Hammering through a corner, the All4 all-wheel-drive system, sticky summer tires and extra-sharp Mini steering are exactly as you’d expect. This thing has ridiculously high levels of grip in the dry and, with the ability to shunt up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels, none of the tire-scrubbing oversteer of its front-wheel-drive stablemates. It’s also a bit less fun, not so much scampering along like a go-kart as faithfully sticking to the road like a Hot Wheels in its orange track.
2013 Mini JCW Countryman. Click image to enlarge
When not driving like you’re fleeing the carabinieri with an extra-large cargo of stolen gold, the JCW Countryman is quite comfortable over broken surfaces, but has much too darty steering to be relaxing to drive at highway speeds. This is not so much a complaint as one of the chief characteristics about the car – part of that Mini DNA is a very aggressive steering rack, and despite the electric power-assist it still has good feedback.
But repeated trips along both curving roads and in stop and go traffic really made one thing crystal clear. The driver’s choice here must be the manual transmission – great steering, great traction and a willing chassis are all very well, but without a quicker-shifting auto with more satisfying controls, why bother moving up from a normal Countryman Cooper S? After all, if you want all the go-fast looks, you can just select them as options.
With a stick shift though, this big-small, heavy-light, powerful-moderate expensive contradiction in terms might actually make some kind of sense. Yes, for the money you could buy a nicely equipped Mazda CX-5 and a track-rat Miata to go with it, but as a top-dog compact luxury crossover, there’s not much out there that’s as much of a hoot to drive.*
Too bad we have to add in a Barry Bonds–style asterisk.
* With the six-speed manual
Pricing: 2013 Mini JCW Countryman All4
Base Price (Countryman Cooper S All4): $29,900
Base Price (JCW Countryman All4): $38,500
Options: $10,785 (Premium Package — $1,990; Wired Package — $1,850; six-speed Auto — $1,300; Sound Package — $990; 19-inch Alloys — $750; Championship Leather — $1,900; Park Distance Control, Adaptive Headlights, Stripes, etc — $2,005)
A/C Tax: $100
Price as tested: $51,340