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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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