If THE Mini range can be compared to a cupboard full of toast toppings, then the Countryman compact crossover is an enormous jar of Marmite. Dyed in the wool Mini lovers despise it, not because it looks and tastes like bilge water, but because of its size and questionable looks.
Yet this most maximum of Minis has its fans, drawn, presumably, to its practicality and the cachet of the badge on its nose, and it accounted for more than a quarter of all Mini sales in the UK last year.
Now Mini is adding even more spice to the mix in the shape of the John Cooper Works Countryman – a four-wheel-drive range-topper with five doors, room for four adults (or two adults and three bairns) and an entertaining turn of speed.
The spice comes at a most un-Mini like price, mind you – £34,625 for the option-laden car we tested, at which point you may wander off and buy an Evoque – although you could whittle that down to a marginally more sane £28,595 if you’re willing to live without leather seats, xenon headlights, a Harmon Kardon hi-fi and other goodies.
Power comes from a spiffed-up version of the 1.6-litre twin-scroll turbo that lives under the bonnet of many a quick Mini. In the Countryman, this free-revving gem develops 216bhp and a heap of torque from way down the rev range.
Perhaps because of the Countryman’s bulk, performance is brisk, but not earth-shattering. It takes seven seconds to run from 0-60, which is a bit old hat these days. The ride is firm, but not bone shaking, unless, as we did, you hit a motorway pothole as big as a paddling pool, at which point the car will shoogle in a manner that suggests it might topple over. That apart, it cushioned other blows well.
So much so that I’ll confess to being a bit underwhelmed at first. I expected something wearing the John Cooper Works badge (lots of them, in fact) to be a bit more hardcore. But the more I drove the Countryman, the more I warmed to it, especially when we peeled off the motorway and headed to a curvy coastal road. This is a performance car to be shared with friends, fast and firm enough to entertain, not so quick and jarring as to be tedious.
The steering isn’t razor sharp, but precise enough to put a smile on your face. Four-wheel drive and a raft of traction and stability control settings put the kibosh on squeally-tyred escapes from T-junctions, so to really up the entertainment ante, press the button marked “sport” down by the gear lever, ease off the throttle and the Countryman announces its arrival with a series of pleasing pops and burps from the back. The sport setting also firms up the steering (a bit) and alters the engine response (a bit), but mostly it makes the exhaust somewhat farty, and for that reason alone, you’ll never want to switch it off again.
The JCW rides 10mm lower than lesser Countrymen and its 18-inch wheels do a good job of filling the arches. The result is a car that appears a lot less top-heavy than its clumsy-looking siblings. Inside, the comically oversized centre speedo dominates affairs, but the cabin is welcoming. What it lacks in logical layout, it more than makes up for in quality and retro-themed charm.
The rear seats slide aft to free up legroom in the back, although your dog may grumble when his 450-litre kennel shrinks to 350 litres because a tall human needs more knee space.
The JCW Countryman is a characterful car which offers a generous serving of practicality and performance, without really raising the bar on either front.
CAR Mini John Cooper Works Countryman
PRICE £28,595 (£34,625 as tested)
PERFORMANCE Max speed 140mph; 0-62mph 7.0secs
MPG (combined) 38.2
CO2 EMISSIONS 172g/km