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First Drive: 2012 Mini JCW Countryman All4 Prototype

We should have taken the fact that, shortly after leaving dinner in Innsbruck, Austria, we had to stop to put chains on the front wheels of our van as a hint. Maybe we should have brought long underwear after all.

Luckily, the weather in Kuehtai, Austria turned out to be no colder than the low-20s temperatures we had been seeing in Ann Arbor, Michigan. What the sleepy ski town holds for us is a new car from Mini, along with a fleet of Countrymans and Coupes for us to play with in the snow.

Although still technically in development, Mini let us get behind the wheel of a nearly-complete prototype for the all-new John Cooper Works Countryman. The JCW Countryman will sit atop the Countryman lineup as the most expensive, most powerful, and sportiest of the biggest Minis. The formula for the JCW Countryman is almost identical to that of the other JCW Cooper models -- tweak the turbocharged 1.6-liter I-4 from the Cooper S Countryman to over 200 hp, stiffen the suspension, enlarge the anti-roll bars, give the exhaust more burble, darken the gauges, add an aero kit, and voila! The JCW Countryman.

The JCW's All4 system has been modified to provide a 50/50 torque split between the front and rear axles at all times -- unlike the Cooper S Countryman All4 that is front-wheel drive until it loses traction -- and can send up to 60 percent of the power to the rear wheels in dry weather. The JCW maintains its 50/50 spilt until 140 kph (80 mph), where the car reverts to full front-wheel drive.

We did not get a chance to drive the JCW Countryman at much more than 60 mph while traversing a serpentine, snow-covered road up one of Kuehtai's hills, but we immediately noticed the car is much more planted than its lesser siblings. The difference is due to the stiffer, lower suspension (the JCW is 10 millimeters lower than other Countrymans), one millimeter thicker anti-roll bars front and rear, and heavy but well-weighted steering. Mini's engineers told us that this car is all about feeling and staying planted. However, on slippery roads, the JCW Countryman can still slide its tail out for some rally-inspired fun.

The John Cooper Works Countryman All4 will make its official debut at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show in March, going on sale in the U.S. in the second half of next year. Pricing has not been announced, but expect some number north of the $27,750 base price that the Cooper S Countryman All4 carries.

While we were visiting the Austrian Alps Mini also tossed us the keys to a few Cooper D Countrymans and JCW Coupes to see how they perform in fresh powder. The Coupe was already a handful, and proved to push the limits of front-wheel drive power in the white stuff, easily losing traction and happily swinging its tail out in some of the hairpins.

Although Mini currently has no plans to bring a diesel-powered Countryman to the States, it was our favorite car on this trip. The oil-burner pulls with authority in all situations. We sampled one with the six-speed manual transmission and one with the optional six-speed automatic. The manual left much to be desired thanks to its slow and vague throttle tip-in, but proved to be the perfect match for a snowy off-road course that the Countryman handled with aplomb. (Perhaps the guidance from rally driver Nico Bastian helped us out, too.) The All4 system distributed the torque appropriately while tackling several inches of snow. The automatic surprised us in that it downshifted eagerly on downhills and after braking inputs to enter a curve.

We also got a dash of excitement when riding along with Swedish rallying legend Rauno Aaltonen in a classic MINI Cooper. Though the Mini was actually from the early 1990s, it looked almost as though it could have been one of the 1960s or 1970s Minis that Rauno had raced in. Despite the snow- and ice-covered switchbacks, Rauno tossed, slid, and steered the little two-door as though he were simply going to the store. Roaring up alpine hills at speeds much too fast for most drivers, Rauno chatted with us about living in Finland and how much he loved to drive. This, mind you, is the man who is known as "The Flying Finn" and is best known for perfecting the Scandinavian flick, where the driver dials in opposite lock on the steering to perfect a drift around a turn. Even from our short ride with him, it was clear Rauno could do one in his sleep.