From cheap, space-efficient transport that changed the face of motoring in the UK in the 1960s, to unlikely fashion icon over the intervening decades, the Mini has evolved into something very different compared to its humble beginnings.
The Mini Countryman, while still a compact SUV, is entirely aspirational. You’re likely to buy one based on its aesthetics and appreciation of individuality, not because of its rock-hopping capability or carrying capacity.
That’s quite alright. If we all bought practical cars, Australia’s collective carpark could look rather dull.
Dull is something Mini tries to avoid, so in Cooper S specification, the Countryman backs its styling up with a turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine producing 141kW at 6000rpm and 280Nm from 1350 to 4600rpm. Perhaps not enough to set the world alight, but good for a giggle all the same.
Delivery is via an eight-speed torque converter automatic to the front wheels only. An auto might not be the ideal enthusiast’s choice, but with a pointy front end, there’s still some old-fashioned Mini spirit apparent.
The biggest departure from traditional Mini virtues is the interior. In a car that’s still a compact 4.3m long, the interior is quite roomy. Not just up front, but in the rear as well.
Factor in a sliding rear seat that can be used to free up extra cargo space, plus plenty of leg room and – thanks to the boxy upright roof – generous head room, and the Countryman is a surprisingly spacious and versatile package.
The interior styling might not suit all tastes. It’s distinctive, with a dominating circular portal in the middle of the dash, but a letterboxed nav’ screen wedged in the middle. The standard screen measures 6.5 inches, but as shown can be optioned up to 8.8 inches, running a Mini-skinned version of BMW’s iDrive.
Options aplenty allow a choice of interior trims and seat trims, in this case illuminated piano-black trim pieces and British Oak Chester leather with LED ambient lighting.
The Cooper S also comes kitted out with a flip-up colour head-up display, wireless mobile charging, proximity key and push-button start, adaptive cruise control with speed limiter and traffic sign recognition, dual-zone climate control and a powered tailgate.
The car pictured here adds a decent list of extras, things like 19-inch alloys (up from standard 18s), heated seats and a dual-pane sunroof as part of the Climate package, an Off-road Optic styling package with chunkier bumpers, sports seats, electric front seats with memory as part of the Convenience package, and a whole lot more contribute a whopping $14,550 worth of options.
That sees the Cooper S Countryman start from $48,900 plus on-road costs in its basic form, but the car you see here, metallic paint, leather trim, and optioned colours for the interior and headlining et al, stops the clock at $63,450 plus on-road costs.
Doing so would mean missing out on the long list of personalisation options Mini offers, and if individuality is key, the Countryman has just about any rival at a similar pricepoint beaten.
As for safety, Mini runs about middle of the pack for what you’d expect given its price and position, with autonomous emergency braking including pedestrian detection, speed sign recognition, six airbags, rear-view camera, plus front and rear park sensors as standard.
Tyre pressure monitoring is about the only extra you can add, but lane keeping and blind-spot monitoring are yet to make it to either the standard or optional equipment list.
To drive, the Cooper S Countryman toes a fine line between fun and frisky, without being torturously firm or obnoxious. Primarily it’s an urban SUV, so don’t expect huge rock-hopping wheel articulation, but instead a more planted road feel and less roly-poly cornering.
The 2.0-litre turbo engine feeds in a nice flat wad of torque across the rev range, and the engine has a linear build-up of power. Trick engine-control coding means you can get a few fun gurgles from the exhaust on full-throttle upshifts too.
Steering is agile, but get too liberal with the throttle and axle tramp can jolt the wheel in your hand. Thanks to being a bigger and heavier car than the Mini Cooper S hatch with which it shares an engine, the Countryman doesn’t have the same zingy launch feel.
Put a few passengers in it and roll through suburban streets, and soon enough the ‘performance’ aspect will become more obvious. Able to bound off in the traffic-light grand prix, or with a decent amount of grunt for overtaking, the Cooper S engine may not be the biggest and baddest in Mini’s war chest, but it’s a nicely balanced all-rounder.
All-rounders aren’t performance cars, though. Despite the sporting connotations of the Cooper S badge, the Countryman is really more warm SUV than new-age hot hatch. Yeah, it’s confident, but also very sensible.
More of the Countryman’s prestige sensibility is evident in the way the Countryman deals with road noise. There’s no excessive tyre noise on most road surfaces. Long-distance drives are usually fairly hushed, but the upright shape tends to generate a fair bit of wind noise depending on the conditions.
The whole ride and handling package is underscored by a feeling of firmness, without being harsh or jittery on poor surfaces. Bumpy roads show a comfortable damper tune let down a little by the low-profile run-flat tyres.
Buried in the Mini’s infotainment system is a Country Timer that can keep track of how long the Countryman spends ‘off-road’ – it is a complete novelty item, though. Groomed gravel is probably as far as you’d dare venture in one of these.
Mini provides prepaid servicing plans starting with Service Inclusive Basic that covers up to five years and 80,000km of oil, filter and fluid changes as per the service schedule from $1295, which matches or even betters some mainstream brands for after-sales value.
Service Inclusive Plus adds in wipers, brake pads and brake discs for $3650 over the same term, with dealer visits decided by onboard vehicle-condition monitoring, which will alert the driver when a service falls due, rather than sticking to a set-in-stone schedule.
If you’re keeping an eye on fuel bills, Mini claims 6.5L/100km combined-cycle fuel consumption, but the on-test reality (admittedly skewed towards urban duties) settled on a less-thrifty 8.9L/100km.
Mini isn’t on its own when it comes to premium small SUVs anymore, though, which dilutes the Countryman’s market impact a little. Volvo now makes a play for the same buyers with the XC40 T4 and its surprisingly similar mechanical specification.
Worse still (for Mini at least, but certainly not for consumers), Volvo is big on personalisation, meaning the Countryman could be starting to feel some competitive pressure.
There’s still a sense of ‘fun and fresh’ about Mini’s SUV. It’s playful in a visual sense, but still workable as a practical compact SUV. The space inside will suit couples and starter families, but the available safety tech might not.
Think of it as a canvas – any car in the Mini range just needs an owner's creativity to finish it off. Just don’t take it too seriously.