Road Impressions – MINI John Cooper Works Countryman All4

It had been far too long ago since a John Cooper Works MINI had graced my test schedule, so the prospect of a latest generation offering was something I was looking forward to – a chance to reconnect with a nimble and feisty performer with more than just a hint of the mischievous.

That the car in question was a Countryman, brother to the more standard version tested not so long ago and described by me as “MINI gone Maxi” mattered little – it was the race face I was most interested in.

The second generation of the MINI Countryman is the biggest model in the entire range of the British brand and the MINI John Cooper Works Countryman comes with an output of 170 kW – the most powerful engine ever to be fitted in a MINI.

The car sprints from zero to 100 km/h in 6,5 seconds with both the standard 6-speed manual transmission and 8-speed Steptronic sports transmission. Combined fuel consumption is claimed at 7,4 l/100 km with CO2 emissions at 168 g/km, however we found the average consumption edged closer  to the 8,0 l/100 km.

The all-wheel drive system has a sports suspension with 18-inch John Cooper Works light alloy wheels and Brembo sports brake system, special body features to optimise aerodynamic properties and cooling air intake, and a model-specific cockpit with John Cooper Works sports seats.

Dimensionally and in terms of basic standard equipment, the JCW version is identical to the Countryman previously described, but it does come with a harmonised package of engine, suspension, aerodynamically optimised exterior.

The distinct vehicle character is given additional emphasis with model-specific standard features including LED headlamps, MINI Driving Modes, Park Distance Control, Comfort Access, Radio MINI Visual Boost, multifunction buttons on the steering wheel and cruise control with brake function.

Up front is a  2,0-litre petrol engine developed for John Cooper Works models with the new generation of the all-wheel drive system ALL4.

The 4-cylinder turbo-charged engine offers 170 kW, some 29 kW higher than that of the MINI Cooper S Clubman.

It does not have to be in ‘Sport’ mode to feel – or hear – the differences. It fires up with a suitably throaty roar and, even at low speeds, keeps this burbling boogie comfortably audible in the background, changing instantly to a full-bodied bellow when the throttle is pressed to the floor.

Always feeling as if it wanted to be someplace else, the throttle response is instant and even more impressive in ‘Sport’ mode, when the whole car seems to tighten up and the ‘Maxi’ previously discussed ceases to be a factor and it hunkers down to encourage being pressed to its limits.

With all four wheels being driven it was easy to carry more speed into corners and to accelerate out of them much more quickly without upsetting the car and the initial understeer tendency is easily adjusted with the accelerator.

The power steering provides good feedback and is extremely accurate, perhaps even a smidgen too sensitive at times.

I came away impressed with the overall stability of the car in all situations, the taller profile not really a factor at playtime.

In terms of the look, the front section has especially large side cooling air inlets instead of parking lights and fog lamps; model-specific side sills; wide rear apron with integrated, tapered dual tailpipes of the sports exhaust system; John Cooper Works rear spoiler; hexagonal radiator grille with honeycomb pattern and cross member in Chili Red; John Cooper Works logo on radiator grille, side scuttles and rear; body finish in Rebel Green, red contrasting finish for roof and mirror caps, sport stripes in red or black as options available exclusively for John Cooper Works models.

It has five and a luggage compartment volume of 360 litres. By folding down the rear backrest, optionally available in a 40 : 20 : 40 split, this can be expanded to 1 250 litres.

In terms of safety it has a weight and crash-optimised body structure and standard safety features include front and side air bags, side curtain air bags, ISOFIX child seat mountings at the rear and optionally also on the front passenger seat, tyre pressure display as well as Intelligent Emergency Call and collision warning with city braking function, LED headlamps with LED daytime running light, white turn indicators and LED rear lights as standard adaptive light distribution and turning light as an option.

All driver assistance systems offered for the new MINI Clubman also available for the John Cooper Works model including rain sensor with automatic driving light activation, Parking Assistant, rear view camera and Driving Assistant including camera-based active cruise control, collision and pedestrian warning with initial brake function, high beam assistant and road sign detection.

Standard comfort features including air-conditioning and Radio MINI Visual Boost with 6,5-inch colour screen, USB socket, AUX-IN socket and Bluetooth hands-free facility.

Options include 2-zone automatic air-conditioning, panorama glass roof, seat surfaces in Dinamica/leather, seat heating, MINI Excitement Package including LED ring for the central instrument, ambient lighting with adjustable colours and MINI logo projection from the exterior mirror on the driver’s side when opening and closing the door, heatable and folding exterior mirrors, interior and exterior mirrors with automatic dip function, heatable windscreen, Harmon Kardon hi-fi speaker system, alarm system including red LED status indicator in the fin antenna, MINI navigation system and Wired equipment package including navigation system Professional, operation via MINI Touch Controller and 8,8-inch colour screen with touch function.

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Road Impressions – Kia Sportage 2.0 EX PLUS 6-speed Automatic

From its initial humble beginnings locally as a small, quirky off-roader, the Kia Sportage has grown both in size and in character to be a significant player in the SUV market, albeit not at the kind of low price level it once enjoyed.

Price, however, was not the only reason the early Sportage earned its stripes – endearing itself to many because of its surprisingly (given perceptions at the time of Korean product) robust nature and off-road ability that certainly equalled a number of already established brands.

With the influence of designer Peter Schreyer and now, Pierre Leclerq, the Sportage has morphed from caterpillar to moth, with the latest iteration (fourth generation) a rather handsome devil crafted by Kia’s European design studio in Frankfurt, Germany, with input from the brand’s Namyang, Korea and Irvine, California design centres.

The ‘face’ of the Sportage features the biggest change to the car’s design over the outgoing model, with Kia’s hallmark ‘tiger-nose’ grille and the car’s headlamps separated for the new model. The headlamps are now positioned higher, sweeping back along the outer edges of the sharply detailed bonnet.

A lower, wider grille – enlarged to support greater engine cooling – adds more volume to the lower half of the Sportage’s face. The result is a more imposing appearance and a more stable-looking stance, despite the new model retaining the same 1 855 mm width as its predecessor.

As with most new generation designs, the Sportage grew compared to the model it replaced and the latest version has a 30 mm longer wheelbase (now 2 670 mm), 40 mm greater overall vehicle length (to 4 480 mm) and longer, more aerodynamic rear spoiler resulting in a more swept-back shape.

Longer front overhangs (up by 20 mm) and shorter rear overhangs (reduced by 10 mm) add to the car’s more raked profile.

At the rear, and inspired by the 2013 Kia Provo concept, slim combination lamps running along a horizontal parallel are joined together by a strip that runs the width of the rear, while the turn signals and reversing lights are separate, located lower down to add more visual weight to the lower half.

The new design also makes this the most aerodynamic Sportage to date, with drag reduced from 0,35 to 0,33 Cd.

At launch, the Sportage 2.0 CRDI EX was the only mid-spec offering in the range, paired to Kia’s 2,0-litre turbo-diesel engine and a six-speed automatic transmission.

This recently changed with the addition of the subject of this test, the 2,0-litre petrol option.

The EX specification grade offers all of the features included in the Ignite grade, but adds significant additions such as an electric parking brake, front park distance control, rain-sensing wipers, cruise control, a Smart Key with Start/Stop button, leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear knob, and electric folding side mirrors with integrated indicators.

The exterior aesthetics were not the only changes and the interior of the Sportage boasts a cabin that offers a wide, driver-oriented dashboard with a simple, modern design.

Material quality is improved and there is a far greater proportion of soft-touch materials and the use of cloth, leather and stitching creating the ambience (model dependent).

The lateral design of the dashboard divides it into two clear zones – ‘display’ and ‘control’. The ‘display’ zone is focused purely on delivering information to occupants in the clearest way possible via the driver’s instrument binnacle and the entertainment and HMI (human-machine interface) system in the centre of the dashboard.

Below a clear line, running the length of the dashboard is the ‘control’ zone, with the central console cascading downwards and tilted 10 degrees towards the driver.

Passenger space is increased, with headroom rising to 997 mm (+5 mm) and 993 mm (+16 mm) for front and rear passengers respectively, while maximum legroom has expanded to 1 129 mm (+ 19 mm) and 970 mm (+7 mm).

In the front, there are stiffer seat frames, with varying densities of foam chosen for different areas of the seat in order to maximize occupant comfort.

In the rear, a 40 mm lower interior floor – without sacrificing exterior ground clearance – and 30 mm higher rear bench hip point mean second-row passengers benefit from a more natural and comfortable seating posture and improved under-thigh support.

Primary reasons for choosing a SUV include the raised ride height and improved forward visibility. However, lateral and rear vision has often been compromised in some chunky ‘macho’ design style and Kia took cognisance of this with the Sportage.

Forward visibility is aided by a lowered A-pillar base, while the A-pillar itself has been made thinner. Side mirrors sit slightly lower on the door without impairing the driver’s rear view – this is further aided by the new thinner C-pillars (62 mm thinner compared to the third-generation Sportage) and taller rear glass (+30 mm).

All that becomes evident when trying to squeeze into those ridiculously small public parking bays at shopping centres and airports.

The new body’s larger dimensions mean cargo space has expanded from 465 litres to 503 litres the fuel tank increasing from 58 litres to 62.

A criticism of the previous generation was related to road and wind noise and this has been addressed in the latest version through new bushing in the rear suspension and more sound-absorbent materials throughout the Sportage’s wheel arches. Wind noise is also reduced because of thicker front windshield glass, a new dual lip seal for the panoramic sunroof and additional soundproofing in the doors.

Six air bags are standard, while ISOFIX child-seat tether and anchor points are fitted to the second row of seats.

Pedestrian safety is improved with a lower leading edge on the bonnet and a larger impact absorption area, which has been revised with greater use of highly-absorbent safety foam and synthetic rubber.

The fully-independent front suspension carries over the format of the outgoing model, but features a range of modifications to make the best use of the new body shell. The new setup achieves better ride quality, while also delivering sharper handling.

Modifications include revised bushing mount positions for greater stability and more natural responses to changing road surfaces, as well as stiffer wheel bearings and bushings resulting in more direct handling and greater stability in all conditions. The steering gearbox is also mounted further forward on the axle for smoother steering inputs.

For the rear suspension – also fully-independent, including the adoption of dual lower-arm multi-link suspension for two-wheel and all-wheel drive models – there is a stiffer cross member to cut road noise and vibrations from intruding into the cabin.

My test unit came equipped with a 7-inch colour touchscreen with integrated satellite navigation as standard along with a rear-view parking camera, with dynamic parking lines displayed on the larger screen to assist when reversing into or out of a parking space.

The 2,0-litre ‘Nu’ MPI engine, produces 114 kW at 6 200 r/min and 192 Nm torque at 4 000 r/min. While the engine is carried over from the third-generation Sportage, it has been significantly revised to improve efficiency, including the addition of advanced continuous variable valve timing (CVVT) and a new variable induction system.

The six speed automatic transmission, originally fitted only to the diesel variant, did not enthral me and, while efficient enough, often sounded like a CVT gearbox as it hunted for a suitable ratio – and this, in each of the three drive modes, Normal, Eco and Sport.

I would venture it is sorely in need to upgrading to a seven speed gearbox at least to provide that additional ratio and to allow for better cog spacing that would transform the drive experience.

Other than my niggle with the gearbox, the ride quality is top drawer and the Sportage barrels along confidently on both highway, rural and dirt roads with the suspension nicely ironing out the ripples and bumps.

In the 4X2 guise of the test car, it tracked accurately and the electric power steering gave positive feedback and pointed exactly where I wanted it go – never heavy and light enough to make intricate manoeuvring something that did not require an Iron Man contestant.

It comes standard with a  5-year / Unlimited Kilometre Warranty, as well as a 5-year / 90 000 km Service Plan.