“Have you been to Thailand? Do you want to go? You’re going to ride a MINI on a racetrack.”
When AutoHub Group VP for PR and marketing Owee Cruz asked me this, I jumped on the opportunity and cleared my schedule. I have never been to Thailand, and I have long been intrigued by its culture. The photographer, videographer, and driver in me were all excited.
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I had two things to worry about: One, I haven’t done right-hand driving before, and two, we were to drive the John Cooper Works (JCW) version of the MINI's Countryman, an even more premium model of an already premium brand.
At the welcome dinner at Baan Glom Gig in downtown Bangkok, we met Preecha Ninatkiattikul, the general manager of MINI Thailand and Amanda Poh, the corporate affairs executive of BMW Group Asia, MINI’s parent company in the region. Turns out, our trip wasn’t your run-of-the-mill event; MINI is celebrating its 60th anniversary. “We want to show that the MINI brand isn’t just for nostalgia, that it’s a high-quality, high-performance car for the new generation,” says Ninatkiattikul.
After a coffee-fueled briefing the next day led by MINI driving instructors, we drove toward Kaeng Krachan Circuit, Thailand’s second longest racetrack. There were three MINIs for the six journalists present, so we were grouped into two and took turns behind the wheel. I was fortunate enough to be assigned a gorgeous white and red JCW Countryman.
We left Bangkok around 9AM and we were told that it was a holiday, so we didn’t experience the infamous Thailand rush hour traffic. It was scorching hot and dusty with all the ongoing construction, but you wouldn’t notice it aboard the JCW Countryman. It’s the biggest MINI and it is indeed spacious.
Up front was your typical luxurious MINI dashboard and aesthetic, with some distinct additions for the JCW version. You have a leather-wrapped steering wheel, the iconic circular center console that has been upgraded with touchscreen controls, a robust infotainment system, and GPS, which we used extensively during the trip. Oh, and the bucket seats are a dream.
It was then my turn to take the wheel. Driving on the other side of the road, I found out, isn’t as jarring as I imagined. The JCW Countryman is an eight-speed automatic, so that helps a lot. But the immaculate handling MINIs are known for has been translated into this larger version, so it wasn’t scary to maneuver in both tight spaces and on the freeway.
We finally reached the track some time after lunch. I haven’t been to a lot of racetracks, but this one is certainly a looker, with gorgeous rolling hills as backdrop. Best of all, we had the track to ourselves for the day.
Size and agility
The Countryman is marketed as a small SUV with sedan-like performance. I’ve driven a MINI Cooper S on a track before, and while that was certainly a lot of fun, driving a much bigger car on a racetrack seems counter-intuitive. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.
After a couple of warm up laps, we were permitted to let ‘em rip. The JCW Countryman has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder TwinPower Turbo engine, which means it has tons of power for its size. Acceleration is quick (0 to 100kph in less than five seconds) and it always feels like it has something more to give, especially on the straights.
The corners are where it shines though. MINIs are always going to handle well on the road, but racetracks are different. The JCW Countryman though is loaded to the hilt with security features such as Dynamic Stability Control. This made me confident turning corners at speed, even though the stock tires are a tad slippery. It never felt out of control, and drives smaller than it actually is.
Unlike other track day events, we didn’t have any lap or time limit; we were allowed to drive as long as we wanted. Each of us got his turn at the wheel, and we even exchanged cars. (There was a MINI Cooper S on hand as well.)
On our way back to Manila, I had time to reflect on the experience. The new MINI Countryman is a more-than-competent tourist companion, should you be able to get your hands on one during a vacation.
But how about as a daily driver? After having used it on a racetrack, it’s certainly way more powerful and capable than you’d need on regular roads. But people considering MINIs aren’t exactly content on being ordinary to begin with, so it does makes sense. In short, if you love the regular MINIs, there’s no reason not to like the Countryman.
Photographs by Cyrian Agujo