CC Feature: SoCal Road Trip – 2017 MINI Countryman Launch and JCW Track Day at BMW West Coast Performance Center

Despite my love for cars, working in the automobile industry as a sales position was something I never imagined myself doing. But life has an odd way of working itself out, and indeed this is the career I’m pursuing for the foreseeable future, and one that so far I’ve been successful at, and enjoy to a great extent. Working for a brand I’m truly passionate about is a huge positive factor, and I recently had the honor of travelling t to California for the internal launch and product training of the all-new 2017 MINI Countryman, as well as a fun JCW track day at BMW West Coast Performance Center. Business and a lot of pleasure!

The duration of my time spent in California was from a Sunday morning to a Wednesday night, with the actual business portion of our trip occurring all of Tuesday and until mid-day Wednesday. The two days of “work” comprised of: the Countryman launch in Palm Springs (Day1) and JCW track day at BMW West Caost Performance Center in Thermal, CA (Day 2).

I, along with my general sales manager, Alex, one of my fellow sales advisors, Maxwell, and one of our service advisors, Matt, all left Boston bright and early on the morning of February 12th, just as a snow storm was arriving, for warm and sunny California (Matt actually missed our 7am flight due to the poor driving conditions, and flew out later that evening). We flew out a day early into LAX, allowing us an extra free day in Los Angeles (my first time there), before we were to head to Palm Springs the following afternoon.

In true California fashion, the three of us on-timers each rented a convertible to soak up the sun and roads with. South Shore MINI was picking up the tab for one rental for the four of us, so Alex booked a BMW 430i convertible through Sixt, while Maxwell and I used Turo (the first time for me), a service akin to “airbnb” for cars, which our fellow CC Editor, Will Stopford has previously shared his experiences with. Max rented a late-model Porsche Boxster while I selected a 2016 Audi TT roadster, fulfilling my desire to get behind the wheel of a current, third generation model.

I should note that unfortunately Max’s Boxster experienced mechanical difficulties, and after consulting his buddy, a Porsche technician, realized it was not a simple fix. The owner thankfully gave him his 911 as replacement for the same price.

Our Cali trip officially commenced with a Bloody Mary brunch, followed by an exhilarating drive up along the picturesque Angeles Crest Highway, a twisty 2-lane mountain road that’s been featured in numerous films and car commercials over the years.

It was a truly surreal experience that made me feel like I was living something out of my late-1990s Need For Speed PC games — only a million times better! Appropriately, shuffle decided to pick some trance music from my Spotify library to play through the TT’s bluetooth audio for a truly fitting driving experience.

On that note, the TT was certainly a fun little car to drive, proving very zippy and nimble not only through the mountain twisties, but also weaving in and out of traffic on LA’s numerous highways. It was a car I enjoyed for the experience of it, but it did have some deficiencies that would prevent me from ever considering owning one.

Despite putting out 220 horsepower and 258 lb-ft torque, it felt noticeably sluggish when compared to my own BMW 228i xDrive coupe, a car weights 100 pounds heavier, has identical torque, and makes only 20 additional horsepower. Gear shifts from its 6-speed DCT transmission were smooth, especially with both sport and dynamic modes activated, however I experienced the same unfavorable turbo lag and whine I’ve come to expect with most VW products.

Likewise despite its refreshingly minimalist design and high quality fit-and-finish, interior controls took some getting used to, with the climate controls particularly difficult to grasp. Granted I’ve become so ingrained with BMW/MINI controls for some time, but other modern Audis use relatively idiot-proof controls controls — the TT just places form over function with them, something the enthusiast in me does find appreciation for.

On a more positive note, Audi’s Virtual Cockpit display was crisp and genius, though I only wish it included the available navigation, and I was only more disappointed to learn that Audi includes the physical “navigation” toggle in the center console even when cars are not so equipped with it.

Small annoyances aside, as I said it was definitely worth it for the experience, and I did enjoy this little Audi roadster for a day. After another morning drive along the same course as the day before, it was time to return the TT, and I literally was racing through the L.A. traffic to get back in time and not face any late fees. Thankfully the TT is quite zippy, and I made it back at the scheduled return time of 11AM right on the dot.

Transferring my gear to Alex’s car, from there we proceeded to Venice Beach for a nice drive in the 70-something degree sunshine, as Maxwell and Matt brought the Porsche back and exchanged it for the Jaguar XE which Max was renting from Turo for the remainder of the trip.

While in Venice Beach, we journeyed to the Firestone Walker Brewing Company for a relaxing lunch, and for the three of them, a sampling of a plethora of craft beers. I, being the non-beer drinker of the group and usually having to be the weird one anyway, still enjoyed a few glasses of wine from Paso Robles, as after all, I was no longer driving. From there, we began the journey to Palm Springs.

(One of the first new 5 Series seen on the road!)

With considerable traffic until about 50 miles outside of L.A, it took us around three hours to get to Palm Springs. Thankfully, Alex and I are good friends, so the conversation never lapsed, and the scenery was absolutely incredible. Late that afternoon, we checked into the Ace Hotel and Swim Club in Palm Springs, the host hotel for the Countryman launch, and after a little rest, I headed down to the bar to meet up with the rest of my South Shore MINI crew and mingle with those from other dealers around the country.

I still got up before sunrise the next morning to go for a quick 3-mile run (not having the time to do any long runs in CA was disappointing), and grab a quick breakfast to-go, West Coast style of course, of avocado toast with sunflower seeds, poached egg, hibiscus radish, sprouts. How bougie-hip!

After some useful product briefing on the new Countryman, we headed out in groups of four (each including 16 dealer attendees, 2 per car, along with some various corporate reps) for our driving adventure that would take us on an all-day journey though the San Jacinto Mountains.

Riding with Matt, with me taking the first driving shift, we set out in our Melting Silver Cooper S All4 test vehicle, following route 111 through the towns of Cathedral City and Palm Desert, before getting on route 74 that would take us high up into the mountains.

Going from the stunning palm-infused flat desert landscape up into the rocky ridges was earth shattering. The natural scenery was like nothing else I’d ever experienced in my life before. If only I’d been the passenger, I would have been able to take some more stunning shots. Regardless, I’m always most comfortable in the driver’s seat, and the Countryman handled all the sharp, somewhat nerve-wracking twists with great ease and poise.

About 1.5 hours in, we all pulled over, with each car switching driver and passenger. I soon realized why they handed out Dramamine before we set out as riding shotgun at the high elevations did give me minor waves of dizziness. Changing gear (no pun intended), soon after switching, our climbing altitude plateaued, and landscape changed from dry rockiness to somewhat greener, more semi-wooded plains.

We soon reached our mid-day checkpoint, where we participated in four different driving and comparison activities, with a “glamping”-inspired (an very hip amalgamation of “glamourous” and “camping”; the theme of the Countryman launch) lunch in the middle.

First up was a general dry off-road course, testing the Countryman’s abilities on various surfaces, seriously steep inclines, and some scary-tight turns through a field of boulders. I’m happy to say it “proved itself” with flying colors, always feeling confident, capable, and comfortable. Our next stop included a non-driving detailed point-by-point comparison with the Jeep Renegade and Audi Q3.

The Countryman clearly is bounds ahead of the Jeep in terms of refinement and user-friendliness, and against the externally larger “luxury” Audi, it offered significantly greater interior space, far more advanced technology, and an interior that was just as premium. (Note: I didn’t take any pictures from the comparison tests. Forgive the lack of total continuity with the next several images.)

After lunch, we proceeded to an on-road head-to-head comparison with the Mercedes-Benz GLA 250. Through the orange cones, the Countryman really proved its BMW-derived handling capabilities. Mercedes’ traditionally have been a bit softer and less dynamic, which is fine, but going right from one to the other, it was clear the MINI possessed superior composure.

Through “emergency maneuver” tight turns and quick braking, the MINI was not phased. The GLA meanwhile, exhibited vaguer-than-expected steering, required a wider turning radius, and a “skiddish” tendency to fishtail. What’s more, the GLA’s long nose and steeply raked windshield made for very poor frontal visibility. Even for a budget Mercedes, its interior was a huge step down from the MINI’s and the Audi’s. It was honestly way more on par with the next comparison vehicle.

The final test was a wet off-road comparison of the Countryman’s all-wheel drive capabilities against the Subaru XV Crosstrek. Though a lesser-priced, non-premium vehicle, the Crosstrek is often cross-shopped with the Countryman, and Subaru is a brand synonymous with all-wheel drive. Though both did fine through the deep mud, the Subaru’s ill-defined sense of steering and infuriating CVT transmission left more guessing when it came to driver input for turning and accelerating, making for an overall less confident trek ‘cross the tough terrain.

All-in-all, I was very impressed with just how impressive the new Countryman truly is. It’s come full-circle from a quirky little “MINI on steroids” lacking refinement, to a CUV with its own mature personality and one in a class of its own. It’s now a vehicle I can proudly stand behind, which is something I couldn’t always say about its predecessor. The new Countryman is the perfect well-rounded vehicle, and if you don’t believe me, I dare you to drive one!

Attending my first official product launch of a new vehicle was one of those “pinch me, I must be dreaming” moments for me. Since childhood I’ve been reading car magazines and reviews where press attendees share their thrilling experiences of previewing new cars before going on sale to the available public, but this was even more special as it was all internal, with no outside media.

MINI truly went above and beyond for this launch, choosing an incredible location with unbeatable natural scenery. On a non-car related note, I truly gained a greater appreciation for the natural beauty this world, and even the continental United States has to offer.

The fun continued the following day at BMW West Coast Performance Center in Thermal, CA, where we were treated to a John Cooper Works track day behind the wheels of MINI JCW hardtops. Among several activities included timed test track laps for bragging rights, wet skid pad races, a “follow the leader” instructional run on the track, and a classic drag race competition.

Nestled in the middle of the desert, surrounded by fields of palm trees, the BMW West Coast Performance Center is truly a sight to behold, car guy-speaking. I’d best describe it as Disney World for car guys.

While this visit did not include a drive in the i8 (which I have driven before), I couldn’t help but take a picture of its crisp lines with the backdrop of desert palms.

Our JCW track day wrapped up with a refreshing catered lunch at the BMW Performance Center, and then it was back to our cars for the long drive back to L.A. By that point we were all pretty drained, the many hours of driving, few hours of sleep, many alcoholic beverages consumed each night, and the north of 85-degree desert heat contributing.

The ride back through the desert to L.A. was mostly uneventful, with us making it back by about 3PM. Our flight wasn’t until around 9, so we decided to take a drive down the famed Mulholland Drive, bringing us into Beverly Hills.

It’s probably a result of growing up in a climate without them, but I’m always been fascinated with palm trees and let me tell you, Beverly Hills is home to some of the most polarizing. Cruising along the palm tree-lined streets of Beverly Hills truly felt like being in a movie.

The various types of architecture seen among Beverly Hills’ multi-million dollar homes was quite fascinating as well. Needless to say, I wouldn’t complain about having to live in Beverly Hills… if I could ever afford it.

Upper-crust Beverly Hills wasn’t devoid of Curbside Classics, however, such as this Mitsubishi 3000GT!

Our drive then took us back to the beach, this time in Santa Monica. As a matter of fact, I think Santa Monica living would be a much more exciting and laid-back lifestyle to get used to at this point in my life. I’ll save Beverly Hills for my late-30s/early-40s.

After parking and taking a little stroll along water, we stopped at a little taqueria and margarita bar for dinner, enjoying the Santa Monica sunset over some fish tacos and tequila.

Walking back to our cars, I took this last sunset photo which pretty much sums up my experience in SoCal… pure bliss. Before I went on the trip, a good friend said about California, “Either you’ll hate it and be happy to come back, or you’ll love it and move there”.

I had a good experience my first time visiting northern California back in 2013 on a family vacation, and this trip to southern California, complete with much more “adulting” certainly cemented my overwhelmingly positive opinion of California as a destination I plan to return to for vacation and who knows, maybe a possible move at some point in my life.

Indeed I know a handful of friends/classmates/colleagues who’ve relocated to California and never looked back… but that’s a plan for another day. Anyway, after making our way back to the parked Bimmer and Jag, we started to head together about a half hour north so Maxwell could return the XE to its owner.

However, stuck in horrendous traffic, with our flight approaching and updates continuously increasing our ETA, Alex called them and said to arrange an Uber back to LAX, as we still needed to return our car and didn’t want to risk all 4 of us missing our flight due to Max’s plans. I couldn’t agree more, and in all fairness, Alex had suggested that Max return the car earlier that afternoon, as we passed right through the area of town en route to Santa Monica.

Thankfully, we did make it to LAX with seemingly plenty of time to spare, though the lines at security were painstakingly slow, and we just made it on the plane, among the last passengers to board. But we made it, and thanks to a dramamine and a double scotch on the rocks I did manage to get about three hours of sleep throughout the six hour flight.

We landed in snowy Boston around 6am just in time for me to go home, sleep for two hours and head into work! All in all, it was the business trip of a lifetime and I couldn’t have had a better time!