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When is a MINI not a MINI?
The council ranger called it a MINI on steroids, and he’s not far wrong. But like so many of those oversized bodybuilders with less strength that you might imagine, the Mini Cooper S Countryman can’t quite match the pace of its MINI Cooper S sibling.
First impressions are that it looks a bit silly, dopey even. I mean it doesn’t look like a real MINI should, does it? Too high, too big, and what right does any proper MINI Cooper S have to four doors?
The other big question I have is whom is MINI targeting with a super size MINI Cooper S? Assuming of course, that there is a market for this car.
BMW’s PR department says that the Countryman range targets 25- to 40-year-old single or married, post-modern. It’s actually a lot simpler than that. Take me, I’m over 40, married, and have two kids at home, and as much as I'd like a stock MINI Cooper S in my garage, it’s too damn impractical for an active lifestyle, or as a sports activity taxi for the kids.
It’s definitely got a heap more room everywhere you look. That’s the extra 384mm in length over the standard MINI Cooper S, and enough space for four adults to travel in relative comfort. That means plenty of legroom and even more headroom.
Standard fitment on the Countryman range are two single rear seats with clever individual adjustment for length, but out test car was a little different in that it had a three-seat bench set up in the rear, which is a no cost option on this model.
Apart from the practical aspects of four doors and the additional seating capacity, the big gain with this super size MINI is the extra large cargo area behind the rear seats. It feels two or three times larger than that in the two-door MINI Cooper S.
It might be taller, longer, and with two extra doors, but there is absolutely no denying that the MINI Countryman S is ‘all MINI’. Well, almost.
It’s the front light assembly that I’m not too keen on. Whereas, every other MINI Cooper, including the wagon-like Clubman has the traditional round headlight covers, the Countryman has a slightly elongated shape, which looks a bit un-MINI.
That said, after living with the Countryman S for the past week, I’m now starting to like the ‘pumped up on steroids’ look. That council ranger from Manly Beach was absolutely right. This is one tough looking MINI, whichever way you look at it.
You’ve got to like the individualism of owning a MINI Cooper S too, even if it is the Countryman with its slightly disproportionate looks. You can also choose a number of ‘cool’ colour combinations, but if ‘loud’ is what you’re after, then this True Blue exterior with contrasting white roof, bonnet stripes and side mirrors should meet with your approval.
It also gives the car somewhat of a motor sport look, which it thoroughly deserves given its enthusiastic performance, which we’ll get to shortly. And of course the other more practical benefit is that you won’t have any trouble finding your car at the shopping mall, at least in this colour scheme.
Even with the rear seats upright there really is quite a lot of room back there, easily enough for two large soft bags, or as the marketing blurb says, “the MINI Countryman is able to accommodate a standard pram”. I don’t have kids young enough to have tried it, but it seems like a fair assumption given the additional space. Of course, if you choose to morph the Countryman into a proper old school Minivan by laying the rear seats flat, that will increase the overall cargo capacity from 440 litres to 1170 litres. That’s sufficient room for two mountain bikes with their front wheels removed.
Inside, I would describe the MINI Countryman as a semi-prestige fit-out with mostly soft touch materials (the lower dash panels are hard plastic and probably shouldn’t be) with those classic MINI Cooper features, such as the supersized speedometer and smaller tacho looking more like a retrofit item from John Cooper Works and mounted behind the steering wheel.
Most of the switchgear is chrome rimmed, stylish and easily accessed by the driver.
One of the key benefits of MINI under BMW’s corporate umbrella is that when you buy a MINI Cooper S in any body shape or guise, it comes with great sports seats. Not only are these all-leather pews immensely comfortable on your lower back, but they also offer superb side bolster for the more enthusiastic driver.
The Countryman also comes with a few other goodies too like the unlimited ambient light show with an impossible 650 colour combinations possible. Confused? Me too, but it turns out to be quite a ‘cool’ feature, and the darker the night, the better it looks.
The purple LED light glow in the door trim and centre console suddenly changed to a soft blue presumably when I hit the right button – 648 possibilities to go. Or you just set the dial to ‘auto’ and they’ll automatically rotate like an 80s style disco ball.
There’s a also a shiny black ‘MINI’ branded sunglass holder integrated into the centre console, which is more convenient than those roof mounted versions that so many cars have adopted these days.
Another unusual feature is the aircraft-style hand brake, which looks more like the lever that controls the jet engines in a modern passenger plane.
Our test car was fitted with the optional high-end audio and navigation system, which you view through the centre of the oversized speedometer. It actually works quite well, although there isn’t a lot of protection from the glare at certain times of the day.
While the Countryman has got all the MINI style going for it, this is after all a MINI Cooper S version, so what’s it like to drive?
Give it a boot full of throttle, and frankly, it feels every bit as quick as a regular MINI Cooper S hatch. Keep your right into it and the full compliment of 260Nm of torque (thanks to the overboost function) comes on song from just 1600rpm. Acceleration from 0-100km/h is listed as 7.6 seconds, but in all honesty, it feels more like a 7.0-second car to me.
Under full throttle, there’s that same seriously sporty exhaust note from the twin exhaust pipes, although the Countryman makes do with one pipe either side, instead of the usual centrally mounted twin pipes on the MINI Copper S.
There’s no turbo lag either. The combination of variable valve management, twin-scroll turbocharging and direct injection ensures an instantaneous response whenever you dab the throttle.
While the Electric Power Steering (EPS) has been well calibrated for excellent feel right from dead centre (in that there’s plenty of weight through the steering wheel without being too heavy), you’ll need to keep a firm hold when accelerating on a poorly maintained road surface. The MINI’s go-cart-like handling means that the front wheels have a tendency to follow every possible groove in the road surface, which can be accentuated under hard acceleration of poorly maintained road surfaces. I’m not calling it torque steer, because the MINI is quite well behaved in that area.
The Countryman feels every bit as agile as the MINI Cooper S hatch on turn in, although there’s some initial tip in, due to the car’s additional weight (175 kg) and raised ride height.
Occasionally, under hard acceleration from a standing start the front tyres might struggle for traction, but it’s hardly worth a mention as the Dynamic Stability Control is an intelligent system that pretty much sorts it out for you within an instant.
Of course, you can always choose the ALL4 all-wheel drive Countryman, but that will add another 55 kilograms and a few more dollars to the equation.
The Countryman’s six-speed manual shifter is a treat and well worth the effort, even if the majority of your driving is to and from the office. I’m betting if you go for the Cooper S variant, you’re a bit of an enthusiast, so you’ll love the fact that the pedal box is perfectly set up for heel-and-toe shifts.
Ride quality for car with this level of agility is very good. There’s plenty of compliance in the suspension to absorb any number and size of those wretched speed bumps, and the Countryman S passed the Sydney pothole test with flying colours.
While I didn’t get a chance to drive the Countryman S economically - it’s way too much fun for that - a combined fuel consumption reading of 6.6L/100km seems more than possible. With a relatively heavy right foot all week, I still managed to get 7.5L/100km.
There are some press cars you are glad to hand back, and there are those that you’d rather hang on to. The MINI Cooper S Countryman falls into the later group. It’s the ‘almost’ MINI Copper S performance and handling, coupled with compact SUV-like practicality that has produced a unique package, which can be lot of fun.