Test Drives

2020 Mini JCW Countryman review — Hangin’ with Mr Cooper



The Mini John Cooper Works Countryman gets a facelift and a significant rise in firepower. Hang on tight…

SINGAPORE — Think “Mini” and you’re supposed to imagine tiny cars with go-kart handling. And then there’s this, the Countryman. It’s still a Mini, but it’s really quite maxi. And it’s a sport utility vehicle (SUV) so it’s more suited to a dirt track than a karting track. But this is the John Cooper Works edition, which means you might actually feel like having a go at a few laps of Sepang in one.

What gives? The JCW label, as everyone inevitably calls it, is for Mini’s fastest production cars. It’s in honour of the geezer who many regard as the father of the UK’s motorsport industry. Besides twigging that mounting the engine behind the driver in a Formula One car would make it handle better, he was the first to spot the sporting potential of early Minis, and turned them into rally-winning cars.

Far from being cosmetic specials, the JCWs are as legit as they come. Rauno Aaltonen, the retired racer nicknamed the Rally Professor told me five years ago he thought the Mini JCW hatch was “beautifully set up”. He pronounced it impossible to spin, and encouraged me to drive it on the track without the stability control switched on, which said more about the car than me. Aaltonen won the prestigious Rallye Monte Carlo in a Cooper S in 1967, so if anyone knows his poop, it’s him.

Still, you can get your head around a frisky Mini hatch, but an SUV? Why not do a JCW Countryman, though? The Countryman is Mini’s most useful and versatile car, and it’s one of the more popular. Globally it’s the brand’s number two seller, behind the quintessential hatch. 

And the Countryman itself is an example of Mini’s flexibility and willingness to do what makes sense; the model started out as a four-seater, with two individual chairs in the back separated by aluminium rails. No one in Singapore bangs down showroom doors to buy cars with four chairs, which is why the Countryman is now an ordinary five-seater.

Unless it’s a JCW, in which case it’s as far from ordinary as it’s possible to get. A facelift for the car brings plenty of change, most of it under the bonnet.

There’s a new 306 horsepower, 2.0-litre turbo, driving all four wheels through a new eight-speed auto. Revised cooling and higher turbo pressure are just two of the tweaks that enabled the engine to biff out 75 horsepower more than the last JCW’s engine did. Peak torque, meanwhile, is up a handy 100 Newton-metres to 450Nm.

As you’d expect, the JCW Countryman is damned fast, scampering to 100km/h in only 5.1 seconds — quicker than a 2000 M3, an all-time favourite among BMW fans. What’s more, it feels dramatic when gaining speed, thanks to a blustery exhaust that isn’t shy about getting people to look at you as you rumble past.

The brakes work a treat, which is just as well because the calipers are big and bright red with 360mm discs up front, so it would be a bit shameful if they didn’t.

Where the JCW makes you scratch your head a bit is in the handling, which feels less accomplished than the engine. Rather, it feels as if the JCW had to be set up a certain way to cope with all that power. And that way is rock hard.

In Sport mode, which is the mode you want in order to get the maximum jollies from the engine, the active dampers firm up so much that you feel like you’re bouncing along a rally stage even if you’re only whizzing down the PIE.

Firmness can only compensate so much for the car’s height, though, and if you banzai your way around a corner the Mini sometimes lurches its way through gamely, making use of the fabulous grip from its tyres to see you through. It’s not the neatest way to get your kicks, but it’s fun nonetheless.

The more boring stuff is where the Countryman excels, however. It’s a distant cousin of the BMW X1, remember, so it pulls off the same trick of being useful without feeling elephantine on the road.

The boot is biggish to begin with at 450 litres and the rear seats slide, fold, incline and all the rest of it, making up to 1,390 litres available. If your kids can’t fit into the back you should sign them up with the NBA, and there’s loads of space for odds and ends throughout the cabin.

As handy as it is, the cabin does have its irritations, mostly to do with ergonomics. The little rotary controller for the infotainment system is set pretty low and far back, for one thing. Sure, you could use the touchscreen that arrived with the facelift, but then you’d need tiny fingers and the sure-eyed jabbing abilities of an accusing wife. It’s something you could put up with (accusing wives put up with far more, after all), one supposes.

Apparently, some people ditch the sporty bucket-style front seats for more conventional items, thus gaining electric adjustment. But surely you want your JCW to look the part? The sports seats in leather and a fabric called Dinamica are just part of the visual touches intended to help you shout, “Hey, look at my JCW!” The steering wheel gets a bit of lovely contrast stitching and there’s a bit of detailing on the gearlever in the form of twin red stripes, and the cabin gets glossy piano black trim.

The outside is more shouty, with the roof and mirror caps painted red, and a red outline for the front grille. More from the spotter’s guide includes honeycomb grilles, as well as John Cooper Works logos in the radiator grille, on the tailgate and on the faux outlets in the front fenders. If you can’t see that this is a JCW coming, you might want to have your eyes checked, and if you can’t hear it coming, it’s off to the ear specialist with you.

All this, for S$218,888 with Certificate of Entitlement. Cheap? Expensive? I’m gonna lean towards the former. It’s very nearly a five-second car, it’s as versatile as you need a family car to be, and there are enough details and little touches to make other cars seem bland in comparison. Are you sure you’d prefer a tiny car with go-kart handling over this?

Mini John Cooper Works Countryman ALL4

Engine 1,998cc, inline 4, turbocharged
Power 306hp at 5000 to 6200rpm
Torque 450Nm at 1750 to 4500rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic
0-100km/h 5.1 seconds
Top Speed 250km/h
Fuel Efficiency 7.9 L/100km
VES/CO2 C1/180g/km
Agent Eurokars Habitat
Price S$218,888 with COE
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about the author

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Leow Julen
CarBuyer's managing editor is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 25 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.