JCW Goes AWD on Mini CUV
On paper, the 2012 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 John Cooper Works, the first four-wheel drive vehicle to ever wear Mini’s JCW badge, is a mouth-watering proposition — and a mouthful to say.
I’m here in the Austrian Alps braving sub-zero temperatures with Heinz Krusche, BMW‘s head of driving dynamics and my co-pilot for the drive of the newest JCW Mini. Krusche revealed that the prototype we were running through the Alpine passes was already 85 percent complete and in Austria for final evaluation. But Mini officials refused to talk about power or performance figures for the JCW Countryman on this trip, so we’ll have to wait until just before the car makes its debut at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show in March for official stats. After using my right foot as a gauge, paired with a sprinkling of intuition, I can take a good guess.
On the low-friction test route, where I found moments to stretch its legs, the power delivery was never as manic as the other JCW Coopers. But the swell of acceleration was thrilling nonetheless, and the throttle response and six-speed manual’s operation were just as crisp. Horsepower will be slightly higher than the rest of Mini JCW Cooper crew at just north of 220 hp from the 1.6-liter turbocharged engine in order to help offset its 375-lb weight penalty (torque is expected to remain at 192 lb-ft). Given its added heft, its 0-60 mph time will be slightly slower than its JCW brethren, at a shade under 7 seconds.
Car disguises have come a long way in the last few years, but Mini’s traditional yellow-swirled camouflage is — let’s face it — fairly pointless. The pumped-up bodywork can clearly be seen; the tape simply marks out its prototype status. Up front it shares roughly the same grille as the Countryman S other than the front lip spoiler, which is lower and more pronounced. And just in case you had any doubts about which “secret” development mule this car is, a large John Cooper Works badge on the grille spells it out.
At the rear, a deeper bumper wraps entirely around the twin tailpipes, while the thicker side skirts, partially hidden here by the tape, are color-matched to the bodywork. The suspension is also 10mm lower, giving the car a squatter stance that’s closer to a traditional hatchback than the compact crossover Mini proclaims the Countryman to be.
Other than slightly thicker anti-roll bars and that 10mm drop, the sport suspension from the Countryman S was deemed sufficient for the JCW. Considering it was already on the firm side, that’s a smart move. With a layer of soft snow on the roads and winter tires fitted to the prototype, it was difficult to make a definitive judgement on the ride, but it certainly felt firm. More impressive was the way it felt utterly planted and refused to roll however much I chucked it around. On slower models a backbreaking ride is unforgiveable, but on an overtly sporty model like the JCW, it’s an acceptable compromise. To haul off the increased speeds, the rear brake discs have grown from 11.0 to 11.7 inches.
There’s the same three-stage ESP system and Sport button you’ll find in lesser Countrymans. The latter weights up the steering, sharpens the throttle slightly, and gives the exhaust note a raspier sound, with flurries of pops and bangs when you back of the accelerator — a JCW hallmark. It’s the steering, though, that steals the show.
Krusche told me this car’s development was easier than any other JCW model because there wasn’t the problem of attempting to contain torque steer. And right from the start it’s obvious the steering has a fluidity and accuracy existing JCWs simply can’t match, because torque is shared equally between two axles, setting this car apart from the rest of the JCW rabble. Not only can you deploy the power easier, you’ll also be able to place the Countryman more accurately on the road, too.
As if Mini wanted to highlight this exact point, moments after stepping out of the prototype I was also handed the keys to a JCW Mini Coupe and pointed toward the same stretch of road. It turned out to be a revealing exercise as the Coupe squirmed around on the snow with the wheel tugging left and right in my hands. It was massive fun, but didn’t inspire the same confidence. As the JCW Countryman prototype blasted into the distance, the JCW Coupe trailed in its wake.
The Countryman S’ All4 all-wheel-drive system has been modified for JCW duty with a permanent 50:50 torque distribution between the two axles. If that sounds a bit sterile, not to worry, Mini’s engineers have still dialed in some fun. Dip the clutch or squeeze the brakes hard and the rear axle disengages immediately for improved stability — creating the perfect setup for handbrake turns. The only other time it turns two-wheel drive is when you’re travelling above 87 mph, to save fuel.
Krusche was quite clear that this car wasn’t built using lessons learned from the Countryman WRC contender, claiming it was far too early for that. I’m not so sure. On these icy tracks it was more than happy to hang its tail out when provoked, in true rallying style. This car might be the biggest deviation yet from the original Mini template, but in JCW form especially, it still knows how to have some fun.
|2012 Mini Countryman Cooper S All4 John Cooper Works|
|BASE PRICE||$35,000 (MT est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 4-pass, 4-door hatchback|
|ENGINES||1.6L/220 hp/192 lb-ft (mt est) turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|CURB WEIGHT||3200 lb (MT est)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||161.8 x 70.4 x 61.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.9 sec (est)|
|FUEL ECON||25/33 mpg (MT eest)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.62 lb/mile|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Late 2012|