The Mini Countryman JCW offers performance and a surprising amount of gravel road ability. Picture: BMW SA/​ROB TILL
The Mini Countryman JCW offers performance and a surprising amount of gravel road ability. Picture: BMW SA/​ROB TILL

John Cooper never made a performance version of the classic Mini Clubman.

Perhaps he sat there one evening, drinking a warm ale and pondering whether he should. Who knows whether he decided it was a silly idea and poured another ale.

BMW, however, had no reservations and has recently introduced not just a John Cooper Works (JCW) version of the Mini estate Clubman, but the Countryman too.

According to Edward Makwana, the PR chap at BMW and Mini SA, the JCW versions are "nonconformist, for those who want a step up from normal Mini models".

Fair enough and for those who do not want to stretch to the full JCW versions, the company will introduce performance packs late in 2018.

The interiors get the latest JCW treatment and Mini Connected is also a standard feature. Picture: BMW SA/​ROB TILL
The interiors get the latest JCW treatment and Mini Connected is also a standard feature. Picture: BMW SA/​ROB TILL

We headed down to the Western Cape to experience both JCW versions on tarmac and gravel mountain passes near George and Knsyna.

First up was the Countryman version, which in full Sport auto guise carries a whopping price tag of R636,510. For that you get the All4 all-wheel-drive system, which has the potential to push 100% of torque to the rear axle, although most of the time it will stick with front-wheel drive.

That torque figure is 350Nm with power of 170kW. There is no denying it is a potent little machine, but we use the word little loosely here because a Mini these days is anything but mini.

I was expecting plenty of understeer on the gravel as the turbo pushes all that torque to the wheels and the car scrabbles for grip. Except it didn’t. It felt composed with the only annoyance being a tendency to be uncertain about which gear to be in as the demand for power under foot failed to match the level of grip the tyres had on the loose surface. Slot it into manual and use the paddles and this was reduced slightly, but honestly it was only a small issue.

Most of the time, the Countryman JCW impressed with its level of ride comfort. Let’s face it, the JCW version is engineered not so much for gravel roads but for tarmac, where the all-wheel-drive grip can provide a higher level of confidence as it tackles twisty bends. Even then, most people will rarely explore the limits of their JCW model, especially a Countryman version, instead choosing the model because they want a "step up from normal Mini models".

Not surprisingly, the Clubman JCW felt more at home on the Outeniqua Pass. Actually, it felt very at home on the pass. It stuck to the road well and never faltered even when pushed hard. The engine response was brilliant, allowing it to point and squirt between each corner.

The Clubman JCW makes less sense but is a proper pocket rocket on a mountain pass. Picture: BMW SA/​ROB TILL
The Clubman JCW makes less sense but is a proper pocket rocket on a mountain pass. Picture: BMW SA/​ROB TILL

It felt better balanced than the regular Mini JCW model and I was happy to risk the wrath of the PR people and ditch the launch route they had chosen and go up and down the pass revelling in the fun factor that is well engineered into the model.

If only the Clubman was not such a pointless car. You get more boot space, but those twin doors at the rear have a pillar between them that obscures your view of what is behind you. The car looks overstretched. It all seems wrong, no matter how much fun it is behind the wheel.

The Countryman is less strange. Its price tag is ridiculous but if you want a package you can personalise, that offers 170kW and can take to SA’s back roads then go for it. I’m not going to judge. John Cooper might, but I suspect he gave up turning in his grave long ago.

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