the six-speed manual is a no-cost option), fuel use is down from 8.0L/100m in the manual to 7.8L; the auto does 7.4L, against 8.3L with the old six-speeder.
Standard adaptive dampers have better differentiation between normal and sports settings, while the 17-inch Brembo brakes are as effective as you can demand. The steering is sharp without jumping across lanes at the merest twitch of the wheel.
Bigger in all dimensions, the Countryman can now claim to be a compact SUV rather than a jacked-up baby hatch. Length is up by 170mm, with most of that adding to rear legroom. Cargo volume is 450L, up by 100L.
Ultimately the JCW Countryman is the most practical Mini with an endearing mix of space and pace. It's not everyone's cup of tea but it's a hot proposition.
MINI JCW COUNTRYMAN
PRICE $64,630 drive-away (pricey)
SERVICING $1240 for 5 yrs (good); 3-yr warranty (average)
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo, 170kW/ 350Nm (good)
THIRST 7.4L/100km (good)
SPARE Run-flats (not ideal)
BOOT 450L (above average)
SAFETY 5 stars, 6 airbags, city-speed AEB, front/rear sensors (solid)