Car companies need products that push the limit of the brand either in their design or performance. It pays to have a sub-brand that produces a limited and therefore more desirable numbers of specialist cars aimed at enthusiasts or those wanting novelty products. In the case of Mini this is John Cooper Works, the marque’s high-performance sub-brand. Founded in 2000 by John Cooper, a racing car maker and tuner who worked on the Mini Cooper models, BMW bought the company in 2008. For 2013, the entire range has been given the JCW treatment.
Mini is the fairy-tale success stories of modern motoring. Essentially a brand defined by a single model, under BMW ownership the Mini Hatch has been stretched (Clubman), chopped (Coupé), had its roof cut off (Convertible and Roadster) and got blown up (Countryman) to suit the wants and needs of more customers. Next on the list is the Mini Van and Paceman, the latter combining the Countryman’s practicality with cool coupé styling, and it will get the JCW treatment, too.
To test the cars, we are driving the Countryman JCW some 1,400 miles from Lisbon to London through Portugal, Spain and France. It is a mighty big road trip and the February weather is adding further challenges in some higher altitudes en-route. As we depart Lisbon news comes that the Pyrenees, in particular, is experiencing some extreme weather – snow, high winds, the lot – as are some parts of northern Spain and France, which are devastated by floods.
The Countryman is essentially a small SUV, so strictly speaking it stretches the brand name somewhat, but nevertheless retains the cheeky charms of Mini design – giant size instrument dials and round, bubbly vents. Our car is the first Mini with four-wheel-drive to be given the rally car treatment. The JCW Countryman is also the largest and most powerful model in the range, which is reassuring as are the added winter tyres.
The JCW is 10mm lower than the standard car and comes with an aerodynamic body kit, red brake callipers and extra-lightweight 18-inch Twin Spoke light-alloy wheels (19-inch wheels are available as an option). It hits 62mph in 7 seconds, has impressive traction and sporty handling, and you get a sexy JCW roaring engine note when you hit the ‘Sport’ button.
Inside is comfortable and roomy with a generous 1,170 litres hatchback boot that fits not only our suitcases, but also boxes of wine and food purchased along the way. Finally, the high seating position is an ideal place to sit back and watch the 1,400 miles unfold.
The Countryman is a good choice for a road trip as such. In northern Spain, high up in the Pyrenees as we cross the border to France, we brave high winds and sleet and snow sensing that with this car we’re in safe hands. An overnight stop in Bordeaux, we are reminded at how evocative the JCW badge is even outside the UK, with quite a few passers clearly admiring our car. Alighting in London we too feel an admiration for this rather grand grandchild of the old Mini on which my father taught my mother how to drive.
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