MF First Drive: JCW Countryman All4

The cars of MINI’s John Cooper Works sub-brand are often described as halo models. They are intended to be each MINI in its purest, most sporting form. While perhaps not as aggressively separate as BMW’s M division, the JCW cars have always been a good balance of power and performance without sacrificing reliability. For those willing to pay the premium, the JCW cars offer that little bit extra on already brilliant cars. Since the Countryman’s introduction, many have wondered (myself included) if the R60 would also come in a JCW flavor.

Wonder no more because, as the photo above suggests, we now know the answer to that question.

The JCW Countryman All4 will be introduced at Geneva early next year and it will make its way here in the second half of 2012. More significant, however, are the particulars. As we’ve previously reported here on MotoringFile, the JCW Countryman will feature a newly refreshed version of MINI’s highly tuned 1.6L turbo Prince engine, featuring Valvetronic variable valve timing. As with the 2011 engine refresh for the standard Cooper S power plant, the addition of Valvetronic will stretch the engine’s power output and likely up its efficiency by significant percentage points.

This week in Innsbruck, Austria, I got to experience the JCW Countryman prototype first-hand with what I’m very confident was an early version of this new engine.

Our preview of the JCW Countryman actually began with a different JCW MINI: the Coupé. I was given the fob to one of three JCW Coupés shod in fresh, sticky Blizzaks, and told to follow the JCW Countryman prototype driven by Heinz Krusche, the head engineer for BMW’s Driving Dynamics division. (Driving Dynamics is the group responsible for the DSC, DTC, xDrive and All4 systems for both BMW and MINI.) Our task was to try to keep up with the JCW Countryman All4 on the snowy alpine roads of central Austria. The contrast would prove very interesting.

Even with snow tires, the JCW Coupé was a little bit of a handful in the snow. As MINI’s most tail-happy car to date, navigating the windy mountain roads with any speed at all was difficult. It was easy to make progress, and the JCW Coupé had great traction at slow, conservative speeds. But go any faster and I was pushing my luck. Absolute concentration was required to carry any speed into a slippery alpine turn — paying very special attention to the car’s balance. Let off the throttle to late or too hard into a turn and I’d risk bringing the rear end around. If I gave it too much throttle, even up in 3rd gear, the torquey JCW motor would break the front wheels loose and the car would twitch hard and understeer. Even if the grip held, there was the snow induced torque-steer to contend with as well.

The car was perfectly capable of navigating the steep, slick roads, but not in a way that was any fun. After a quick ten minute run down the mountain and back up again, it was time to shuffle seats.

Kicking the snow off my boots, I climbed into the co-driver seat of the JCW Countryman with Herr Krusche. The drive down the mountain was more of a presentation of the car and the All4 system. At the bottom, we would switch seats and I’d drive the car back up to the staging area. He described the All4 system in detail, actually correcting some of our previous information from other sources from MINI at the original R60 launch. He’d definitely be the man to ask, as one of the primary developers of the system. More on that here. While he wouldn’t answer specifics about the new engine, I did learn some other interesting key facts. The JCW Countryman will come standard with the otherwise optional Sport Suspension. The car gets 10mm lower, the front sway bar grows 2mm over standard and the rear sway bar grows by 1mm. Also standard will be 17″ wheels. Additionally, the rear wheel base has been widened by a few millimeters to take advantage of the JCW’s increased torque output. Dampening and rebound rates are the same as the Sport Suspension you can get on the Countryman today. And before you ask, no, there will not be a JCW-labeled specific suspension kit for the Countryman that goes beyond the settings of Sport Suspension. After driving the car, I agree with Heinz that it just isn’t necessary. The Countryman simply isn’t meant to the a race car, but it can be driven very, very aggressively on the Sport Suspension with good results.

My drive was brief, but informative. Tearing up the mountain I was relieved to find the clutch engagement point in this JCW Countryman prototype was not at the high, bothersome place it is in the MF Countryman Cooper S All4. The clutch was nice and light too, and made for smooth shifting. The otherwise untouched All4 system tore through the snowy alpine roads with absolutely no trouble. There was no torque steer, no drama, just grip and power. The 17″ wheels mated to the Sport Suspension made for both a comfortable ride and sporting handling. Nothing new there. I had the exact same experience in the Cooper S and Cooper SD Countryman All4s I’d been driving earlier in the day. The difference in the JCW Countryman, obviously, was the power.

I couldn’t get official confirmation that the engine in this JCW Countryman prototype was in fact the new Valvetronic refresh. But driving it back-to-back with the JCW Coupé, I’d be extremely surprised if it wasn’t. There was more power there, I’m guessing somewhere in the neighborhood of 220hp. The power band was also smoother, very reminiscent of the before and after for the Cooper S engine refresh for MY 2011. The JCW Countryman positively galloped up that Austrian mountain road. While the Cooper S Countryman All4 is no dog, the JCW Countryman is properly quick. Some rumored numbers have the 0-60 times well under seven seconds. I can believe it. Even on snow the JCW Countryman had plenty of power to spare, and thanks to All4, could put all of it to good use.

I hope to conduct a longer, more exhaustive evaluation on the JCW Countryman in the future, but in what brief time I got to spend with the prototype, I can say this: the JCW version of the R60 finally feels right. The car feels like it has all the power it needs to not simply get out of its own way (which the Cooper S Countryman does very well), but to finally be driven in anger. It’s got the horsepower and more importantly the torque to make the Countryman All4 a properly aggressive car to drive, even in the snow. With Sport Mode on, the sharper throttle response didn’t make the car unruly, it simply made aggressive snow driving that much more fun — which is a testament to just how good the All4 system really is on these kinds of roads. Bottom line, the extra power made the JCW Countryman finally feel like it had the power the R60 deserves. On dry pavement, it ought to be even better.

I say that with one caveat, however. Keep in mind what the JCW Countryman is intended to be. This is not an STi killer. It’s not a street version of the WRC rally car. Prodrive had nothing to do with this. The JCW Countryman is simply the most powerful, most refined, most holistically high-performance version of the Countryman that MINI intends to build for the masses. It’s the school run on steroids. While that sounds a little watered down, I can tell you that, from behind the wheel, it isn’t. Like the rest of the JCW lineup, it’s that little bit more. It’s that extra injection of performance that places it not in the stratosphere, but definitely on another level above its Cooper and Cooper S siblings. In fact, the closest performance analog in the current MINI family would be the Countryman SD, which isn’t available here in The States. The torque, as well as the horsepower coming out of that MINI Challenge-bred JCW mill gives the car the kind of grunt I think it’s needed all along. In a word, the car is finally correct.

Beyond the performance gains, expect the normal JCW touches such as the red roof, subtly more aggressive body styling details, and interior touches like dark gray gauge faces to make their way into the production JCW Countryman. They were all there (minus the red roof), albeit barely camouflaged on the prototype. More importantly though, if you’re looking for that extra burst of power over the Cooper S Countryman All4, you’ll find it in the JCW. It feels the most “MINI”, the most aggressive and as high-performance as the Countryman really should feel. The prototype was rather grin-inducing, just like a MINI ought to be. Look for the final production version to debut at Geneva, with the car going on sale in the second half of 2012.

Side note: After experiencing what was likely the new JCW engine and how handily it propelled the relative bulk of the Countryman, I cannot wait to experience that power in the smaller, lighter R5x MINIs.

  • JonPD

    Then again as a general driver on the roads when weather conditions worsen I think most people natively drive conservatively. Sounds pretty much as predicted by MF. Still hoping this is not the cap story for the JCW month of MF news lol..

  • that.guy

    Snow tires on steelies FTW!  But Blizzaks?!  Pleez.  Hakkas!!

    So yo Gabe how much this whip gonna cost?

  • Mjh93sa

    Any word on a brake upgrade to go with it? That’s the one thing that would really improve the Countryman in my experience. They work well, but have quite a long pedal travel and the progression could be better.

  • “I’m guessing somewhere in the neighborhood of 220hp”

    That’s what I call significantly underpowered for a 3200 lb. car, and is essentially a power downgrade from the much lighter JCW Hardtop. My STi is 305 HP & 290 ftlbs for a 3300 lb car. There’s a reason I didn’t wait to trade my MINI JCW for a Countryman JCW…MINI won’t give you real performance class power. You have to pay a premium to BMW to get that.

    • m8o

      sad to say “how true”.  The JCW Countryman should get 2.0L of turbo power…

    • Anonymous

      “Keep in mind what the JCW Countryman is intended to be. This is not an STi killer. It’s not a street version of the WRC rally car.”

      • I guess I need to be educated. I thought the JCW was supposed to be the performance mark for MINI. Apparently, I’m mistaken. Maybe they should rebadge it ROTM for “run of the mill” because that’s what 220HP for car of that size is.

        And why not make it in the same class as the STi and Evo, i.e. the street version of the rally car? It’s in the same price range. For auto sport enthusiasts this does not strike me as a good value.

      • Hemisedan

        Maybe I’m missing something here.  This Countryman JCW, is probably at least $40k and it isn’t suppose to compete with the STI?  WHY NOT?  Mini is getting more money for it, the car weighs at least 3100 lbs, and you put 220 hp in it?  Now if that was 220 diesel with 300 ft  lbs. of torque, then maybe that would make sense.  By the way I love my JCW hatch and would be considering something like this next time around, but not this way.

        • It’s a very different product that is more up-market, built of better materials (seeing any MINI without body panels will show you that) and is more efficient. In addition it’s positioned as a small family vehicle and has countless technology and interior equipment that the STI doesn’t offer. Do we like the STI at MF? Absolutely. Do we wish MINI would have created an answer for it. Sure. But given the sales the most recent STI and how successful the Countryman has been so far, we’re willing to bet MINI was very conscious of what they were doing in carving out a specific market for the car. And given the amount of technology and over-built nature of the R60 (or any MINI) an STI-ized R60 would be quite costly.

        • Hemisedan

          Thanks Gabe for the informative reply.  i know that Mini really gets kicked here, and other places about quality, but I know and see what my JCW hatch is like.  For me, very well put together.  As for the STI, I still wish that the Countryman JCW and to come Countryman Coupe could be a little more competitive, performance-wise.

        • I had a 09 MINI JCW Hardtop for 3+ years. Now I have a STi. Will you explain how the MINI is built of better materials? I’m not getting that part??? Is it related to all the better materials in my BMW 330ci, the one with such frustratingly high & constant maintenance costs (that was replaced by another STi…yes, we have two)?

          Don’t get me wrong. I loved my MINI. It was a fun car and well designed for great handling. But don’t spout some garbage that it’s built better. I’ve seen where that goes with other BMW products.

        • And responses like that are exactly why I prefer not to even share insight into baseline engineering and structural quality as compared with other small cars (especially Japanese, Korean and American). Because anyone can confuse random mechanical issues or high dealer costs they have had with a car three years ago with what I’m referring to.

        • I don’t entirely understand your reply (it’s somewhat vague). My 09 MINI JCW also had issues from start (like a flakey electrical system that was never quite right). It wasn’t just the 330ci. Are you saying they have changed how they build them and now they won’t have reliability issues?

          Increasing cost of entry, reliability issues, and high maintenance incidents & cost are what have driven me from the BMW brand, as much as I love driving the machines. I gave up my M3 before the warranty expired because I just didn’t want to face what came after. I miss that car, but not what it would take to keep it. 

          Anyway, I still think the Countryman should have been something else in a JCW guise. Otherwise it dilutes the JCW brand.

  • m8o

    I wish I could figure out what it looks like; can’t wait to see it w/o the camo … :p I hope you realize “I KEED” … but really, what’s the point of those little strips of camo?

    Coming from my R56 JCW my main complaint from my Countryman test drive was …. the light clutch and rubbery feeling shifter/trans.  I even said how I’d hoped mini would ‘fix’ that on the JCW model if/when it comes to my sales lady.  While I still don’t know about the trans, I’ve read the clutch was “nice and light” in two places now. 

    Well, IMO, “light” is “not so nice”.  I’m very bummed to read that.

    • jeff

      i feel the same way.  i had a manual countryman as a loaner the other week and it’s so much different from my 08.  definitely a step in the wrong direction as far as i’m concerned.

  • Jac Cottrell

    Is that JCW Chili Red?

  • Ojzkimb

    I’m curious whether the JCW Countryman shares the same enhanced exhaust note as the other Mini JCW models.

    • m8o

      I read on the C&D blog one of the only things they haven’t settled-on in development is the exhaust note.

    • It has a nice, distinctive sound, just like a JCW ought to. 

  • Bilbo Baggins

    Great write up, Mr. Salzman.  Thanks for a great job.  Well done.

  • m8o

    btw, I just read the place Mini had its preview event was something like 6600 ft above sea level.  Even w/the hi pressure turbo working hard to compensate, I bet it’ll rip a good deal more down here near sea level.

    • Nathaniel Salzman

      Yup, 2020 meters. I had a very similar thought myself — wondering how much quicker it’d be on dry pavement and at normal altitude. It was plenty fast, altitude not withstanding.

  • Anonymous

    “but not in a way that was any fun.”

  • Anonymous

    Great write up, Mr. Salzman!

    Can you confirm that the new Valvetronic engine will be applied to the whole JCW range, and do you know when?