Angry-looking big Mini is a fun drive
By Jim Bray
Is calling a Mini big an oxymoron?
After all, among other things, the name Mini means – according to my Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary –"of a small or reduced size in comparison with others of its kind." Not only that, but the original Mini of classic car fame was a truly small car – a very small car. Heck, when I was in school, we used to marvel at how our music teacher (who seemed at the time to be about nine feet tall) managed to fold himself into his Mini.
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Minis were indeed small, but they were an absolute blast to drive (when, being British cars of the time, they deigned to run). When I had a 1967 MGB one of my best friends had a Mini of that vintage and we used to tear all around southern Ontario with blissful abandon. My B was faster, but that low and short Mini stuck to the road like fecal matter to a Hudson's Bay blanket (you American readers probably don't get that very Frostback reference, but as you can undoubtedly guess it means "really well").
BMW's reimagining of the Mini is – and sure feels like – a much larger car, not that it reminds me of a land barge at all. Fortunately, every modern Mini I've driven has also been a blast to drive (like pretty well every BMW I've driven, in fact), and the little critter has also evolved since then, adding "SUV" and "wagon" versions, among others.
So, it was that the 2019 Mini Countryman found its way to Chateau Bray for a week heading into the Christmas holidays. And it wasn't just a Countryman, it was the John Cooper Works ALL4 Midnight Black Edition that features more power, all wheel drive, a sport suspension, Brembo brakes, and offers nearly as much driving fun as you can get with an automatic transmission.
I was disappointed to find the sample Mini was an automatic – the car just cries out for a stick, and the six speed stick versions I've driven in the past are delicious. But I needn't have worried. The eight speed "Steptronic" transmission is a peach, and it has a really nice manual mode with paddle shifters. I'd probably buy the stick, but could live easily with the automatic.
But this is indeed a big Mini! While zipping around Calgary in it, I passed a Mustang that was lower than the Mini! Yet the car doesn't feel particularly large, and its size actually makes getting in and out easier if you're a middle-aged fat oaf (I managed to find one for this review).
It's unmistakably Mini, though the cute semi-circular grille has been replaced by a downturned scowl that makes the car seems like it's angry at being driven in traffic when what it really wants is to be on an open back road somewhere, carving up a few curves.
The interior seems designed as much for form as function, which could be okay if done properly. It's cute and everything works okay once you figure it out (I've found BMW interfaces difficult to fathom wherever I find them, though either they're getting better or I'm finally figuring them out). If you want to save radio station presets in the buttons on the centre stack, you have do it differently than by merely saving them using the LCD interface on the centre stack. Why can't saving them in one place save them in both places? I'm sure BMW would argue that it's to give more choice, more flexibility, and they're right to a point – but I found it weirdly redundant.
I also suffered from the fact that the dashboard is so close to me in this car that it's right on the cusp of where I need to put on my reading glasses. That meant the speedometer and other gauges appeared fuzzy without my glasses, which I don't wear when I'm driving. Fortunately, the speedometer is the gauge I use the least…
Obviously, this issue won't be noticed by those who have a different prescription.
The cabin does impart a feeling that you're sitting in a turret, though the greenhouse is fine overall, offering a very good view of the world outside the Mini.
The John Cooper Works version comes with a two-liter four-cylinder engine, and it's a peach as well. It cranks out 228 horses (up 39 from the previous version) and every one of them seems ready to prance as if it were part of the team pulling Judah Ben-Hur's famed Arabian steeds in that famed chariot race. Indeed, while more power is always nice, it isn't really needed here.
Add that upgraded sports suspension, 18-inch John Cooper Works Grip Spoke alloy wheels and the Brembo sports brake system and the racing heritage becomes clear. The folks at Mini even added some special exterior features designed to highlight the car's sporty credentials while optimizing its aerodynamic properties – stuff like a honeycomb grille, larger air intakes on the lower front fascia, a spoiler, etc. The result is a brick that's less bricklike on the road, and that of course is a good thing.
Inside, you get heated sport seats, a 6.5-inch infotainment screen whose interface anyone familiar with BMW will recognize. There's also dual zone HVAC, a nice panoramic sunroof and some Union Jack stuff to help minimize the fact that your British classic is now a German classic.
Besides the JCW sport seats inside, you also get a JCW-specific steering wheel and shift lever. Vehicle customization possibilities are many, which is common these days but nevertheless very welcome.
Those toggle switches on the dashboard look as if they'd get gross with gunk over the years of the car's ownership, so take your detailing duties seriously!
I loved driving the Mini in sport mode, which also sounds really great. The front seats are extremely comfortable and more supportive than my kids ever were. Upshifts come quickly from the excellent automatic, undoubtedly to save fuel, but if you drive the Mini like it wants to be driven it acts accordingly, holding the gears until much higher in the rev range. Shifts are fast.
And get this: No blind spot monitor, no lane keeping assist, none of that annoying nanny stuff that makes it seem as if driving skills are optional. Indeed, this is a driver's car, and it's lots of fun – yet since it's also a bit of an SUV/wagon it's also reasonably practical.
I did miss a manual hand brake, though, when we had some snowy parking lots that cried out for donuts.
Speaking of practicality, the bigger JCW Mini Countryperson has so much room for stuff that they really should call it the "Maxi." There's even a good selection of little bins and stuff for your smaller items of contraband.
Naturally, all this goodness comes with a price. While Mini Canada says the John Cooper Works Countryman starts at $38,500 CAD, by the time the company's sample is tallied up – thanks to such options as the $7,200 Midnight Black Edition package – the Monroney moves up to $46,990, which is getting to be some serious coin.
Still, if you have that coin, the Mini Countryman JCW is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Copyright 2019 Jim Bray
Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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