As part of the ongoing master plan at Mini to attract distinction-seeking buyers who still have some disposable income left, we present the Mini Countryman Cooper S All4 John Cooper Works: the Mini CUV with the mighty long name.
This latest Mini JCW will get its world premiere at this March's Geneva Motor Show, but we've just enjoyed a pre-holiday drive in the remote mountain lair of Kühtai, 6,600 feet up in the Austrian Alps. As you'd expect, there was snow and rocks and animal skin sweat lodges and hot wine, but the Countryman All4 JCW got us out of there and back to our families in the flatlands. Our drive consisted of a two-lane road loop with plenty of overtaking chances and a decently long off-road parcours etched into a local abandoned ski hill.
Thus far, Mini's strongest JCW model has been gifted with a 208-horsepower version of the BMW/PSA turbocharged 1.6-liter direct injection in-line four-cylinder, dubbed "N18" as it's assembled at Mini's Hams Hall UK factory. Head of chassis development for BMW Group, Heinz Kruche, tells Autoblog that the Countryman will get "around 15 more horses and the same for torque" to help deal with the Countryman's additional weight. Thus, this 3,200-something pound "Mini" should pack somewhere around 223 horses at 6,000 rpm and 207 pound-feet of torque between 1,850 and 5,600 rpm when it arrives Stateside this June. Good. But is it good enough?
As we attacked the slippery alpine climbs and descents, we couldn't help notice that this Countryman feels lighter than its heft would suggest. The added power and torque certainly helped, yes, but the Sport chassis stance that lowers the JCW Countryman down four-tenths of an inch versus the standard Cooper S All4 deserves some credit for the additional driving security. We're guessing the winter wear 17-inch Bridgestone Blizzak tires mounted on our prototype's heavily drilled-out (and awesomely purposeful) steel wheels helped too.
Another much appreciated trick of the elfin folk at Mini's happy All4 workshops in Graz, Austria, are the JCW's larger diameter front and rear stabilizer bars. One millimeter more might not seem like much, but with this size vehicle, it can have a hugely pleasing effect, and that's exactly the case here. The 23-millimeter broad front stabilizer bar and 17-mm bar in back worked their wonders on the lowered sportier chassis, filling us with confidence as the snow fell thick and other motorists became legitimately tentative. That Mini uses a heavily modified version of this exact vehicle for its rather successful Mini World Rally squad suddenly makes good sense.
At the heart of this driver security and bad weather boldness is what is essentially a bolt-on electro-magnetic rear differential supplied by GKN. The addition renders the Countryman a very capable all-wheel driver that nearly feels like a full-bore four-wheel-drive setup. Whereas BMW's xDrive technology is electro-mechanical, comes from a separate supplier and is meant for much heavier duty, the compact and lightweight All4 solution is rightly matched to this Mini's more modest needs. In the end, it feels exactly as agile as a mechanical self-locking differential while adding a negligible amount of weight – and it's quicker to act. We have rarely felt a more pleasing multi-plate wet clutch in operation under such trying circumstances as those faced in Ski Central. When we return to cruising the drier and easy-going byways, however, even the All4 Countryman returns to being a front-wheel driver.
For the off-road bits, the robust all-wheel-drive setup on the Countryman All4 JCW benefits from exactly this lightning-fast thinking of the GKN unit. Granted, we thought the system might be right at the limit of its capabilities given the Countryman's weight, but any such notions were dismissed over the course of our drive. We switched off Dynamic Stability Control and Dynamic Traction Control, turned on the Sport mode to summon quicker throttle response, increased steering weight and a throatier sounding exhaust, and there was nothing this wee powerhouse refused to do. Having the added lunge on tap thanks to the JCW's quicker throttle made dispatching iffy bits of road or wagon trail mere child's play. With just 5.5 inches of ground clearance with the sport chassis setup, you'll still want to stay clear of the truly hardscrabble stuff, however.
Another appreciated upgrade are rear brake discs that measure 11.7 inches versus the Cooper S All4's 11.0-inch units. Coupled with the 12.4-inch Brembo front discs, they atone for the additional heft and workload of the rear axle and electro-magnetic rear differential. To its confidence-building credit, feedback from the brake pedal consistently proved just right for the circumstances. While 130 miles per hour remains the top speed cutoff, acceleration to 60 mph will dip just below 7.0 seconds – more than quick enough for this sort of transportation.
But, let's face it, this is a big road warrior in a small package and the All4 setup is meant to face skiing traffic in bad weather – at most. If that's the type of foul weather and rough road duty that defines your upper limit, then the Mini Countryman All4 Cooper S JCW is practically overkill it's so good, leaving you to make your buying decisions based on how much cargo or passenger space you have to have, how you like its looks, and whether the price is within your budget.
As to the latter of those three factors, cost, this JCW certainly isn't cheap, which should come as a surprise to exactly no one. But then again, Minis aren't built to be cheap, nor age as a cheap car often does. If you're looking for a model exactly like our prototype test car, your bank vault should be ready to trim off about $34,000 at least (i.e. pre-options list) – or just over 20 ounces of the gold you're hoarding.
As to design questions, the Countryman has always struck us as a bit gawky, but like the pocket-protector geek who secretly goes to the gym, that's just part of its charm. The lowered suspension helps the look of Mini's bulldog a lot, as do the various aero bits tacked on to give it some hair on its chest. The interior is what we've come to expect of any JCW – black leather that feels good, red piping on all the edges, and plenty of JCW logos. At this point, Mini (along with its mass of customers) has wholly embraced kitsch as the new normal, so we'll spare you the reiteration of our various ergonomic quibbles. The cargo range of 16.5 cubic feet up to 41.3 cubic feet remains strictly unimpressive, but, again, it's normally more than sufficient for two people and their stuff.
Engineer Kruche hinted with shrugging shoulders and grins that we were not far off the mark in anticipating that the Countryman would be the first John Cooper Works edition to have the $1,250 Aisin six-speed automatic with shift paddles available as an option, especially seeing as the percentage of two-pedal Countryman setups has proven especially high worldwide. Though this option typically peels away a couple miles per gallon, the average for this JCW automatic should get an EPA rating of 25 mpg. Personally? We'd definitely stick with the manual six-speed since it is better in every way, unless having to move your arms and legs in bumper-to-bumper traffic threatens your couch potato existence.
While our long-term Mini Countryman has left some of us a little chilly both in the performance and price departments, the JCW kit has the potential to deal with our largest complaint: a general lack of engagement. The Sports suspension and 18-inch rollers of our long-termer have proven more stiff than sporty, but the added power, reworked All4 system and larger anti-roll bars give this JCW variant some much-needed pop over the standard model. But is it enough? We'll wait until we test a full production-spec model to see if impressive first impressions last, but thus far, the Mini team has done what was required: making the maxi-Mini dance like a proper Cooper.