On The Road Review: Mini Cooper Countryman

For loyal disciples of BMW’s resurrected Mini compact car brand, the notion of a larger ‘Mini’ is almost abhorrent. The multiple virtues of performance and character are all defined by the car’s inherent tiny-ness; making a bigger car defies the whole principle of the brand.

Well, things change — and often for the better. This new model, named Countryman, is Mini’s first true four-door passenger car as well as the first Mini edition offered with optional all-wheel drive. Given the size and girth of too many Americans, this is the perfect Mini for our market.

The Countryman comes in two flavors: base models with front-wheel drive start at $22,350 with the standard 121-hp 1.6-liter four cylinder engine. Open your wallet to let $27,650 flow into the Mini dealer’s hands and you get a Countryman similar to the one pictured here — the all-wheel drive ‘S’ version with a turbocharged version of the 1.6-liter engine. Power jumps 50 percent to 181-hp while the same six-speed manual and automatic transmissions are available here as in other Mini products.

Before you flummox yourself with hate and discontent that Mini has ventured so far afield from the brand’s heritage — as if that really means anything to anyone younger than 30 anymore — the compact Countryman has had a rather large impact on the American market. Through the end of June, Mini had sold over 8,100 Countryman wagons here, or roughly 25 percent of total Mini sales. So far this year, Mini is outselling Toyota’s Scion lineup, Porsche, Land Rover, Jaguar, Suzuki, plus that little joke of a clown car called the Smart Car, the progressive vehicle that was supposed to make Mercedes a ton of money instead of a heap of embarrassment.

By any measure, Mini’s resurgence has to be seen as a clever move by BMW as two more Mini models are in the pipeline even while BMW gauges the Countryman’s success as it too contemplates adding smaller models to its own premium lineup.

Using a clever ad campaign, (haven’t all Mini ad campaigns been clever?) the Countryman boasts that it has “an extra set of love handles.” Unlike other Minis, the Countryman actually has a human-compatible rear seating area, space that is actually quite impressive with ample head room and leg space that can be increased as the individual bucket seats slide fore/aft up to five inches. Outfitted as our test car was with the optional dual-pane sunroof system, the Mini’s cabin is very airy and non-confining — sentiments not usually expressed with other Mini products.

Cargo room is impressive as well given that the Countryman is barely 161 inches long. The split rear seats don’t fold completely flat, but the cargo hold swallows a generous amount of gear without complaint.

Back in the passenger area, the Countryman uses a unique center rail storage system console that runs from the base of the instrument panel all the way through the rear seating area. Removable containers for beverages, iPod stations, etc., click into the rail plus concealed wires give access to the car’s audio systems. Order the Mini Connected option to gain smartphone apps that work with the giant in-dash navigation system screen and BMW-ish control knob to further enhance your entertainment options.

Throughout the Countryman’s interior it is evident that Mini did not stray far from its past. Large round dials, circular controls and handles and concentric shapes for buttons and interior accents maintain the styling theme that has been evident in the revived brand since its roll-out with BMW. There is still the huge analog speedometer mounted in the middle of the dash — a spot that I grew used too — plus there is a digital speedo mounted under the analog tachometer in front of the driver. However, I never did adapt to the power window toggle switches at the base of the instrument panel. At the end of seven days I still looked for these switches on the door panels.

Add push-button ignition, a wide-ranging tilt/telescoping steering column, satellite radio, and near perfect ergonomics and the Mini feels right. Fit and finish is definitely a cut above the class and lends a premium ‘air’ to the Mini.

None of these attributes would mean a thing if the Countryman abandoned the most important part of the Mini’s lineage — how well each Mini drives. Well…

From the engine room, the upgraded turbo motor is a real trooper. Once you get into the revs and get past a tiny bit of turbo-lag, the Countryman pulls hard in every one of the six gears and produces really enjoyable power. You can be cruising along in sixth gear, decide to make a quick pass, downshift to third and whisk by slower traffic with nary a whimper, the Mini building power decisively. Long grades don’t bother the Mini and around-town driving is a snap. Shifts are smooth and light at all times. I can see how the all-wheel-drive setup aids power delivery and curbs the normal torque steer predilections of the front-drive turbo-Mini, yet I would not consider this an off-roading Mini.

Best of all, the Countryman delivered a very Mini-like real world fuel economy number of 35 mpg for the week, a full four miles per gallon better than the EPA highway rating. My driving reflected no attempt to maximize economy either, so this well-broken in Countryman clearly has the potential to be a thrifty daily driver.

Steering feel and braking action are Mini-quick and extremely responsive. Due to the added weight of this body configuration there is some lean in fast turns, but nowhere near the level of larger crossover wagons. Handling wise, the Countryman is still a Mini.

The shake-up — literally — occurs when piloting over broken pavement. Here, the ‘S’ models optional sport suspension is perhaps a bit too stiff, as the chassis lacks the compliance of other Minis and often produces unwanted reactions with the road surface. Delete the $1,000 sport package and stick with the regular 17-inch wheels and your ride will be more favorable given the terrain that we must travel over.

Who will want a Countryman? Any compact car buyer who wants more space but really desires a responsibly sized vehicle will be attracted to the Countryman’s combination of efficient packaging and user-friendliness, as well as the usual list of Mini driving virtues. Potential rivals include the Subaru WRX wagon, the Nissan Juke and the Volvo V-50 wagon.

Mini Hits: pleasant cabin, roomy rear seat, all wheel drive option, delightful turbo-motor, best fuel efficiency in the segment.

Mini Misses: avoid the sport suspension; option list can add thousands to the sticker price very quickly

Just the Facts: Mini Cooper Countryman

Mini Cooper Countryman is a four-door, four-passenger front- or all-wheel drive compact crossover wagon. Pricing starts at $22,350 for base edition, $27,650 for all-wheel drive S model. Tested version shown lists for $34,150 with options like custom cloth heated seats, cold weather package, dual-pane sunroof, automatic climate control, Harmon-Kardon stereo, 18-inch alloy wheels, sport suspension, keyless ignition and access and folding center armrest.

Countryman weighs in at 2,954 pounds in base trim. Wheelbase is 102.2 inches under a body 161.7 inches long. Height is 61.5 inches.

Base 1.6-liter engine with six-speed manual gearbox returns EPA ratings of 28/35-mpg with front-wheel drive. S-model with AWD has EPA rating of 25/31-mpg. A six-speed automatic is optional.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.