MINI marketers are still in their “man” phase. First, it was the Clubman, now it’s the Countryman, and down the road there’ll be its two-door derivative called Paceman. If MINI ever does a supercar spun off the BMW M3, it might be called Superman.
The MINI Countryman flies in the face of the British marque’s tradition. It’s the first-ever MINI with four proper doors, (available) four-wheel drive and a body longer than four metres. The 2595mm wheelbase is a full 50mm longer than the Clubman’s, and stretches further than the benchmark Volkswagen Golf’s. In other words, this latest MINI is not that mini anymore.
It’s also a bit less English than the other MINI models, because it’s not made at the Oxford factory but over 1,200km away in Graz, Austria, by Magna Steyr. There, Countryman production has replaced BMW X3 assembly which has been shifted to the Spartanburg, US plant that also builds the X5 and X6. So, the Countryman is not just conceptually distant from Alec Issigonis’ classic runabout, but also further than ever from its birthplace.
Its styling, however, stays close to the MINI-reborn recipe of the three-door hatchback, which was launched a decade ago and is currently into its second generation. But with the Countryman being the biggest MINI and all, its development team has taken liberties with the exterior design, making it larger than life rather than just a larger MINI.
The style fundamentals are similar – such as a distinct three-level “split” of body, glasshouse and roof, short overhangs, an upright windscreen, “cascading” rear contours, “island” tail-lamps, side scuttles with direction indicators, and black plastic cladding that runs over the wheel arches and along the door sills.
The style then becomes dissimilar – the headlights (not circular like on other MINI models), the grille (unusually hexagonal), the bonnet powerdome (a first for MINI) and roof rails (another first for the marque). As is customary with every Mini newcomer, the Countryman introduces a fresh selection of colours, but they don’t include Grass Green or Mud Brown. Another new feature is the coaster-sized roundel that doubles as the tailgate release – like the Golf’s “VW” flip emblem, but with a smoother underside that makes it a little harder to press and lift.
Opening the hatch reveals a boot that is easy to load/unload, evenly shaped and far more useful than that of the quirky MINI Clubman. Its 350-litre cargo capacity is no bigger than the Golf’s, but the sliding (in a 130mm range) rear seats can boost this to 450 litres at the expense of legroom. There is also an underfloor compartment for the accoutrements of your apparently active lifestyle. Fully deploy the split-fold facility to create 1,170 litres of boot space – about the same as a five-door BMW 1 Series, but boxier and thus easier to pack.
Packing grown men into the MINI Countryman is easy, with ample room for heads and shoulders, legs and feet. Three guys can occupy the standard bench seat, at least for a short half-hour trip. (Stuffing three people into the back of a Clubman is also possible, but they’ll be more uncomfortable than in the Countryman.) If only air-con throughput to the rear passengers was stronger, and the fold-down centre portion of the back seat a better armrest.
Unusually, the Countryman can be configured as a four- or five-seater. The latter is the safer option, of course. It’s like buying a sofa – the couple couch is sweet, but the three-seater is more practical. The individual rear seats are separated by a clever utility rail that starts from the gearbox surround in the four-occupant Countryman. The five-seater has this feature too, but the so-called Centre Rail ends between the front seats.
This multi-purpose pole is meant to support, via a simple clip-and-slide system, your choice of storage points. The options include a foldable front armrest (with smartphone cradle inside if specified), an iPod/iPhone dock, extra cupholders and handy power outlets for gadgets. The railing is also lit, in either warm orange or cool blue, to match the cabin’s selected ambient lighting. Centre Rail might be a contrivance, with its practicality a little flimsier than its theory, but the rest of the interior appears solid and sturdy, with quality materials throughout.
The vehicle’s cockpit and controls will be familiar to drivers of the other 2011 MINIs. The epic speedometer, pod-like tachometer, retrospective toggle switches, chrome touches, numerous circles – they’re all there. Unique to the Countryman in the MINI scheme of things are the superb all-round visibility and fantastic front seats.
Its MINI-plus ride height, generous glazing (even overhead, if you tick the panoramic sunroof option) and “turret” pillars allow the driver to look further and “faster”, giving him a tactical advantage in busy traffic and carpark confines alike. The Countryman’s chairs are the best in the MINI roster today, boasting great comfort and good support. Strangely enough, the Cooper for Singapore comes with shapelier Gravity seats, while the Cooper S employs the Lounge spec that has nicer leather, but is more stylish than grippy.
The real grip, of course, is generated by the MINI Cooper S Countryman’s All4 drivetrain. Permanently engaged, the electromagnetic centre differential splits the engine power 50:50 front and rear, without drama or much mechanical drag. Torque-steer and 18-inch wheelspin are therefore absent, making this machine less manic compared to its pocket rocket sibling. The 250kg extra weight and standard 6-speed automatic are other factors that slow the car down, although nought to 100km/h in 8.3 seconds and a top speed in excess of 200km/h are still healthy figures.
We already know that the current Cooper S engine is a gem – punchy, powerful and tuneful. The torquey performance of the turbocharged 1.6-litre is particularly effective at low to medium revs, making it ideal for point-to-point acceleration, while the additional 20Nm on full-throttle overboost is a bonus.
Drive the car hard, though, and the fuel economy suffers – it averaged 8km per litre in our happy hands, some way off the claimed 13km per litre, but still acceptable for a 184bhp oversized hot hatch driven hard.
Activate Sport mode (with a dashboard switch) and the Countryman becomes crazy, man. The throttle response goes hyperactive, the transmission changes gears more quickly, shifts up later and stays longer in a lower gear, while the racy exhaust note produces an addictive pop and crackle whenever you snap shut an open throttle.
Sport mode also makes the electro-mechanical power steering slightly heavier, but the precise, quick and speed-sensitive rack is already well weighted to begin with.
MINI’s much-touted “go-kart handling” is present in the Countryman, but it’s a giant go-kart that weighs 1.4 tonnes, stands over 1.5 metres tall and takes three co-drivers. Chassis magic can only do so much to bend the rules of physics. In the event, the anti-roll bars do their best to reduce body sway in corners, but it still rolls a little, and the 225/45 R18 Goodyears hold the road with gusto, but they don’t stick as stubbornly as the tyres on a regular Cooper S. There is no “but” for the disc brakes, which are perfectly modulated and precisely forceful. Ultimately, the Countryman is a capable handler by compact crossover standards, but it is no sportsman in track and “feel”.
Its cruising quality would be a revelation for MINI drivers used to excitable chassis behaviour. There is some springback over bad tarmac bumps, especially in the Cooper S with its low-profile run-flat tyres (whose sidewalls tend to be stiff) and firmer-than-usual suspension, but the ride is otherwise smooth and long-striding – more so than any other MINI today, and nearly as agreeable as the 3 Series Touring. Extraneous noise is not an issue, unless the asphalt is rough or the road speeds are well beyond legal.
The Countryman’s occupation as the carryall MINI is legit. It is just the ticket for our concrete jungle, with its forest of multi-storey carparks and undergrowth of shopping malls. Even though the car is neither very pretty nor really rugged, it gets the crossover job done favourably. It also offers a genuinely entertaining drive, as long as you don’t rush the relaxed Cooper and you give the sporty Cooper S some space to play.
Either way, try not to stray too far from the city or wander too deeply into the countryside, because upper-class suburbia is where the MINI Countryman truly belongs.
MINI Cooper S Countryman 1.6 (A)
ENGINE 1598cc, 16-valves, inline-4, turbocharged
MAX POWER 184bhp at 5500rpm
MAX TORQUE 240Nm at 1600-5000rpm
GEARBOX 6-speed automatic with manual select
0-100KM/H 8.3 seconds
TOP SPEED 205km/h
PRICE INCL. COE $189,800 (as of March 2011)
Check out the latest MINI Countryman