Model Tested: MINI Cooper S Countryman ALL4; 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder; five-door SUV
What you see here is a mini SUV. No, really. It's a MINI SUV.
For the first time in the MINI's history, it's been jacked up, given extra doors, and all-wheel drive. It's called the Countryman ALL4, and it's labelled a Sport Activity Vehicle. That means, of course, it can climb a kerb, but when you look at pictures of it, you'll wonder if it will climb much more than that.
Well, not really. At 149mm, its ground clearance is never going to challenge a Toyota Prado, but it does mean that the extra spring travel gives you a much softer ride than the standard MINI Cooper S. Also, due to its taller nature, the Countryman doesn't quite change directions like a housefly, but it still handles better than just about any SUV on sale today, bar the X5/X6M twins.
The thing is, it's only slightly raised, but has all-wheel drive. Kinda sounds a bit rally-ish, doesn't it? Well, that's exactly what the Countryman is setting out to do. MINI has entered the WRC this year with the Countryman, and with experienced rally company Prodrive, MINI is hoping to give the establishment a shake-up. What about the road-going version, though? How will it fare when faced with an unsealed road?
Very well, as it turns out. During the week of testing, we had the opportunity to enjoy some sand and gravel driving, with the Countryman's ALL4 all-wheel drive system reacting very well. Like all predominantly front-wheel drive SUVs, the Countryman's power diverts to the back wheels when called upon. Usually, that's too late. But the Countryman's system reacts swiftly and provides excellent grip (and drive) where needed.
On the road, that means it doesn't spin up the inside wheel when coming out of a corner, like a large roundabout. It simply grips and goes. All the while you're feeling what the car is doing through the fabulous steering.
Yes, it's electric, and yes, around dead-centre and low speeds it can feel a bit lacklustre. But when you're pressing on, and the speed rises, it turns in sharply and gives brilliant weighting. It's definitely a driver's car, from a feel point-of-view.
But it's friendly to passengers too. First there was three, then four, and now five. We're talking doors here, and the Cooper S, Clubman and Countryman respectively. The Countryman's five door set up means it's much easier to get in and out of, especially on the kerb side of the road.
Inside, the MINI Countryman's back seats boast enough room for adults (it's still a MINI, remember) with enough leg room (they're adjustable) and good head room, too. The Countryman comes standard with four seats, but at no cost you can option a bench seat for the second row. Given the width of the MINI, four seats work just fine; if you're going to be seating five people often, then a MINI probably isn't going to suit your lifestyle.
The four-seat configuration has a centre rail that runs the length of the cabin, and can fit phone-holders, glass cases and cupholders for both front seats and rear passengers. It also lights up at night when bathed in the LED lighting which can cycle through the colour spectrum. This is called Ambient Illumination, and it's very cool.
In fact, the lighting projects from behind the curved recesses of the door trims, from above in the overhead lighting panel, and behind the door handles. The level of ambient light can also be altered from soft glow to night-club-like, especially in the rich blue.
The stereo is on the average side; at low to medium volumes its bass and treble are acceptable, but the higher the volume, the greater the distortion. If you do love your music, though, option up to the Chilli pack, which includes Harman/Kardon audio (as well as climate control, self-dimming mirror, xenon lights with washers, cloth/leather trim and 18-inch turbo-fan alloys), or you can just specify the better unit to begin with for an extra $1500.
Connecting your phone through Bluetooth is easy, once you master the menu navigation, which can be a little confusing using the buttons underneath the red LCD screen at the bottom of the speedo. The reason it takes a while is the buttons don't line up with the commands when you're looking at them from the driver's seat. Plonk yourself in the middle of the car when you're connecting your phone, and you'll be fine.
Up front, the seats are comfortable, supportive, and look great. There's also a 'lounge' option which gives you a softer leather and contrast piping on the edges of the seats. It costs an extra $2000 over the standard leather, but the look is well worth the extra money.
The overall presentation of the cabin is excellent, with curves, ovals and circles dominating the design. There are some disappointing areas, like the hard dashtop plastic and its material-like grain which doesn't match with the door trims or glovebox. Hard plastic also dominates the speedometer surround, and door-trim recesses. But there's no squeaking or rattling, even on unsealed surfaces, proving a solid build.
Strangely, the boot has a false floor. Why not just display the boot space initially? Without the boot floor/lid in place, the Countryman's luggage space is a respectable 450 litres (with it, 350 litres), and a total of 1170 litres is available by folding the rear seats flat.
Under the bonnet lies the now familiar 1.6-litre turbocharged four cylinder petrol engine, mated to your choice of a six-speed manual or automatic gearbox. Though the car in the pictures is an auto, we did test a manual transmission version, and if you're into your driving, that would be the pick. The manual is quicker, and its rifle-bolt feel is perfect. The pedals even line up for easy heel-and-toe driving.
The auto's shifts are smooth and faultless, in that it's always is ready to go, always awaiting your command. It kicks down immediately, to the point where the supplied paddles shifters are almost rendered redundant. It really does suit the turbo-four's character perfectly, allowing its upper-rev powerband to be utilised to the full.
The 135kW and 240Nm engine (an extra 20Nm is available in an overboost function) sounds good without being too loud or coarse. It motivates the Cooper S Countryman from 0-100km/h 7.9 seconds (7.6secs for the manual) and on the roll, the Countryman picks up speed without hesitation. Although peak torque runs from 1600-5000rpm, it's from about 3000rpm that the Countryman is at its best, accelerating parabolically, rather than lagging and peaking.
Fuel economy is best left to the Cooper D Countryman version, but the car we had averaged exactly 10 litres/100km in the week of testing.
The brakes are up to the task of hauling the Countryman up, too, with good pedal feel and progression. The stability control is also playful, especially on gravel, where it lets you have a little slide before coming in fairly strongly.
It's going to be a bit of a niche car, this Countryman. For a MINI, it's not cheap - the car you see here is $50,400, plus options and on-roads, sneaking in under the Luxury Car Tax threshold. For the Chilli version, it's $56,050 plus extras. As compact SUV's go, it's getting up there, especially for something that won't go very far off road.
But what about the rally point-of-view? Well, then you're talking about the Subaru WRX, which will wipe the floor with the MINI Cooper S Countryman, and is a fair whack cheaper, but the Countryman is much nicer inside.
So is there a real competitor? Well, according to MINI's official company line, no. But when pressed, MINI acknowledges that it may be cross-shopped against the Volkswagen Tiguan and the Nissan Dualis.
Really? A $50,000 car? Well, if you think about it, the Countryman kicks off at $37,700, meaning it does actually compete with the Veedub, and things like Renault's Koleos. For those who want to have something a bit different - a genuine head turner - then this will suit them perfectly. The thing is, it may not suit everyone else as it is, but if it had a John Cooper Works kit on it, had a lower ride height so it's the same as a regular MINI and still had the all-wheel drive system, it would appeal to a much broader audience, don't you think?
It is a good car, the Countryman. Especially good in Cooper S ALL4 guise, it combines MINI funkiness with general practicality, and is a welcome addition to the MINI range.