John Cooper Works is not a name generally associated with compact SUVs or crossovers, their famous badge most often grace cars that remain true to sir Alec Issigonis’ original recipe. Mini’s Countryman crossover has however just broken the mould and gained a Nandrolone shot, courtesy of the legendary JCW tuning arm.

Laying eyes on this new model at its recent media launch in Gauteng, I noticed the first sign of JCW fettling are the not-so-subtle stripes that start on the bonnet lid, just above the upper grille, run along the lower half of the doors and end at the tailgate. Contrasting mirrors, roof linings and a JCW logo on the front grille complete the aggressive styling upgrade. The JCW treatment also includes model-specific 18-inch alloy wheels.

Extrovert detailing

Inside, there's more wild styling, courtesy of the retro-chic circular theme to the instruments, controls, air vents and red trim highlights on the facia, centre stack, seat edges and part of the door panels.

The particular model I drove featured two individual rear seats, but the car can be specced with a conventional rear bench to seat three, if so desired.

Punchy motor, despite its size

The Countryman JCW is powered by the company’s redesigned 1,6-litre turbopetrol engine. BMW didn’t go into much detail about the new motor, other than it develops 160 kW at 6 000 r/min and 280 N.m of torque between 1 900 and 5 000 r/min  (an additional 20 N.m of torque is available on overboost between 2 100 and 4 500 r/min). Navigating the launch route out of Sandton, I noted just how responsive this powerplant is – even at low engine speeds. I actually think the Countryman JCW could easily handle bit more grunt as there’s plenty of grip off the line courtesy of this models all-wheel drive layout – which, in turn, also makes quick getaways fairly undramatic.

Heading North-West toward the Gerotek test facility gave me the chance to stir the six-speed manual gearbox a bit. Shifts are positive and are met with a reassuring notch into each new cog. Overall, I found that the All4 four-wheel drive system blunted the experience on tighter and twistier roads. Yes there’s the sure-footedness that comes with all four corners sharing torque, but the fun-factor associated with the lighter, edgier front-wheel drive models is missed, I feel.

Overtaking acceleration is impressive nonetheless. There’s no need to mess around with shifting, as in most instances a proper flex of the right foot does the job. For a 1,6-litre engine that has to move nearly 1 500 kg, that’s mighty impressive.

Quite comfortable, and capable

I wasn’t quite sure how the Countryman JCW would handle Gauteng’s pockmarked and potholed B-roads, especially with its low-profile 18-inch rubber and sports (lowered) suspension, stiffer springs and dampers and strengthened anti-roll bars. In general, JCWs aren’t known for delivering especially compliant ride qualities, but I was genuinely surprised with the way this tuned Countryman managed to dull the numerous road imperfections thrown at it.

Numerous nice-to-have interior features also make the experience that much more pleasurable. A dual panoramic roof, intuitive Mini Connected infotainment system (which seamlessly integrates social media, news updates, internet radio and music sources), and customizable mood lighting are standard fitment. An optional Harman Kardon sound system kept the audiophile in me happy, playing my choice of music through its USB (there’s also an auxiliary input for the iPhone) once I had the chance to connect it.

With the on-road stuff out of the way, it was time for a bit of skid pan fun as the assembled media got to experience all three  traction control modes of the new car. Apparently the All4 system can send up to 100 per cent of the torque to the rear wheels if conditions so require, but try as I might I could not induce any opposite lock  – though lots of fun was had finding out just how effectively the Countryman’s systems handle any situation.

Summary

Not many brands boast a tuning arm that caters for vehicles marketed toward the leisure vehicle side of things, but at close to half a million rand, I almost automatically expected the Countryman JCW to be worth every cent. For the most part it is, but only if you’re really careful with the options list. Otherwise, it’s a hoot to drive. With space for the kids and some all-wheel drive prowess, the Mini Countryman JCW is a car for the hooligan that’s grown up and actually looks forward to going on a family holiday – though isn't prepared to sacrificing having some fun along the way.

Specifications:*

Model: Mini Cooper Countryman John Cooper Works

Engine: turbocharged, 1,6-litre four-cylinder

Power: 160 kW at 6 000 r/min

Torque: 280 N.m at 1 900 – 5 000 r/min (300 N.m on overboost)

0-100 km/h: 7,0 seconds

Fuel consumption: 8,0 litres/100 km

Top speed:  225 km/h

CO2 emissions: 186 g/km

Price: R433 643

*According to Mini