When the Mini Countryman crossover first appeared almost a decade ago, I remember thinking it would be a failure. After all, by definition, a crossover—something big—is like the Anti-Christ to Mini’s rabid fanbase.
Yet the Countryman ended up doing more than alright for Mini, with over 160,000 units sold in the U.S. and Canada since its launch. It’s now the brand’s best-selling model, and it even comes in a hotter John Cooper Works version.
I drove a JCW Countryman last Spring, and while I came at it with a lot of prejudice, I was actually immensely satisfied by how fun it was to drive; arguably the most entertaining small crossover I’ve driven in my entire career, even if it looked really weird.
So when Mini announced it cranked up the juice to a much healthier 301 horsepower, I figured it could only mean one thing: even more smiles behind the wheel.
(Full disclosure: BMW flew me and Jalopnik Big Boss Patrick George to Spartanburg, South Carolina for Test Fest East, where they put us up in a hotel and fed us fancy food and then let us drive their cars however we wanted.)
With an entry price of $41,900, the John Cooper Works Countryman currently sits at the top of the Mini food chain. It’s the largest, most expensive vehicle within the brand’s lineup.
It’s also the only utility vehicle available at Mini, or what the brand calls a “Sport Activity Vehicle,” sharing its entire underpinnings and drivetrain with its siblings, the Cooper and Clubman. The difference is this one has a higher ride height and a more “adventurous” look.
The Countryman is, therefore, Mini’s response to the ever-so-popular subcompact premium SUV segment, facing a slew of rivals like the Audi Q3, Mercedes-Benz GLA/GLB, Lexus UX, Cadillac XT4, Jaguar E-Pace and Volvo XC40.
It rides on the BMW UKL platform, which also supports the BMW X1 and X2 crossovers and also the upcoming 2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe, a car Jalopnik EIC Patrick George and I had a blast driving down South Carolina roads. More on that soon.
After putting that 2 Series GC through its paces, I was genuinely looking forward to getting behind the wheel of this Countryman to sample how different (or identical) they actually are.
The biggest update for the 2020 model year is the addition of 32 percent more power and 28 percent more torque from the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, the only engine available for the JCW.
It’s now rated at 301 HP (up from 228) and 332 lb-ft (up from 258) thanks to a larger turbocharger, a modified crankshaft, new main bearings, JCW-specific pistons, and connecting rods as well as a reworked intake and exhaust. To put things into perspective, that’s the kind of power an American V8 would make not that long ago.
And it solves one of the biggest issues—maybe the biggest issue—with the latest generation of JCW cars: they just didn’t feel hot enough behind the wheel. Mini’s cars are still relatively small, so they can do a lot with 228 HP, but it’s just not enough to light your hair on fire. Crossing the 300 HP mark goes a long way to fixing that.
It’s also the engine that will propel the upcoming three-door Mini John Cooper Works GP, which should be one hell of a hot hatch.
All JCW Countrymans (Countrymen, I guess?) come standard with Mini’s All4 all-wheel drive system which can lock its front differential for improved traction. Brakes are also reportedly enhanced.
Sadly, and, inevitably, the manual gearbox option is gone, which used to make the JCW Countryman a unique kind of crossover. The only way to get power to the ground now is via an eight-speed automatic unit.
Mini claims that the power upgrade allows its little breadbox to launch from 0 to 60 mph in a brisk 5.1 seconds, or roughly the same time as a Volkswagen Golf R. Not bad for a small crossover.
The car’s chassis was also tweaked to accommodate the extra torque, as well as revised front and rear axles that focus on rigidity and weight savings.
My tester was a fully loaded Iconic model, the top-tier of three available trim levels, equipped with premium leather seats (but mine had the cloth option ticked off), 19-inch wheels, a slew of safety features, and the optional adaptive suspension.
It stickered for a grand total of $49,250. In grand Mini fashion, it’s not cheap.
The JCW Countryman shines most on a twisty road where its hyper-solid platform and playful character reward spirited driving. Its most attractive quality is, of course, its engine, which now allows you to push this thing significantly harder than before. And it better justifies that price.
Gone are the days when a Honda Accord could blow the doors off these things. The JCW Countryman is now properly quick, and still immensely fun to drive, with great composure over bumpy roads, quick turn-in, and surprisingly low body roll given its height. The chassis just takes that new power in no sweat, and I personally love the beefy steering wheel.
Driving this thing truly felt like that M235i Gran Coupe, but with a more top-heavy roof. For an SUV, it’s fantastic, even if it’s no sports car.
The engine’s torque does kick in low in the rev range, though, which helps getting this rather heavy Mini (3,600 pounds) off the line quickly. Power delivery is always butter smooth and linear, with little turbo lag given its forced induction nature.
It sounds mean too, but that’s all synthesized, unfortunately.
My favorite mode was obviously Sport, which not only firms up the adaptive dampers to a very stiff setting, but also emits some satisfying exhaust farts from the rear mufflers. Those are real, at least, which further increases the fun quotient.
The Countryman is also one of the rare automatic cars that I prefer shifting myself with the gear lever and not the steering-wheel-mounted paddles. I’m not quite sure why that’s the case here. Maybe I just miss the manual option that Mini was so known for.
I was, however, disappointed by the shape and length of the new shift knob, which is just kind of a tall nubby thing you toggle into place to select a gear. The last generation car had a long stick which reminded me of a dog-box sequential unit taken straight out of a rally car. Not so much the case here. But the Aisin-sourced eight-speed automatic, as usual, remains fantastic.
Performance aside, the Mini Countryman is actually quite decent at being a utility vehicle. Its high roof gives way to massive headroom, there’s solid visibility all around, and I was pleased to discover a cavernous rear bench given its size. I had no issue fitting back there, and I’m a pretty large adult human.
And there’s even a decent-sized trunk, too. Drop the rear seats in a Countryman and you’re left with 47.9 cubic feet of room. That’s just one cube below an Audi Q3 and pretty much identical to a Volvo XC40.
This definitely is a matter of personal taste, but I continue to love the overall dashboard layout of the current Minis. It’s both upscale and retro in there, with its toggle switches and gigantic center-mounted circular screen which serves as the car’s infotainment system. The small gauges mounted directly onto the steering column not only look rad, but they also house all the information you’ll ever really need.
If you’re into that kind of stuff, there’s tiny screen that pops up like in a Mazda CX-3 for a heads-up display. It’s fine, but I’d say skip the option as it’s rather useless.
Back to the infotainment system: the Countryman’s (or all other Mini for that matter) remains a very enjoyable one to use. One, because of its amusing graphics and cool menus showing pictures of tiny Minis, but also by its easy to grasp touch screen and/or console-mounted knob dial.
It’s a variant of BMW’s own iDrive system, which has become very, very good in recent years. One of the best in the industry, probably.
Information is easy to find and basic commands, like changing radio stations, are done quickly, which is what you want from these systems.
You knew this was coming: It’s expensive!
Granted, you’re getting decent performance (more decent than ever) and ample cargo space, but it still sells for well over $40,000. And that’s a problem when you start thinking about it, because that kind of money can get you inside a decent-sized sport utility vehicle with way more room and actual towing capabilities.
Hell, at $45,000, you can sit your bum inside a more comfortable BMW 330i sedan. Or for roughly the same price, there’s the Golf R (hurry while it’s still here), the Honda Civic Type R or even the Subaru WRX STI, actual sport sedans that will show this Countryman their taillights at the track.
The JCW Countryman may be a great little performance crossover, but there’s no getting around the fact that you can get more performance or more crossover for this price tag. It straddles the line between both, but maybe not in a way that makes it a total win.
Then there’s the lack of Android Auto, an issue I still don’t understand in this day and age.
Finally, if you don’t get the optional adaptive suspension, a JCW Countryman is a very stiff crossover, something I discovered during my last test drive of the thing. This is a historic issue with Mini, the JCWs and even many of BMW’s M cars, and it’s definitely present here.
It’s so stiff that it might not be too healthy for the backbones of your young children, which I assume is why you were interested in buying one of these in the first place; to carry your offspring to places while having fun. A Golf R does a better job of that.
Hey, at least it’s fun to drive, right? And at the end of the day, that’s why the Mini brand exists. So mission accomplished, I say.
The 2020 Mini JCW Countryman still looks weird and is still very expensive, but you’re at least getting a lot more for your money. It also does a fantastic job of being an actual crossover, too, so your hard-earned dollar is at least going into something useful.
Mini proves here that more power is always a good thing, no matter the vehicle. It also adds to the Countryman’s already endearing character which, let’s face it, can’t be found anywhere else in this segment.
But if it were up to me and I needed something to haul my family and their gear, I’d skip this and get a more affordable and utilitarian subcompact crossover, something like a second-hand Subaru wagon. Then I’d save my money for that upcoming 301-horsepower Mini JCW GP.
Priorities, and all that.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist in Montreal, Canada and contributes to Jalopnik. He runs claveyscorner.com.