The fastest version of the not-so-mini Mini Countryman is the John Cooper Works (JCW) version. John Cooper himself must have been spinning in his grave when he heard about that one: the first car bearing his name to have four-wheel drive.
Well, we're here to tell you about another version of the Mini Countryman, and it, too, has all-wheel drive. And although you can't buy one from your local dealership, we suspect Mr. Cooper would approve. You're looking at the Dakar Rally winning Mini ALL4 Racing, an extreme race machine, purpose-built by X-raid in Trebur, Germany.
Admittedly, to call it a Mini Countryman is stretching the point somewhat, as the only parts shared with the biggest Mini are the windscreen, lights, and door handles.
Instead, the Dakar Rally race car chassis and steel rollcage are swathed in carbon-fiber bodywork that measures about 5 percent larger than the road car's. Don't think for a minute that it's a lightweight structure, though. In fact, it weighs a hefty 4,189 pounds.
When sizing up the Mini ALL4 Racing, you begin to appreciate why it's so heavy. It towers over normal cars, thanks to huge ground clearance and comically big Michelin all-terrain tires. They don't hide the special suspension; twin spring-damper units suspend each of the four wheels, bolted to chunky double wishbones at each corner. There's no adaptive trickery allowed, and that's probably not a bad thing in the name of reliability.
This very car won the 2014 Dakar Rally—more than 5,500 grueling miles of competition through extreme terrain and high temperatures. It was, says driver Joan "Nani" Roma, faultless. That he, alongside co-driver Michel Perin, endured six-hour stints at the wheel in cabin temps up to 120 degrees F reveals just how mighty their achievement was.
It's a little cooler for our test in the middle of open desert not far from Dubai. It's above 100 degrees F, and it was only a matter of time before somebody asked if the racer had air conditioning. It doesn't, by the way, unless you count the roof-mounted airscoop that can be manually opened and closed from inside.
Nonetheless, there's too much to learn about the car to be worrying about comfort. I'm strapped into the Recaro seat by a six-point Sparco harness, and my co-driver shakes my hand before rattling through the controls.
I'll never complain again about a haphazard dashboard layout, because the Mini was plain bewildering. Very little is familiar.
I spot items such as the speed limiter control. It works much like a pit lane limiter and is used on the public road sections, where competitors must adhere to speed limits for safety. It's monitored in real time by the authorities via satellite tracking so you don't want to forget it.
There are controls for the lockable differentials and much more, including several display monitors, one of which wouldn't look out of place in an engine test cell. This has direct access to the bespoke ECU and allows the co-driver to monitor every aspect of the engine's health.
It will alert him if measurements go outside safe limits (temperatures and pressures mainly), allowing detailed analysis if needed, so he can talk to the team on the satellite phone to identify or rectify any issue. That's not allowed on the move, however, which is just as well, as we were about to discover...
The only controls that demanded my attention related to keeping the Mini going in approximately the right direction as fast as I could manage. I'm certainly not about to destroy the beast because this very car is due back in competitive action a few days after our run.
Despite its complexity and single-purposed construction, the driving controls are remarkably light and intuitive to use. That was created in a bid to reduce driver fatigue, no doubt. The steering wheel is normal, if detachable to ease entry, and there are three pedals in the footwell.
I'm told the Mini All4 Racing clutch pedal is only needed to move away from a standstill, so that's one less thing to worry about. The Sadev sequential transmission is controlled by a substantial lever that sits next to the steering wheel—pull back to change up, push forward to go down. Easy. And it's light in operation.
I select First and feather the throttle. The revs flare. This doesn't sound like a typical turbodiesel engine... There's no need for revs to take off with so much torque on tap. This thing is designed to wade through mud and deep sand, or anything else that gets in its way, so the development engineers focused on torque rather than outright power.
At the heart of the engine, which is mounted deep in the chassis at the front, sat quite far back, is a straight-six BMW 3.0L turbodiesel. It uses twin sequential turbochargers, with the smaller turbo always spinning. That means there's no lag. A bypass valve is opened gradually to allow the exhaust gases to spin the larger turbo, helping it produce the 516 lb-ft of torque.
More impressively, perhaps, is that this happens at just 2,100 rpm, and it's plain weird to change up not long after that. The deep reserves of grunt at low revs make themselves known as we enter a 180-degree hairpin in soft, rutted sand. It feels like the car is going to bog down. My co-driver shakes his head and tells me to keep the gas pedal pinned. Sure enough, there's a gradual accumulation of boost and the car suddenly rises out of the ruts and throws itself toward the nearest sand dune.
I sense my co-driver tense as he suggests slowing down for the jump rather late. We get some air, but my ego comes crashing down to earth with a bang as the car's weight conspires with gravity to bury us in the sand. It's no match for the Mini, though, and we emerge on the other side in a cloud of dust and a burst of revs.
If, like me, you expected this to be relatively comfortable, thanks to the soft sand, high-profile tires, and long-travel suspension, you'd be as surprised as I was to discover the ALL4 Racing has a hard, uncomfortable ride, jiggling its occupants on relatively smooth surfaces and pounding them mercilessly over rutted and broken terrain. After 30 minutes at the wheel, I'm bruised but exhilarated.
After a breather and time to gather my thoughts, it's time to play the co-driver as Nani takes the wheel to show me what the Mini can really do. Within yards, it's clear I didn't scratch the surface of the racer's ability. Nani short-shifts through the gears until we're in Sixth and then seemingly doesn't let up until we approach the hairpins.
The stiff suspension suddenly makes sense as he commits 100 percent to corners, bumps, ruts, and jumps. It's not comfortable (in fact, it's violent), but it sure as hell is effective. Every time a wheel loses contact with the ground, it quickly returns to terra firma, allowing complete confidence in where the car will be pointing afterward.
Nani hits the hairpins at much higher speeds, using the power and four-wheel drive.
Even in his hands, there are times I wonder if the racer is going to topple over, as it certainly pitches about when turned into a corner—it's a high vehicle. Yet Nani is in the zone and we're soon attacking a series of sand dunes at speed. Every landing is torture, but this is apparently normal for the car and driver, as neither seemed the least bit fazed at the end of the ordeal.
You might not be able to order a Mini ALL4 Racing from the factory, but if you have the cash, the X-raid team will gladly include you in their program. The drivers certainly deserve every cent they get.
2014 Mini ALL4 Racing
X-raid Team Trebur, Germany
2933cc straight-six diesel, aluminum head and block, twin-turbos
Six-speed Sadev sequential transmission, AP Racing clutch
Six-piston calipers, 320mm rotors with air and water-cooling f&r
Wheels & Tires
16x6.5" wheels, 245/80 R 16 Michelin Latitude all-terrain tires f&r
Double wishbone, coilover shock absorbers (two per wheel), adjustable roll valve and oil cooling system for the shock absorbers f&r
303 hp at 3,250 rpm
516 lb-ft at 2,100 rpm