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FRANKFURT, Germany – Accommodating a new 2,0-litre turbopetrol motor that propels its metabolism 55 kW beyond its already punchy predecessor, the new John Cooper Works Clubman shares the mantle of Mini’s most powerful production model to date. But it’s a surprisingly subtle package.

Packing some punch

The 2,0-litre turbo-four has undergone a number of developments, including gaining a strengthened crankshaft, pistons and con rods, as well as a compression ratio drop from 10,2 to 9,5 to accommodate the increased charge pressure generated by a larger turbocharger. The upshot is a brawny 225 kW and 450 N.m (the latter up 100 N.m), increases of 32 percent and 28 percent, respectively, over the previous unit.

In a bid to minimise the gap between driver input and vehicle response, Mini’s engineers have incorporated such features as more direct shift mapping for the uprated eight-speed transmission, as well as converter lockup clutch that shuts immediately after pulling away. This unit also integrates a diff-lock capable of locking up to 39 percent, while the new engine features both Mini’s takes on BMW’s Valvetronic and Vanos systems which oversee variable valve and camshaft timing, respectively, in a bid to improve the immediacy between throttle input and thrust.

Speedy… 

To some degree, these response-honing measures have had the desired effect; the Clubman certainly is responsive and there’s no doubting the performance on offer. The uprated AWD system ably pastes that 225 kW of power to the road, making the claimed 4,9-second 0-100 km/h sprint time entirely believable. Toggling the paddle shifters on twisty sections of the drive is rewarded with brisk changes, both up and down.

Unleashed on unrestricted sections of Autobahn, 200 km/h was effortlessly clocked with the Clubman feeling as though it still had power to spare. Taking to twistier rural roads, the Clubman’s take on Mini’s oft-quoted "go-kart-like" driving attitude presents itself in a less darty, more measured manner than before with a fair amount of body-roll evident. It feels less hard-edged than JCWs of the past, for sure, but weighty, direct steering and plentiful grip aided by the stability system’s lateral torque vectoring and a mechanical diff lock mean it would take some foolish provocation to upset the vehicle's dynamic composure.

But a little softer

JCWs have traditionally traded on their vociferous exhaust notes and the tendency to reward a heavy throttle foot with a sometimes uncouth, but nonetheless charming, spot of shoulder-pinning punchiness and tyre scrabble. Perhaps it’s the considerable steps Mini has taken in terms of mechanical refinement and the caprices of plumbing some emission-gobbling bits into the exhaust system, but the Clubman feels and sounds more civilised than you’d expect for something wearing that Works badge.

Power delivery is swift but more of a rapid billow than an eye-widening spike, while the contrast between the snaps and rifle-fire cracks that traditionally issue forth from JCW exhausts has been pared down to muffled puffs and pops escaping the Clubman’s tail. While such softening of the Clubman’s hard-edged persona may prove divisive, it’s fair to say that the same cannot be said of the ride. Where previous JCWs often showed a tendency to wallop over road scars, the new Clubman, albeit equipped as our launch unit was with the optional adaptive damping system, rides with a pleasing fluidity, even when perched on a fetching set of 19-inch rims. 

It still looks the part

Thankfully, there’s still enough visual edge to the JCW to make it stand out. Deep skirts with meshed vents and bodywork awash with striping remain JCW staples, but are now joined by revised LED headlamps and brakelamp arrays that glow with the Union Jack stripes when the progressive but formidably capable braking system, now featuring 360 mm discs up front and 330 mm items aft, is called upon.

Better balanced, or too civilised?

Whether it’s the product of smoothing out the JCW character to appeal to a broader audience, or a by-product of impressive engineering, it feels like a markedly more mature and balanced creature than before. We’ll just have to see how this more civilised approach washes with hot hatch enthusiasts when it arrives in South Africa towards the end of 2019.

KNYSNA, Western Cape – I admit to still having to think twice about connecting the name Countryman with a hatchback whereas the Clubman is the model with swing doors. In my defence, the reason is that three friends of mine, way back, owned original Minis and one was the relatively rare Countryman, finished in red with a pair of barn doors at the rear.

The modern Countryman is now in its second generation, aimed at the owner who wants a sports vehicle with style, power and the ability to handle what the brand terms "all conditions". Successes in the Dakar rally certainly help to cement this off-road bent.

"Versatility" was a buzzword mentioned by the BMW-backed brand and it certainly has that. The looks are largely unaltered because they work, with some aerodynamic tweaks, LED headlamps and new wheels for good measure. The car is a full five-seater and leg room at the rear is actually fairly generous. I did find the front seats a bit small, but the leather/Alcantara covering is very attractive. Interior space is improved with the extra length and width of the new design. While the JCW Clubman sits lower, the Countryman has an added 10 mm for greater ground clearance of 165 mm to suit poor roads conditions.

Naturally, JCW is mainly about performance. With the Mini brand, this also means stand-out-from-the-crowd features and colour schemes, and a variety of options is available. For example, 19-inch wheels in place of the standard 18-inch alloys, rally stripes and two-tone colour schemes. Other options include a panoramic glass roof, dual-zone climate control, seat heating, folding mirrors, Harmon Kardon audio and sat-nav on a touchscreen.

While a six-speed manual version is available, all the launch cars were equipped with the impressive eight-speed auto Steptronic gearbox with paddle shifts, should you want to play boy-racer. The power of the 2,0-litre turbo engine has been increased to 170 kW between 5 000 and 6 000 r/min with torque output up to a maximum of 350 N.m between 1 450 and 4 500 r/m. This was achieved by increasing boost to 2,2 bar and fitting a larger intercooler. To improve cooling an extra radiator is fitted front left in place of a foglamp.

Braking scrubs off speed more effectively thanks to the fitment of Brembo four-piston callipers up front. All the stability and traction controls you can imagine are there to keep you in mischief, but out of trouble. Speed-adjusted Servotronic steering firms up when on the move, and while it is a touch on the light side, we were driving in high north-wester rain-bringing winds so the steering was working quite hard to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Three driving modes can be selected, starting with green, which softens throttle response, the engine acoustics and the shift pattern on the eight-speed 'box, as well as enables a coast mode (that decouples power at speeds above 50 km/h when backing off the accelerator). The other two modes are comfort and sport. The latter is obviously the most fun, especially when combined with manual shifting. The all-wheel-drive system uses the front wheels as default, but transmits torque to the rear in a split second whenever required.

Our test route included the very scenic Prince Alfred’s pass between Knysna and Uniondale, the longest useable mountain pass in South Africa at 68 km. This is considered to be Thomas Bain’s most difficult job and is a work of art. To add to the dangers of blind corners and potholes, we had continuous rain and ambient temperatures dropping as low as 3 degrees C.

Even though few would tackle this pass with mere hatchbacks, the Countryman was very impressive. It never lost its grip, managed the potholes firmly and remained fun to drive in all three driving modes. Of course, the tyres are rather low-profile for off-roading, but this choice provides high-speed stability on tar, where it handles even better than on gravel passes.

It could be argued that one doesn’t need more than the front wheel-drive 141 kW Countryman Steptronic that we tested in our July 2017 issue. And that choice would save you over R100 000. But the extra power and traction, optional goodies and paint schemes, plus the legendary badge, might persuade you to think otherwise...

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