It is safe to say that most people interested in a compact SUV have certain priorities, largely centred around space and practicality. But that doesn’t mean this diverse market of ours has no room for something outside this box — at least, that’s what Mini is surely hoping.
The Mini Countryman Cooper we test here in updated form is ostensibly a crossover SUV, though in reality it’s more of a high-riding small hatch. In fact with the launch of the new Mini 5 Door, its place in the market is worth a question.
The Countryman's update brings a number of minor styling tweaks to the table, notably the fettled headlights, LEDs and alloys, and some extra equipment, notably the inclusion of satellite-navigation as standard.
Forget what the purists who yearn for a properly mini Mini say, this car is not for that crowd. But it doesn’t change the fact that the Countryman costs as much as many rivals that offer more space for the bucks.
So why buy the Countryman? As ever, it’s easy to see why it appeals to some people, and why it’s Mini’s second-top-seller worldwide. It looks like nothing else on the road, it’s one of the sharpest driving cars in the segment and it has some properly upmarket badge cred.
And let’s not undersell that benefit.
Here we drive the entry version, the Cooper Countryman, priced $34,150 plus on-road costs and dealer charges. That’s not dissimilar to a Volkswagen Tiguan or Skoda Yeti. But as ever with Mini, the options list plays a major part.
Our test car included extra-cost niceties including: 17-inch matt black wheels ($1200), shiny black cabin inserts ($200), leather trim ($1460), piano black exterior touches ($300), and All4 styling package ($650), chrome line interior pack ($290), a black (anthracite) roof lining ($300), an electric glass roof ($1990) and metallic paint ($800).
Our test car’s six-speed automatic transmission with paddles also costs an extra $2350 over the standard six-speed manual that few people in Australia buy.
Total cost? $43,940 plus on-road costs. Which is more than a base Audi Q3 (the 1.4 TFSI from $42,300), on par with a mid-high spec version of any number of larger SUVs such as the Mazda CX-5 or Honda CR-V, and for those with a performance bent, the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
So, our point is, before we even really get stuck into analysing the car, that you’d do well to approach the options list with due diligence.
What do you get as standard for your dosh? Well, as the base car, you’d expect the Countryman to be a little underdone. However, Mini has picked up its game in this department.
The list includes: 16-inch alloy wheels, LED front fog lights, roof rails, park distance control (rear sensors), leather steering wheel with buttons, cruise control, ambient cabin lights, climate control, cloth/leather seats, velour floor mats, Bluetooth/USB, sat-nav, a 6.5-inch central screen with sat-nav, rain-sensor and auto headlights.
The cabin itself is pure ‘Mini’ in design, with the oversized central display, circular dials and somewhat sub-par plastics quality all in evidence. The older multimedia toggle buttons haven’t been updated to the standard seen on the all-new Mini hatch, either.
Of course, being a Mini, you’d hardly expect it to be ‘maxi’ inside. And in truth it barely feels more spacious than the new five-door hatch. It certainly pales next to something like a Skoda Yeti.
Still, headroom and legroom are acceptable for two average people in the back (though they get no vents), the 60:40 rear seats flip-fold and there’s clever concealed storage under the rear floor. All told you get 450L with the seats up and 1170L with them folded.
Under the bonnet is an unchanged 1.6-litre petrol engine producing a below-the-class-average 90kW at 6000rpm and 160Nm of torque from a high 4250rpm. Power is sent through the front wheels (no All4 all-wheel-drive at base level) via the aforementioned six-speed auto.
That said, this relatively modest engine doesn’t have much to lug about. At 4097mm long, 1789mm wide and 1561mm high on a 2595mm wheelbase, the Countryman is more small hatch than SUV proper. It’s shorter and lower than a Holden Trax, for instance.
As such, its kerb weight is 1295kg with the auto, not much for a small crossover. Its 0-100km/h sprint time is 11.6sec (10.5sec with the manual), which is average, though its claimed fuel economy is an excellent (for a non-diesel) 7.6L/100km — provided you can match it.
The issue is, with such modest outputs, and without a whole lot of grunt below 3000rpm as the peak torque curve will attest, you have to keep the Countryman on the boil. That’s important for things such as darting into traffic gaps just as much as it is launching a 100km/h-plus overtake on a highway.
The six-speed transmission lacks crispness, and the fact the auto uses about 1.1L/100km more fuel than the manual and accelerates from 0-100km/h about 1.1sec slower leads you to conclude it squeezes substantially less out of the small engine than the self-shifter.
Still, it’s a smooth unit more than happy to drop down a cog when you’re dying for revs… something you’ll be doing more often than not.
We don’t have a lot of time for those paddles though, which require you to push downwards on either to drop a gear, rather than making the down-shifter and the up-shifter separate paddles. The new Mini hatch has proper paddles at last, so we’re disappointed not to see them here.
Being a small crossover, the Countryman is tuned to offer a more compliant ride than the regular Mini hatch, and while its springs are firm, the body control is good and it’s far less jiggly or ‘busy’ over typical urban corrugations than its smaller siblings.
However, its tyres emit more road noise than we’d like, despite Mini’s claims of improving the noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels with this update.
Where it really shines is in the sweetness of its steering. It’s nearly as darty and eager to tackle sequences of tight and twisty corners as the regular hatch, and exhibits better body control than is typical by way of its firmer suspension and lower body/ride height.
The Countryman in essence is what it has always been, a style choice that defies sensibility. It’s not the most spacious, clever or well-priced crossover, and it attempts to amalgamate traditional Mini values into a more ‘maxi’ package.
It’s likeable though, and remains a fun-to-drive little number, and at least in this updated form is better value than before. If you’ve always wanted one, now is the time. If you value maximum space or value, though, perhaps look elsewhere.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.