MINI Countryman Road Test & Review
A bigger, brasher MINI
Hamburg, Germany—Introduced in 2001, the modern MINI wrote the book on how to resurrect a classic car for a new era. Some critics bemoaned the fact that the new MINI dwarfed the original in terms of size, thus contradicting the rationale behind the original, a tiny car with massive interior space. But the level-headed among us understood that the successor was the better car in most respects, far safer and in no way resembled a rolling death-trap.
Furthermore, the modern MINI set new standards in driving dynamics for a burgeoning segment of the industry—the entry-level premium class—that remain unmatched to this day. It became famous for its “go-kart” handling and although the MINI has more suspension travel than the average go-kart, the comparison was nevertheless appropriate.
The new MINI also offered no small amount of style and plenty of personalization options. Since its debut, there have been a number of brand extensions: faster versions, convertible versions, even faster versions, the larger Clubman and, now, the crossover Countryman.
The traditionalists likely won’t be thrilled with the idea of an even bigger Mini, but more modern thinkers will recognize a bright idea when they see it. The Countryman is a bright idea: four doors, more interior space and positioning that evokes the rally heritage of the original Mini—the manufacturer even plans to enter their new crossover in the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) next year. Smart.
There are no fewer than seven different versions of the Countryman for various corners of the globe: the One Countryman, One D Countryman, Cooper Countryman, Cooper D Countryman, Cooper D Countryman ALL4, Cooper S Countryman and Cooper S Countryman ALL4. This final model, featuring all-wheel drive for the first time ever in a MINI, was the version available for testing.
The MINI Cooper S Countryman ALL4 is powered by a 1.6-litre, 4-cylinder with direct fuel injection, variable valve management and a twin-scroll turbocharger, the same engine as found in the Cooper S. This potent little number is rated at 142 kW and 240 Nm of torque at a low 1,600 rpm; under hard acceleration, the engine’s overboost feature produces 260 Nm of torque, an impressive figure for a small vehicle.
The manufacturer estimates that the run from 0-62 mph takes 7.6 seconds; based on the driving experience around the German countryside, this seems like a completely reasonable statement. The Countryman certainly offers smart acceleration and no small amount of driving pleasure. A quick blast along the autobahn revealed that the crossover is stable as all get out even at over 100 mph (161 km/h) while top speed is a conservative 127 mph (204 km/h).
However, there are reservations with the vehicle’s driving dynamics—not when comparing the Countryman to other small crossovers, just when comparing it to any other new MINI. You see, the crossover is advertised as having the brand’s trademark go-kart handling…but it doesn’t.
Gone is the extremely direct steering and the largely punishing ride; in its place, the Countryman has been equipped with somewhat vague steering and a softer ride. This is my biggest complaint about the vehicle and it’s a complaint only because the other MINI models are so superior when it comes to handling and sheer driving fun.
On the plus side, it’s worth noting that ALL4 is a full-time all-wheel drive system that can divert 100% of engine power to the front or the rear wheels as conditions warrant. This is a distinct advantage over some other competitors AWD whose systems are on-demand in nature and will definitely be a benefit in slippery conditions. Another benefit of ALL4 compared to the front-wheel drive MINI models: Despite some significant power under foot, the Countryman doesn’t spin its front wheels under hard acceleration or suffer from any of the dreaded torque steer.
The Cooper S Countryman ALL 4 was fitted with a 6-speed manual transmission that served to ratchet up the fun a degree or two. The stubby shifter was easy to reach and the short-throw nature made rowing through the gears a fine feeling. A 6-speed automatic transmission is available as an option on all models apart from the diesels.
The test versions were also fitted with a pair of interesting features: brake energy regeneration and an automatic start/stop system. The brakes on the MINI had very good feel and the start/stop system worked without a hitch. It’s high time these technologies were made standard for all markets all over the world.
In terms of ergonomics and the cabin layout, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The Countryman does have four doors and room for four adults. The back seat is surprisingly roomy and the vehicle is wide, offering plenty of hip and shoulder room for passengers.
While certain markets receive 5-seat versions of the Countryman, others have to make do with the 4-seater due to the centre rail storage system that runs the length of the cabin. The rail system could prove handy for attaching cupholders, containers and the like, but I can’t help but think that a fifth seat would prove even more convenient.
The back storage compartment is, in the tradition of MINI, not large, but it does feature an extra under-floor area big enough for a briefcase. The rear seats fold down to create more storage space—1,170 litres in total or enough room for two mountain bikes with the front wheels removed. (The back seats also slide back and forth, and have a few recline settings for increased comfort.) The Countryman also comes standard with a roof rail system that can accommodate bike racks or storage containers.
The cabin, with its distinctive toggle switches and retro-inspired dials, will be familiar to those who know the new MINI. One feature, the massive speedometer that grew in size with the second-generation MINI, is really over the top. Although it’s big enough to make the inset navigation screen legible, I’ve never been a big fan from an aesthetics standpoint.
Another note: I never looked at the speedometer dial to see how fast we were traveling because a digital readout below the centre-mounted tachometer was easier to read. This, then, makes the over-sized dial the very definition of form without function.
In terms of interior materials, the Countryman has been given a more rugged feel. More often than not, it was executed successfully, but the crossover certainly doesn’t rate well compared to other MINI models in terms of interior style. Also, the hard felt headliner just feels cheap, which is pretty much inexcusable for a premium offering. I tested the elastic strap on the passenger sun visor to see how far it would stretch and if it bounced back after being stretched; unfortunately, it snapped.
There’s little question that the 2011 MINI Countryman is a worthy addition to the small crossover set and it will very likely be met with positive reaction when it finally arrives on the market. It doesn’t really drive like a MINI, but it drives as well as any of its direct competitors, if not better. All in all, despite a few drawbacks, it’s another inspired addition to a very inspired line-up.