For the first time the Mini Countryman is a purpose-built small SUV aimed at providing Mini fans with yet another option. Based on BMW X1 architecture, Mini is adamant it must retain its point of difference.
A British brand, owned by a German company, with a signature vehicle manufactured in Holland – the decidedly cosmopolitan 2017 Mini Cooper Countryman is certainly a vehicle for all seasons (and condition and segments, and markets) in more ways than one. It’s a vehicle that has come a long way, both literally and figuratively since its beginning in the Midlands of England back in the '50s.
Twenty years ago, the idea of a Mini SUV would have generated raucous laughter whenever and wherever you were brave enough to mention it. Now, especially with the rampant success of the small SUV segment around the world, the concept isn’t just embraced, its expected.
With that in mind, CarAdvice was invited to sample the all-new, 2017 Mini Countryman, bigger – and supposedly – better than ever. Six years after the launch of the original Countryman, Mini has sold more than 550,000 around the world. So much for the scepticism then.
Miserable, rainy England in winter is pretty much the perfect surrounds in which to sample the new Countryman, and we’ve even got a sloppy, muddy off-road course at the launch program to see whether the Mini can actually deliver when the going gets a little tougher.
It’s one thing to call a Mini an SUV, but is it really? We’ll soon find out. Furthermore, England’s multitude of winding country lanes will be the perfect place to see whether this Mini nails another crucial design brief.
According to the engineers, it must drive like a Mini, handle like a Mini and feel like a Mini from behind the wheel. That’s one promise to deliver on with a three-door hatch, but quite something else from a five-door SUV.
While we don't know local pricing and specification as yet, BMW Australia is keen to price the Countryman somewhere around the $40k mark for the start of the range, and will justify the price hike (current Mini Cooper Countryman starts from $34,150 for the 1.6 2WD before on-road costs) by adding more standard kit than the model it replaces – much more kit, according to representatives.
The biggest (no pun intended) change, is the platform that underpins the new Countryman. Previously, it sat on a stretched Mini platform not shared with anything else in that exact configuration. It meant the Countryman was in some kind of neverland between a hatch and an SUV.
Now though, the Countryman takes a confident stride into the luxury SUV segment thanks to parent company BMW. Underneath that familiar Mini exterior sits a BMW X1 platform – but this vehicle needed to be distinctly Mini. The company couldn't risk existing owners – or conquest buyers for that matter – thinking it was anything other than a Mini.
There’s no doubt the styling is very much Mini. Our drive loop takes us out through sodden Oxfordshire, where there are plenty of current models running around and the new Countryman fits right in. The headlights, tail-lights, window lines, glass house and detail finishes all scream Mini, just as they should really when your history is based on such an iconic car. It’s a lot harder than you might think to capture the retro design brief, but in this instance, we think Mini has done a particularly good job.
Park the new Countryman next to the old and the growth is both definitive and visible. There’s no doubt from any angle, this is a bigger, longer Countryman. It’s taller too, which adds to the headroom in the cabin, and gives the Countryman more presence on the road into the bargain. The electric tailgate is an important addition in the premium segment, as is the clever bench seat that folds out from under the boot floor over the lip and gives you something to sit on when you’re out having a picnic.
The cabin has also benefitted markedly from the redesign. It’s more spacious, more comfortable and less quirky than the old model, which at times seemed retro just for the sake of it.
The large, circular centre infotainment screen remains but it is now touchscreen and more responsive than ever, while the gauges in front of the driver are clear and easy to read, and move up and down with the wheel when you adjust it.
Mini has remained true to the style of the old model, but cleaned up some of the clutter that afflicted the switchgear and controls. The infotainment screen still seems not to be the best use of the space ahead of the gear shifter, but Mini fans will love it and the main thing is, it works. The steering wheel-mounted controls are also easy to decipher and we like the chunky steering wheel. It gives the Mini a modern feel, where a thinner design wouldn’t.
Mini has added a raft of usable storage spaces too, including a clever bin ahead of the shifter for smartphones, which will actually accommodate the largest on the market. Cupholders have been joined by bottle holders, which will take a large bottle. The cabin is well insulated too, right up to motorway speeds in driving rain, with only a little tyre noise entering the cabin when you’re rolling over coarse chip bitumen.
We only tested the top spec, 2.0-litre model at launch so we had niceties like heated seats, and a head-up display as well. The luggage space (now 450 litres) will accommodate two medium suitcases and two on-boarders with ease and benefits most from the stretched wheelbase.
The second row will comfortably seat two adults, even with taller occupants up front, also making the most of that stretch to the wheelbase. The new Countryman is 200mm longer than its predecessor, with a large chunk of that (75mm) going into the wheelbase.
As with any Mini, the proof is in the driving, so this new Countryman needs to be a real multi-tool across a variety of driving disciplines.
Off-road, the AWD system works well and the Mini ploughs through thick mud easily. It’s obviously not a hard core off-roader, but it will get you off a slippery slope or out of a mess off-road, based on what we experienced. The clever AWD system and eight-speed automatic means the engine never has to work ridiculously hard to help you out either.
On road, like most Euro SUVs and indeed premium SUVs, the Countryman errs toward firm rather than outright compliance. Some of the roads we covered were similar in surface to what you’ll find around most urban centres in Australia and the Mini cruises along unruffled even if it is a little firm for our liking over harsh surfaces. Crucially, it’s never uncomfortable inside the cabin. It can tramline and bump steer though, and is more comfortable on smoother surfaces.
The steering is sharp enough at most sensible speeds, and the brakes are excellent too, even in persistent rain. The Countryman definitely feels agile and nimble, willing to be coaxed along rapidly and driven harder than you might otherwise drive vehicles in this segment.
We’d love to drive it back to back with an X1 (obvious) and a Mini hatch (not so obvious) to check two things. Firstly, it will be interesting to see how similar the ride is between the stablemates. And secondly, it will be just as interesting to ascertain whether Mini has achieved its desire to deliver on the promise of an SUV that actually drives like a Mini.
At low speed, we did sense the steering changing weight a little, and it wasn't always as smooth at parking speeds as the system is once moving. At faster speeds though, it’s reassuringly firm and provides more than enough feedback so you’re always confident in what the front end is doing.
On the motorway, aside from the aforementioned noise over coarse chip, the Countryman is utterly unruffled. It cruises along between 110-130km/h with ease, favouring higher gears to keep fuel consumption low and doing so quietly. The 2.0-litre engine we tested is exceptional, zippy and keen to rev to redline, but equally happy to cruise along sedately.
When you’re firing along shady country lanes, the gear change is snappy and precise as you work the throttle to get the Mini moving as quickly as you dare.
The 2.0-litre engine generates an easy 141kW and 280Nm, while using a claimed 6.4L/100km. It will scoot from 0-100km/h in a claimed 7.2 seconds. While there is a six-speed manual available in most models, the eight-speed auto is so smooth and effortless, you’d struggle to recommend the self shifting option.
There seems no doubt Mini has achieved exactly what it set out to with this redesign of what has become a surprising success story. Existing owners wanted more space, more flexibility and more user friendliness. Mini, keen to attract as many new buyers as it can, has delivered on those requests, and now believes it offers a genuine SUV alternative in an incredibly competitive segment for Mini fans needing to move up from three doors.
The 2017 Countryman looks like a Mini and feels like a Mini – just bigger. In that sense, it’s very much the successful redesign it needs to be. Now though, it needs to take the fight to the established players in the small premium SUV segment and that will be the next challenge.
Comparisons await when the new Countryman lands in Australia before June this year.