The Tuatara isn’t exactly an American supercar, not in the truest sense anyway. The name refers to a reptile endemic to New Zealand described by researchers as one of the world’s fastest-evolving creatures despite looking much closer to anything you’ve seen in Jurassic Park than the ugliest gecko hiding in your kitchen cabinet. Cars evolve over time too, and we think we’ve just identified the real tuatara of the motoring world: Mini’s latest John Cooper Works (JCW) models, starting with the Countryman JCW.
On the surface, every modern Mini tries its absolute best to reproduce the iconic look of the nameplate’s British Leyland days and succeeds to a certain degree; it’s obvious that a 2019 Cooper is 60 years older than the original, but its unmistakably Mini design cues do a splendid job of masking the BMW-derived underpinnings, maybe even more so than the opinion-dividing Toyota Supra. So the overall persona hasn’t really changed in six decades. But the rapid evolution lies underneath the clamshell hood of Mini Malaysia’s priciest and most powerful offering to date.
The 306bhp and 450Nm the Countryman JCW shares with the similarly fresh Clubman JCW represent a massive leap in overall performance for what are essentially mid-life updates of each respective model. As more players in the hot hatch game extract previously unthinkable figures from humble four bangers, Mini has followed suit by upping the outputs of its JCW models by a whopping 75bhp and 100Nm. The difference in horsepower between model years alone is more than most pre-BMW era Minis ever mustered; a punch in the gut to those who purchased a JCW a few months too early, so to speak.
Despite power surge, the Countryman JCW’s heft still shows on public straights – its occasional hesitance being most noticeable in the default ‘Mid’ driving mode. The amped-up Mini is surprisingly civil and pleasant to drive in its standard configuration, but slightly more enthusiastic drivers who demand just a little bit more haste may find that a bit more difficult to attain than expected. Do not get us wrong, the Countryman JCW is a properly quick compact crossover. But the middle ground between its daily setup and track-ready aggression is very blur; it’s like walking into a Nando’s to find they have mild, extra hot and absolutely nothing in between.
Embrace the heat and you’ll find that Mini has taken the JCW’s performance element very, very seriously, starting with a launch control function that should allow you to replicate the spec sheet’s 5.1-second century sprint (1.5 seconds faster than the outgoing 231bhp engine). The speed multiplies in tandem with the volume of the pops and crackles escaping the 95-mm JCW exhaust – its soundtrack entertainingly loud yet surprisingly cultured unlike thrashier tunes played by rivalling four-pot hot hatches. And a set of massive 18-inch rotors with fittingly red calipers are always on standby to ensure the party comes to a halt when it needs to.
The bizarre aspect about the Countryman JCW’s knack for driving like a thoroughbred sports car is how it still feels like a tall-ish SUV from the driver’s seat despite sitting 10mm closer to the tarmac than a regular Countryman. This illusion conjures expectations of a car that leans and wallows through the bends, but there is actually an immense amount of grip thanks to the JCW’s All4 AWD setup and mechanical differential lock for the front axle. The result is a fast four-wheeler which drives with an uncanny resemblance to a traditional hot hatch when rallied.
On days when you are perfectly agreeable with the powertrain’s laid back attitude in more domesticated driving conditions, the adaptive suspension soaks up the daily grind with relative ease alongside the eight-speed transmission that rarely disappoints, no matter who’s behind the wheel. The Countryman’s girth plays nicely to its versatile strengths too; the JCW’s uprated output brings the fight closer to the previously uncontested and overtly violent Mercedes-AMG GLA45, but the roomier Mini is easily the more liveable car of the two. It’s a unique brand of practical performance peppered with the brand’s signature eccentricities. We just wish all of them were actually likeable.
Some of the Countryman’s ingrained traits shared across the Mini catalogue struggle to keep up with the high levels of precision and focus delivered by the JCW bits that make all the difference in the drive department. The signature retro dash, for one, scatters many vital controls like the driving mode selector and engine stop-start switch into peculiar nooks and crannies. The driver-facing analogue dial doesn’t relay information you’d want on a track day like temperatures and turbo pressure, and having to scroll through the 8.8-inch touchscreen for more details can be a pain at times.
Annoying as some of these niggles may be – some might argue they add character – they’re certainly not deal breakers for an otherwise dynamically polished package capable of integrating with most driving routines without a hitch. That the Countryman JCW is the biggest, brawniest and priciest hunk of metal you can get in local Mini showrooms adds to the novelty of having one parked in your driveway. Just don’t count on it holding onto these stats for long; the fast-changing reptile within might just make a lunge for JCW’s headier rivals in its next move, if the hot hatch survives the new decade that is. It’s a rare breed either way.
The result is a fast four-wheeler which drives with an uncanny resemblance to a traditional hot hatch when rallied.
|Focused performance, entertaining exhaust note and broadly competent damping||Little middle ground between lazy and overzealous, retro cockpit lacks focus|