The small SUV segment is awash with jacked-up hatchbacks festooned in swathes of black plastic, added to ‘toughen them up’ for that most elusive of SUV pursuits – off-road activity. There’s a catch though – most of them aren’t especially good at being either hatches... or SUVs.
It’s something of a sad indictment on the modern buyer, who makes a decision on the supposed cred an SUV will bring, when a hatch would have been a much smarter decision. The mere fact you can buy an ‘SUV’ in 2WD guise is bordering on utter nonsense, something I’ve ranted about before – and don’t toss up the old ride height and visibility line either. Most of the time, that’s nonsense too.
Into that murky quagmire comes the 2017 Mini Cooper Countryman – once a jacked-up hatch that wasn’t especially good at being an SUV or hatchback, but now a purpose built SUV, albeit available as a 2WD as tested here. As Mick Jagger succinctly said, ‘you can’t always get what you want’. Or was it ‘cain’t’?
I sampled the new Countryman at its international launch in the UK, and it was immediately evident the BMW X1 underpinnings had delivered a slab of quality, drivability and practicality to a vehicle that is unashamedly directed at Mini fans who’ve grown up, moved on, or changed focus from the traditional Mini two-door offering.
Not wanting to lose existing owners to other brands, Mini is painfully aware it’s most popular model globally needs to meet the demands of the modern SUV buyer.
As such, the new Mini Countryman is one of the better SUVs in the small segment, even if you can make a compelling argument that its name should now be ‘Maxi’. Let’s find out why…
The most obvious strong point is the price – our test Mini starts from $39,900 before on-road costs – and for what is effectively the base model, it presents incredibly good value for money.
The only option added to our test Countryman is the $1500 ‘Chili Package’ which brings with it LED headlights, LED daytime running lights, LED fog lights as well as driving modes.
That brings the starting price to $41,400 before on-road costs. You could live without the LED lighting certainly, but why would you when it adds to the exterior appeal so affordably?
Beyond that option package, there’s an impressive list of included features, which challenge the affordable price tag.
Standard equipment highlights are many and include: 18-inch alloy wheels, active cruise control, stop/start, electric tailgate, autonomous emergency braking, cloth/leather upholstery, DAB+ radio, keyless start, media interface with 6.5-inch monitor, satellite navigation, park distance control front and rear with park assist, rear-view camera and a storage package which includes a flat loading boot floor.
Under the stubby bonnet lies the Countryman’s second most appealing aspect – the surprisingly impressive three-cylinder petrol engine. Generating 100kW and 220Nm, it consumes an ADR-claimed 6.0L/100km and drives through a six-speed automatic transmission. On test, we used an indicated 10.2L/100km. I call the engine surprisingly impressive because you’d never expect it to be as peppy as it is when you wind the wick up a little – more on that soon.
Up front, the most noticeable element of the Mini’s cabin is the large – overly large perhaps – circular infotainment screen. It’s high on the list of priorities of elements Mini fans like to see inside the cabin of any Mini and, while you could argue it’s a little bit naff, the counter argument is that Mini has done the best it can with it.
The screen itself is clear and concise, the satellite navigation easy to work out, and the BMW-inspired single button control works really well. The rotary dial, which is mounted on the centre console, is surrounded by some basic menu buttons and the whole system is particularly easy to understand and master. There’s the requisite 12V power outlet up front, along with a USB input and auxiliary input.
The Bluetooth phone connection is reliable and clear once connected, although the lack of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto means the Mini can’t quite compete with the segment leaders. Bluetooth music streaming works particularly well too.
And you’ll appreciate the way the gauge display directly in front of the driver moves up and down with the steering wheel, meaning it’s always in the best field of view.
The depth of the dash layout means you feel like you’re sitting quite a way back from the windscreen, which enhances the feeling of spaciousness. Where the previous Countryman was a pumped up Mini platform, and therefore somewhat compromised, the cabin most exhibits the benefits of the X1 platform that lies beneath the new Countryman.
The seats are excellent. We found them to be beautifully sculpted and comfortable, there’s plenty of adjustment fore and aft, and there’s extensive use of quality cabin materials throughout. The soft touch dash surface especially is noteworthy. It looks good, but it also adds a premium feel to the cabin.
In the second row, passengers get air vents, plenty of leg- and headroom and seat bases that can be moved fore and aft in the same way as the front seats. The headroom especially, makes the second row accommodation feel extremely spacious and open, unusual in this segment. The luggage space is punctuated by the flat floor, which comes standard on the base model Countryman, and makes the most of the compact space on offer.
But perhaps the area where the Countryman shines brightest is in the driving. The three-cylinder, an engine platform we generally love at CarAdvice, is smooth, willing and perfectly suited to zipping around the city. It might in fact, be one of the best iterations of a three-cylinder we’ve ever tested.
It’s beautifully matched to the automatic transmission, which is crucial to the driving enjoyment. The engine spins up to redline easily, the gearbox holds gears when you want it to, and you can feel a difference between Sport and Eco modes. There’s also the default Normal driving mode, which is perfectly fine for day-to-day duties.
I reckon Mini has struck the perfect balance between handling balance and ride comfort. So many SUVs – especially European SUVs – ride more like sports cars than SUVs but the Countryman strikes a near perfect balance. The Countryman soaks up rubbish roads with composure and settles quickly no matter how nasty the surface. It’s quiet too, the cabin well insulated against both wind and road noise.
While the Countryman will start to protest if you push it really hard and the tyres will start to run out of grip, it’s way more capable than you assume it to be from the outset. It reaches the outer edges of its performance limits when you swing the hammer with gusto, but up to that point, it’s a genuinely fun SUV to punt along.
We found the steering to be perfectly weighted for the disciplines the Mini Countryman will most likely experience at the hands of the targeted buyer. The steering is firm and direct, but light enough below 40km/h, ensuring that low-speed parking manoeuvres are as easy as they can be. At speed, the resistance weights up nicely and the Countryman is never twitchy or unwilling to change direction.
It’s not rolling on massive wheels like some small SUVs – the Countryman gets 18-inch alloys shod with 225/50/R18 Pirelli tyres. That size tyre certainly helps to make the Countryman more comfortable than it otherwise might be, but the point needs to be made: the BMW X1 platform beneath the Countryman is intrinsically excellent.
There are many compromises made by manufacturers in this segment, which usually result in vehicles that aren’t really that strong when it comes to objective measurements. You might find other small SUVs more attractive than the Mini Countryman for example, and that’s fine, given it’s a subjective parameter.
The Mini Countryman is however, incredible value for money, beautifully executed, practical and well-equipped. In fact, if you set the subjective aspects aside, there’s very little to dislike about it. It’s as good as this segment gets, at a bargain basement price, and you can’t ask for much more than that.