The Mini Countryman John Cooper Works is one of those vehicles us car people aren’t supposed to like. As a crossover, it’s not off to the best start, and then we have to consider that it’s stretching and bloating the aesthetic of the well-known, beloved ancestor - the Austin Mini - almost beyond all recognition. I don’t think you’ll find many people who consider it pretty.
But as I’m terrible at keeping secrets, I might as well come out with this: I really like the Countryman JCW. And not just because I’m weird: it’s a tremendous thing to drive. Surprised? So am I. And it’s all because of the core ingredients of the Countryman.
The platform, engine, all-wheel drive system and gearbox are all shared with the BMW X2 M35i, which was probably the dullest supposed performance car I drove all last year. But somehow, the guys at the Mini end of BMW towers have taken the same box of bits and come up with a car that feels like it’s actually interested in showing you a good time. Primarily, it seems to do this by being less polished than the BMW.
Chuck the BMW into a corner a little faster than you perhaps should, and it’ll feel secure, stable and capable. And utterly boring. With the Mini, the front will give up a bit earlier than you expect, meaning you’ll probably lift off. And at this point, the rear will be mighty keen to come forward.
Keep your foot planted instead, and the all-wheel drive system will quite suddenly lob a load of torque to the back, giving a similar result. Over time, the Big Boi of the JCW family encourages you to tap into its propensity to move around mid-corner.
There are adaptive dampers fitted as standard, and although they’re clearly doing something - judging by the way the ride gets noticeably worse in Sport mode - the extra stiffness isn’t enough to stop the Countryman leaning more than the average modern performance crossover. Again, though, it’s this sense of the Countryman JCW being a little wayward that works in its favour.
Sport mode also makes the 2.0-litre engine a touch more vocal, with a satisfactory helping of pops and bangs that don’t stray into OTT territory. It’s a strong unit, too - with 302bhp, the inline-four turbo gives the current JCW a massive 71bhp boost over its predecessor. 0-62mph happens in 5.1 seconds, and the top speed is 155mph. It’s even pokey enough to give the odd tug of torque steer.
Speaking of which, the steering isn’t remarkable in any way, but it deserves a mention because it’s a more successful setup than in the JCW’s aforementioned BMW cousin. Here, the weighting is noticeably much better.
The retro-style cabin won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but the sense of flair and fun makes it a far more interesting space than any of its rivals. It’s awash with cool little details, like the aircraft-style toggle switches and the light ring around the infotainment screen, which illuminates in tandem with the engine speed. Plus, you get - praise be - real dials, a feature fast becoming a rarity thanks to the modern obsession with digital instrument clusters. Instead, you get little LCD screen at the bottom of the speedometer, which provides all the information you’ll ever realistically need.
The price for all this is £35,550. And as this is a Mini we’re talking about, there are plenty of wallet-clobbering opportunities to personalise. The car you see here, for instance, comes in at £39,525. For that, you could get a VW T-Roc R with a few modest options added - tempting, given that the VW is the dynamically superior car. Plus it’s better looking.
But next to Mini, it just seems a little too serious. A C-segment hot hatchback is another obvious alternative, but if it has to be something Mini branded, that’s not an especially helpful suggestion. Nor is that going to cut it if you’re set on having a crossover.
The Mini Countryman JCW, then, is a sporty crossover that can be heartily recommended. Just be prepared to explain to all your car-loving mates why they’re wrong.