Nowadays, European cars are pricing themselves down. With new product development and the amortisation of technology spurring affordability, $50,000 can either put you into an upper-spec medium SUV of the mainstream variety, or as we’re about to analyse, a premium mid-tier small SUV.
The Volvo XC40 and Mini Countryman are both against-the-grain alternatives to the standard premium jobbies from Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi.
NOTE: A new-look Countryman range has been revealed and will arrive in Australia later this year. For the purposes of this review, however, we have focused on the current in-market model.
The pair to compare
Price and features
The Volvo Inscription, which represents the cheapest all-wheel-drive offering by Volvo, starts from $51,990 before on-roads. The Countryman Cooper S, arguably on the upper end of the product scale, will set you back $49,200 before taxes and fees, but lacks the Volvo's all-wheel-drive underpinnings.
Not taking options and other gear into account, $2790 falls in favour of the Mini. Without adding layers of complexity, it is the cheaper car. However, as two mid-tier European products, both cars are riddled with options and packages that can inflate costs.
Before we get to that, standard fare in the Volvo includes adaptive cornering LED headlights, partial leather seats with electric driver’s adjustment and lumbar support, ‘driftwood’ door inlays, auto-dimming side and interior mirrors, 9.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with DAB and navigation, as well as keyless entry and a power tailgate. Reasonably well equipped, then.
But what about the Mini? In standard form, the seats are faux leather with manual adjustment. The screen measures a pip smaller at 8.8 inches, but also features navigation as standard. There’s the same keyless entry and a power tailgate as the Volvo, as well. It goes as far as to one-up the Volvo by including self-parking as standard, which is optional equipment on the XC40.
However, there are a few important misses with the Mini when grilled, such as the lack of auto-dimming side mirrors, as well as auto-dimming interior mirror. Also, the Mini’s headlights are full LED, but only feature a static cornering light compared to Volvo's adaptive beam system.
Finally, as far as big-ticket items go, gracing the Volvo are 19-inch wheels, while the Mini has 18-inch items.
That makes the Volvo slightly better equipped overall, and usefully so by including helpful gear such as auto-dimming interior and side mirrors, as well as electric seats with memory, which the Mini does not.
Both cars are quite spacious inside, despite the Volvo carrying some 12cm of additional length compared to the Mini.
Head room in the first row between the two is close enough to be identical, but the Volvo steps ahead a little in the second row by offering a bit more height. Space for your shoulders is more favourable in the Volvo, too, in both the first and second rows.
Interestingly, leg room changes things up a bit. They’re close enough again in the front, but the Mini sports more space for your legs in the second row, despite being noticeably shorter.
As for cargo-carrying capacity, it's close to even-stevens, with the Mini offering 450L and the Volvo 460L. However, the XC40 does claim to offer ergonomically smart storage spaces, such as deep door pockets with unobstructed access, which are handy to have.
As for design, they're polar opposites. The Volvo offers clean Scandinavian lines with its portrait-orientated infotainment system slightly skewed to face the driver. There's also a digital instrument cluster, which the Mini does not offer, even as an option.
There's a noticeable lack of buttons, with its pared-back approach meaning you have to use the touchscreen to control the intricacies of the vehicle's systems such as the air-conditioning, which can make it tricky to use while on the move.
The Mini is certainly more fun inside. Circles are the theme of the day, as opposed to the Volvo's dead-straight lines, and overall the cabin is in stark contrast to the Volvo's. Mini has also employed a BMW iDrive-style central command knob to control its infotainment system, which is simple and easy to use while driving. Air-conditioning controls also remain via dedicated switches.
Design aside, the digital instrument cluster in the Volvo is miles ahead of the rather quirky centre gauge stack that the Mini employs. The infotainment system also offers more real estate, and feels more premium in its layout and interface.
|Mini Countryman Cooper S||Volvo XC40 Inscription|
|Overall width (mm)||1822||1863|
|Headroom - front row (mm)||1029||1030|
|Headroom - second row (mm)||972||994|
|Leg room - front row (mm)||1026||1040|
|Leg room - second row (mm)||956||917|
|Shoulder room - front row (mm)||1391||1440|
|Shoulder room - second row (mm)||1371||1429|
|Boot space (litres)||450||460|
Safety – active and passive
Here is where things get a little interesting. The Countryman misses out on vital active safety equipment that's quite commonly found in the segment. There’s no blind-spot monitoring available on the Mini Countryman range. Not even as an option. Further to this, it also lacks rearward safety technology. There’s no rear cross-traffic alert, no rear collision braking system or reverse AEB – nothing.
In its defence, there’s AEB with pedestrian detection for the front, adaptive cruise control, as well as front and rear parking sensors.
As for the Volvo, well, we all know about their boxy, safety-oriented origins. Long gone are the days of marketing SIPS (Side Impact Protection Systems), but it’s nice to see they’re still keeping true to their original ethos.
The Volvo XC40 features everything as above, including blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, rear collision warning with braking, and an extra airbag in the form of one for the driver’s knees.
The Volvo also has a five-star ANCAP rating, whereas the Cooper S remains untested in our market. If safety is of paramount concern to you, then the Volvo is definitely the pick.
Performance, economy and ownership
Both cars are equipped with 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged engines. The Volvo’s produces 140kW/300Nm and the Mini 141kW/280Nm. Torque availability does also lean in favour of the Mini, as its peak output is on offer from 50rpm earlier and up until 600rpm later.
Close enough, but the weights play a factor here. The XC40 tips in at a heavy 1705kg, but the Mini weighs an unbelievable 353kg less at 1352kg on the dot.
Part of the reason for that is Volvo uses an all-wheel-drive system, whereas the Mini is just front-wheel drive. Even factoring that in, the XC40 does come across heavier than it ought to be.
That weight advantage alone means the Mini offers greater performance despite slightly lower torque outputs. Power-to-weight ratios see the Mini packing 16.8kW more per tonne. This makes it a whole second faster to 100km/h from a standstill, coming in at 7.5 seconds versus the Volvo at 8.5 seconds.
It also uses less fuel as a consequence, with official combined figures coming in at 6.6 litres per 100km for the Mini, which betters Volvo's claim of 7.4L/100km.
Maintenance also falls in favour of the Brit. A five-year/80,000km maintenance and servicing pack will set you back $1495 for the Countryman. The Volvo? $1595 for a three-year/45,000km agreement.
As for warranty, the Mini is covered by a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, while the Volvo has a far superior five-year/unlimited-kilometre offering.
|Mini Countryman Cooper S||Volvo XC40 Inscription|
|Power (kW @ rpm)||141 @ 6000||140 @ 4700|
|Torque (Nm @ rpm)||280 @ 1350 - 4600|
300 @ 1400 - 4000
|Power to weight ratio (kW/t)||98.9||82.1|
|Acceleration 0-100km/h (seconds)||7.5||8.5|
Range simplicity – options
A pet peeve of this writer, and I’m sure of many potential customers, is the lack of transparency with regard to European vehicle pricing. There are options, on options, on further options available for both of these cars.
The Mini takes the cake in this regard by showing you options, but not mentioning the pricing of said options. You can build a car online, but you have no idea what it costs. This vagueness not only makes it hard to navigate, but also makes it hard to understand where good buying is via online listings or even on the dealership floor.
As an example, two apparently similar Minis may be priced quite closely. However, one might lack options that are at first not apparent unless you examine the spec sheet in detail. Even if you manage to dissect what is optional and what is not, you'll be forever consulting third-party websites in order to gauge value.
After some research on non-manufacturer websites, I was able to establish that the Mini has 34 options on offer. They range from no-cost options right through to $2750 for the JCW-style package.
The Volvo offers half of this amount, 17 in total, with some overlap of packages and single-choice options that does help simplify the offering. On top of that point, equipment packages are more logically constructed and grouped option packs with the XC40.
To similarly equip the Mini as per the Volvo, you'd need to opt for at least the Convenience package and a set of 19-inch wheels at a total cost of $3700. That brings electric seats and auto-dimming mirrors both inside and out, as well as folding exterior mirrors to marry up the spec close to the Volvo.
That brings a comparable-spec Mini up to $52,990 before on-roads, which is a grand more than the Volvo at $51,990.
Plug-in hybrid options
It would be of remiss not to mention that both the Mini Countryman and Volvo XC40 are available with a plug-in hybrid drivetrain. Opting for the greener choice does change either package quite significantly.
With the Mini Countryman in hybrid guise, it's engine steps down from its 2.0-litre four cylinder to a 1.5-litre three cylinder engine, which produces 100kW of power and 220Nm alone.
However, a 65kW electric motor with 165Nm of torque is introduced, which brings the total power output to 165kW and 385Nm. Electric only range is a claimed 47km, and its combined fuel figure drops to an impressive 2.5 litres per 100kms.
It also becomes all-wheel drive too in this format, too, which is interesting.
The Volvo XC40 Recharge plug-in hybrid partakes in a bit of role reversal here. It actually becomes front-wheel drive, in comparison to the XC40 Inscription model under scrutiny in this comparison, which is all-wheel drive.
As with the Mini, the Volvo's engine also takes a step down to better its eco credentials. In hybrid format, it employs a 1.5-litre three cylinder, as the Mini does, albeit with more power. The petrol component of the Volvo's driveline makes 132kW of power and 265Nm torque, bettering the petrol side of the Mini by a fair margin.
It's electric motor is close enough to the Mini's outputs. It makes 60kW, and 160Nm, which takes the XC40's combined outputs out to 192kW and 425Nm. Combined fuel consumption comes in at 2.2 litres per 100km as per official combined figures and its electric only range is 46km.
The Volvo does offer more power, a larger battery pack and slightly better fuel figures, but it is also $7790 more expensive.
Both of these cars are great alternative choices in a market that's crowded by the top three Germans.
If outright performance and uniqueness are of value to you, then the Mini is likely to be the choice. It also offers a smidgen more room in a critical area of the second row, which is leg room. This may be of great desire to some who plan to use the back seats frequently with kids, family or friends.
It's also the fun choice – in the sense of having a more youthful design and quirky touches throughout. The unique wagon-styled body will make SUV naysayers rejoice, and may be enough alone to convince them and their wallets.
However, if more rational items such as safety, equipment and useful technology are of greater significance, then the Volvo takes the cake. Its execution inside feels more premium, and it also packs a wider gamut of important advanced driver aids.
Despite being more expensive to maintain over a three-year period, by a minimum of $1000 depending on how far you travel, it counters this by offering a further two years of warranty coverage.
Then there's the price. The Mini may be cheaper as a base model, but when optioned up to match the Volvo's key features, it ends up being a whole $1000 more expensive.
That makes the Volvo the pick of the two in this comparison.
⊕ THE PERFECT SPEC: 2020 Volvo XC40
As the winner, I've taken five to configure an XC40 to my own personal taste. I've selected the Inscription trim line, as per the comparison.
Ideally, bodywork would be finished in '723 Denim Blue', which contrasts nicely against a set of optional 20-inch 5-spoke wheels and 'amber' coloured leather trim. The elegant driftwood dash and door inlays come as standard with this variant, which both work rather well with the overall colour combo.
From here, I've gone all-out. The 'climate pack' has been introduced solely for the heated seats, as has the 'lifestyle pack', again selfishly for the Harman Kardon premium audio system. To finish things off, I ticked the box for the sport chassis, too.
As I'd call it, perfect.