Not a week goes by without another manufacturer claiming it has invented a new market sector – with varying degrees of credibility, we might add. Mini is certainly no stranger to such marketing antics, with oddball machines such as the late Paceman and bread-van aping Clubman seemingly having no direct rivals.
And yet, here we are with another niche proposition from the BMW-owned brand: the Mini Countryman JCW (or John Cooper Works). As a self-defined ‘hot crossover’, this range-topping model is effectively in a class of its own. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to come in for an easy time.
Mini's second-generation Countryman SUV JCW has to take on more powerful versions of the Audi Q2 and Seat Ateca . And thanks to a £32,275 price tag, it also has to be a match for more dynamically focused and equally practical hot estates, such as the Volkswagen Golf R Estate and Leon Cupra 300 ST 4 Drive.
On the latter point, it looks like the Clubman JCW has the necessary firepower to make an impact. The standard Cooper S’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder has been uprated with a new turbocharger and additional intercooler - the net result being 228bhp, 258lb ft of torque and a 0-62mph time of 6.5sec. That’s 0.8sec faster than the next-hottest Countryman, and the time should be repeatable too, thanks to standard fit launch control and Mini’s All4 four-wheel drive.
Naturally, to support this extra performance, the Countryman’s handling has been improved. Firmer JCW Sport suspension featuring adaptive damper control promises flatter cornering, Brembo brakes with four-piston calipers should help with reducing brake fade and the eight-speed Steptronic automatic gearbox has been tweaked for faster shifts.
What's the 2017 Mini Countryman JCW like to drive?
Even though this is the largest JCW Mini yet, plenty of effort has been made to ensure that it shares the same ‘go-kart feel’ of its smaller siblings. Its heavy steering and darty front is immediately obvious, making the car feel smaller than its lengthy dimensions would let on. However, there is very little feedback through the rim and the smallest of steering inputs can have the car darting into bends in a hyperactive manner.
This immediacy and the car’s inability to settle would feel appropriate if the car somehow awoke in the bends, but sadly any expectations of hot hatch-esque playfulness are quickly quashed. Through faster corners, the top-heavy crossover is quick to run front at its front wheels, and, in the dry at least, it feels predominately front-wheel drive. While most prospective Mini owners may appreciate this effective safety blanket, we would argue a JCW should provide a more engaging and tactile driving experience than more traditionally straight-laced competitors.
But does the JCW makes up for this bluntness with prodigious straight line pace? Unfortunately not. Despite packing 231bhp, you never quite get that ‘pushed into the back of your seat’ urgency that you expect from a hot hatch. Mini’s ALL4 all-wheel drive comes up with all the traction that the car needs even in slippery conditions, but even in the lower gears, the acceleration feels somewhat taxed – something we suspect is down to the fact that the Countryman weighs around 200kg more than an equivalent Mini Cooper S hatch.
Instead, we found it best to leave the car in its Middle setting and simply waft around, letting the slick eight speed gearbox make use of the engine’s low down grunt. Slacking off the suspension also helps the Mini settle on undulating country roads, even if the optional 19in wheels, somewhat surprisingly, don’t bring a noticeable detriment to the ride.
What's the 2017 Mini Countryman JCW like inside?
JCW models get wonderfully supportive bucket seats, a sportier multifunction steering wheel and lashings of Alcantara on the doors and headliner. This is a premium product with the high-grade materials to prove it, and while the illuminated dashboard and door trims don’t really add much, it’s a far more characterful design than that of its competitors.
The sports seats and steering column also allow for plenty of adjustment, so you can get place yourself nice and low in the cabin. Not only does this make you feel more part of the machine, but it also helps the Countryman feel smaller than it actually is. Just don’t expect the JCW to be more comfy and convenient than its best rivals.
Ergonomically, the JCW is more or less identical to the Cooper S. The boot is slightly bigger than you’d get in a Nissan Qashqai, although it still lags behind when compared with the Kia Sportage and Seat Ateca. Rear seat passengers also benefit from plenty of headroom, although that’s partially down to oddly recumbent seats.
Mini has softened the blow of this JCW's high purchase price, as all models now include more equipment as standard. Bluetooth, sat-nav, cruise control and a 6.5in screen in the central instrument panel. We’d also be tempted to select the optional Heads-Up Display, which provides the driver with information such as current speed, selected gear and navigation directions.
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