JCW; three letters that have come to mean the same to Mini owners as AMG does to Mercedes and RS to Audi fans. Each member of the Mini family gets the “works” and the protagonist of this test, the five-door variant, is the latest.
The Countryman JCW All4 loudly announces its intentions. It boasts larger, model-specific alloys, a lower ride height, aero kit and racy red highlights down the flanks, mirrors and the roof, which are stark against the dark paintwork, and an accentuated power bulge on the bonnet. Not everyone is a fan of the Countryman’s styling to start with and the same holds true of the hottest variant. The treatment is continued inside with sports seats, red safety belts and certain highlighted trim items.
But what does the JCW approach mean performance-wise? Power from the zingy, 1,6-litre motor, similar to that used in its siblings, has been increased to 160 kW and maximum torque is rated at 280 N.m, with 300 N.m available on overboost. Unlike any other JCW model, however, drive is delivered to all corners.
Other hot Mini models are known for their torque-steering traits but, with up to 50 per cent of drive being sent to the rear axle in this car, that aspect has been eliminated. The price, however, is paid in terms of the extra mass due to the all-wheel-drive system. It tips the scales at nearly 1,5 tonnes with a full tank of fuel, which incidentally is reduced to 47 litres due to the rear-drivetrain components.
Sadly, it is that extra mass that really blunts the driving sensation. The overall experience is quite anodyne and leaves you feeling underwhelmed. A slightly heavier steering action doesn’t really add to the experience, either. Dynamically speaking, it is adept but hardly engaging.
During our test procedure, a surfeit of traction off the line caused the engine to bog down on hard launches and even slipping the clutch resulted in a benchmark sprint time to 100 km/h of 8,0 seconds, one second short of Mini’s claimed time and rather uninspiring for a hot hatch.
So, what we’re left with is a not-so-hot hatch with compromised practicality (read: luggage area) and which doesn’t engage from a driver’s point of view. Add to these qualities a base price of over R440 000 (R509 343 as tested) and it is difficult to make a case for the Countryman JCW. They may be a little less distinctive than the Mini, but your money is probably better spent on a VW Golf GTI, Ford Focus ST or even an Astra OPC if you really want an entertaining, powerful hatchback.