Two cars for the price of one with the sporty MINI

So, how’s the JCW? I think of myself as a petrolhead but I’ve never heard of this car regarded as such.

The sporty MINI Countryman JCW

It’s a John Cooper Works version of the MINI Countryman, which means it’s a high-performance version.

It never occured to me to call it a JCW but a petrolhead acquaintance spotted it and asked what I thought.

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I told him what I'll tell you: it's two cars in one. A stunning sports car on the one hand and a family SUV on the other which is better mannered than any sporty MINI I've driven before.

John Cooper was a rally car builder who had an impact on many forms of motor racing including Formula One and whose name was used by Mini (the original British brand) and MINI (the BMW incarnation).

The JCW influence was particularly strong with the traditional smaller Mini but it has been adapted to cover the Countryman, which is a crossover vehicle – a rival for many vehicles including the Range Rover Evoque.

Tested here is the £40,000-plus Countryman John Cooper Works, which is a phenomenal machine. Top speed 155mph and 0 to 60mph in just over five seconds, yet it can operate equally as adeptly as a family runaround.

The latest version has been given design and technology updates, with improved standard equipment.

It has a newly designed radiator grille, 95mm enlarged tailpipes, LED headlamps and foglights as standard, two new body colours and 5in digital dash incorporating the dinnerplate-sized dial similar to those in early Minis.

The engine delivers maximum output of 306hp and 450Nm of torque. In addition to specifically modified components, the chassis also has suspension and damping features refined with racing expertise, Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and electromechanical steering.

As an option, the new MINI Countryman John Cooper Works can be equipped with an adaptive chassis. Standard equipment includes a sports brake system with four-piston fixed caliper disc brakes on the front wheels, single-piston floating-caliper disc brakes on the rear wheels and 18in John Cooper Works light-alloy wheels with brake callipers painted in Chili Red. Subtle? Well, actually it is.

It also has a boot which measures 450 litres rising to 1,390 with the seats down which rivals the seemingly bigger Evoque (472 and 1,156 litres).

It is more than just a brutal sporty car, though. It has comfort features including “mood lighting” and piano black details.

I must admit I tend to rail against successful car companies bringing out similar-but-different siblings. Fiat did it with the 500, creating a flurry of less cute models like the 500L and 500X.

And MINI are at it in force with the Countryman, Coupe, Clubman and others. You can see why they do it because not everyone can manage with the little 500 or a standard three-door MINI.

But guess what? The MINI Countryman has established itself almost as a standalone brand. And it has managed to become almost as distinguished as the MINI hatch.

Countryman JCW is a combustion-only model, and uses the most powerful engine ever fitted to a production MINI. It’s a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder unit that produces 302bhp. It sends that drive to all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox, and thanks to the added traction the ALL4 system brings, 0 to 62mph takes 5.1 seconds.

It is undoubtedly quick and firm but unlike some fast MINIs, it doesn’t feel harsh. It offers a comfortable ride.

But on a country road it no longer feels like a small SUV, but more like a proper hot hatch. It’s grippy, and changes direction well, so you can enjoy driving the Countryman JCW.

Top-spec JCW models do get a fair level of kit to justify that price tag. The Comfort Plus Pack is included, adding a rear-view camera, all-round parking sensors, climate control, heated seats and a centre armrest. Navigation with Apple CarPlay is via an 8.8in screen and leather sports seats, keyless operation and cruise control are all included.

MINI Countryman John Cooper Works

Price: £41,770 which includes black roof rails £100; sun protection glass £300; adaptive LED headlights £500; Harman/Kardon Surround Sound Audio System £600. Standard Countryman starts at £24,805

Engine: A 2.0 litre petrol engine with eight-speed automatic with a manual mode

Performance: Top speed 155mph and 0 to 60mph in 5.1 seconds

Economy: 32mpg

Insurance: Group 38E

Emissions 186g/km