"Powerful and enormous fun – if you can get past the brash bodywork and firm suspension."
The MINI JCW Countryman is the first ever John Cooper Works model to feature four-wheel drive. It's also the most powerful yet, with 215bhp from its 1.6-litre turbocharged engine. Acceleration is sharp – although it can’t keep up with smaller and faster JCW MINIs like the hatchback and coupe – and it corners well thanks to the extra four-wheel drive grip plus lower and firmer suspension. The colourful stickers and pumped-up bodywork won’t be to everyone's taste, but it certainly stands out in a crowd.
Being driven hard is what JCW models are all about and the Countryman is no exception. In a straight line, it can cover 0-62mph in seven seconds, and hit a top speed of 140mph. It performs around corners too; thanks to lowered suspension and firmer springs there's very little body roll and lots of grip. The steering is sharp and accurate and the wheel doesn’t tug from side to side under acceleration, like it often can in front-wheel drive cars. A signature of JCW MINIs is a booming exhaust sound despite a small engine, and the Countryman delivers a rally-inspired roar that pops and crackles when you lift your foot off the accelerator.
If you’re after something quiet and comfortable, look away now. The JCW Countryman has been designed with enthusiastic drivers in mind, so the compromise is hard suspension that crashes over cracks in the road - on pebble-smooth surfaces it's comfy enough, but those are all too rare in the UK. Being a BMW designed and engineered product, the Countryman's build quality is excellent, plus there's enough head and legroom for three adults in the back, but if you’re planning a long journey, it would be advisable to restrict that to two people.
BMW – and therefore MINI – has an excellent reputation for reliability, and the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine has a proven track record for robustness. In the 2012 Driver Power survey, MINI came just outside the top 20 for customer satisfaction. In terms of safety, the Countryman has already received the full five star rating from Euro NCAP and comes with six airbags, ISOFIX child-seat mounting points, stability and traction control.
Compared to other MINIs, the Countryman is by far the most practical – and that includes the Clubman estate. However, it's still not a particularly spacious family car. There's 350 litres of boot space, expanding to 1,170 litres with the rear seats folded down, which is 30 litres less than the VW Golf. Customers can choose whether they prefer a three-seater rear bench, or two individual rear seats, with a rail running down the middle to which you can attach various accessories. The permanent four-wheel drive system improves road holding in bad weather conditions, too.
Value for money
As the top-spec models in the range, John Cooper Works MINIs never come cheap, and at £28,595, the JCW Countryman is the most expensive of the lot. But it's worth considering the type of cars that it will be up against – not small SUVs, but even more powerful four-wheel drive hatchbacks like the Audi S3 and VW Golf R, both of which cost more. Extra equipment includes a bodykit, with a trademark vent in the side, plus new 18-inch alloys and plenty of JCW badges. The interior is a bombardment of colour, thanks to Chilli Red trim strips and red stitching on the gearlever and steering wheel.
Despite its 215bhp power output and impressive performance, the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine is relative light on fuel. MINI claims official economy and emissions figures of 38.3mpg and 172g/km, respectively, if you go for the six-speed manual gearbox. That changes to 35.7mpg and 184g/km if you order the six-speed automatic. To reduce your costs further, the MINI TLC package buys you three free services within five years or 50,000-miles, for just £200.