Three years ago, I attended the launch of the second-generation MINI Countryman in Singapore. Since then, the Countryman has become the brand’s second most popular model by sales volume after the quintessential three-door hatchback that gave MINI its iconic status. But what makes a MINI a MINI? LIke many sceptics, I wasn’t quite convinced that the Countryman was a real MINI; I’m not one for fat shaming, but if the five-door and Clubman are already testing the limits of what’s acceptable within the marque’s family tree, the Countryman is just about everything a MINI isn’t.
As I poked the Countryman’s nose out of its parking space at the dealership, its large proportions were immediately apparent. Let’s just say if only the Countryman was available from MINI back in the day, The Italian Job would probably have used a different car for the heist.
Yet, if the Macan can be the cash cow for Porsche, it would take foolish bravery for MINI (and their German owners BMW) to axe their second most popular model after the iconic three-door hatchback. Still, the fact remains that the Countryman is the Goliath to the Davids of the smaller hatchbacks – how then can MINI help it fit in?
Giving it more speed and agility is a good start. This facelifted John Cooper Works (JCW) variant of the Countryman is like the Incredible Hulk – big, green and angry-looking but also terrifyingly powerful and fast. These attributes are thanks to the new 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder engine completely redesigned with model-specific modifications and a bigger turbocharger integrated in the exhaust manifold with a blow-off valve. In English: all of the changes contribute to an additional 75 hp and 100 Nm in power and torque respectively; the JCW Countryman now does the century sprint in 5.1 seconds, 1.5 seconds faster than the previous model.
The JCW’s sport exhaust provides not only performance improvements to the power delivery but also an angry roar through the twin pipes when planting the right pedal hard into the floor mat in Sport mode, barking with each upshift through the 8-speed Steptronic sports transmission. It’s entertaining in a way that isn’t puerile or over the top, unlike some aftermarket exhausts that ignite imaginary firecrackers like a pyrotechnician gone mad on National Day.
The new gearbox also features an integrated differential lock, its application noticeable when I pushed the car hard through the bends. There’s no doubt the ALL4 all-wheel drive system had its part to play in the Countryman’s improved traction and agility, working with the car’s Dynamic Stability Control to calculate and distribute the power between front and rear wheels for what MINI calls their “brand-typical” driving characteristics.
The stopping power of the JCW Countryman is commendable too, its large brake discs and callipers allowing the crossover to rapidly shed speed and save me from getting caught out by faded speed humps during my day with the car. The steering wheel squirmed a little on a few occasions of hard braking, but didn’t cause enough panic to leave me needing a change of trousers.
Despite seeming to hold nothing back with the facelift, the Countryman’s weight continued to make its presence felt through a perceptible sense of inertia. The quick acceleration from standstill in the JCW felt more like a powerlifter’s heave than a controlled and linear build-up of speed; even with the sport-oriented suspension setup and adaptive chassis, the car still leaned a bit during some cheeky cornering. Strangely, these imperfections – which create a bit of drama when one gets eager – seem to add to the JCW Countryman’s charm.
On a night-time cruise along the ECP, the JCW Countryman in Mid mode (its default setting that sits between the car’s Sport and Green modes) was more impressive than its brutish alter ego. The loud and angry drone of the sport exhaust was muted, the engine relaxed, and the 225/45/19 Bridgestone Potenza S001 RFT tyres were surprisingly comfortable and refined. It’s the one feature I wish my i30 N had, to quieten its perpetual highway drone.
The cabin is typically MINI – the touchscreen infotainment display is housed within a round case on the dashboard and the familiar row of aircraft-style toggle switches are located just ahead of the gear lever. The analogue speedometer is an ironically refreshing choice in a time when manufacturers are increasingly seduced by the use of digital displays in instrument clusters. Of course, you sit higher in the Countryman compared to the smaller hatchbacks, but many buyers looking for a car in this segment will undoubtedly appreciate the added visibility from the driver’s seat. Passengers in the rear should be happy too with the roomy interior and USB-C charging ports behind the centre armrest.
So the journey of gaining acceptance among car enthusiasts continues for the Countryman, but this marks meaningful progress as MINI continues to make their largest car drive like a smaller one than it actually is. In JCW guise, the Countryman is a crossover you can comfortably drive to a race track without feeling worn out by a droning exhaust when you arrive. The 12-speaker Harman Kardon sound system and usual smartphone connectivity options will keep you (and your other passengers) suitably entertainments when you aren’t tearing up the tarmac. You can then take the car out to do a few timed laps and have a laugh while you’re at it – it is a JCW after all so it’d be a shame not to, as long as you view it as a track toy, not a track weapon.
Of course, you’ll probably want to turn off the highways and have a punt along some B-roads – why wouldn’t you in a car with such ability?
The MINI John Cooper Works Countryman is POA. Special thanks to Eurokars Habitat for this opportunity.
The original version of this article first appeared on Eat.Fly.Drive.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Can the MINI John Cooper Works Countryman make its size not matter?
Handling - 8/10
Performance - 9/10
Design - 8/10
Comfort - 8/10
Practicality - 9/10
Value - 8/10