Mini’s new Countryman has been launched amid serious anticipation and with a tough task ahead. To really succeed it requires people to reconsider everything they know about a brand they instantly recognise and mostly admire. When the Mini first appeared in 1959, it was a budget car for the people, a distinctive machine that was attainable and the world loved it. Then in 2001 BMW reinvented the Mini in a modern form, some people weren’t so hot on it, many others were, but we all got used to this new Mini and grew to accept it. Now, in an understandable effort to broaden its model range and appeal, Mini has launched its new Countryman. With four doors and significantly larger dimensions it comes asking new questions of the public. Can people accept that Mini as a company is more than just one model with different variations? Can the Countryman be a viable option for practical-focused families and modern lifestyles? Will it still retain enough appeal for Mini enthusiasts and offer traditional go-kart-style driving dynamics? Car and SUV strapped into Mini’s top spec Countryman ALL4 in search of the answers.
Minis are most famous for being mini in stature so it’s no surprise that many folk are getting all caught up on the Countryman’s plus-size proportions. For the record it’s 4,110mm in length, 1,561mm in height and is quite wide at 1,996mm. This makes the Countryman 381mm longer, 128mm higher and 104mm wider than a regular modern Mini. Think of it as a large hatchback or a small crossover vehicle.
The Countryman’s exterior design offers few clues to its larger scale, except for the four-doors. At the front it’s more bulbous and aggressive than its smaller sibling with a snarling blackened front grille and wide lower air dam. Along the flanks it’s more familiar fare with blackened pillars and contrasting side mirror caps. There’s some sharp detailing like the chrome door handles and a painted strip that covers the side vents. The broad shoulder line and narrowing glasshouse gives the Countryman an advanced stance and black plastic cladding around its lower edge hints at off road ambitions. At the rear a standard liftgate is used instead of a dual barn door set up like on the Clubman. There’s a subtle roof spoiler, twin exhaust tips and a large Mini badge that has a second job as the hatch’s opening handle. Finishing the look on our test vehicle were optional 5-Star 18-inch light alloy wheels with 225/45 runflat tyres.
The customization options are broad on the Countryman with thousands of combinations possible. There’s plenty of interior and exterior colour combinations, loads of optional equipment and the Chili Pack that includes a bunch of extra goodies.
Get inside the Countryman and you’re greeted with an interior that feels premium thanks to soft-touch dashboard plastics and excellent build quality. It’s not sensible and boring, though, there are still a lot of quirky design elements to be discovered. Circular design features everywhere from the dominating speedo/main control screen through to the air vents, door inserts, seat stitching and even the pedals. Switchgear is a mixture of toggles and buttons that function fine but ergonomically don’t always make sense. For example, the electric windows are lowered and raised by switches located at the bottom of the control stack.
Instrumentation is split between the steering column mounted tachometer and the speedo which circles the control screen and fuel gauge. A centrally mounted speedometer always takes some getting used to but the vehicle’s speed is also repeated on a digital display in the tachometer. The main control screen presents various information including audio settings and vehicle and trip readings. It’s controlled with a small circular joystick/dial mounted behind the gearstick; it may be fiddly for big hands at first but quickly becomes intuitive. The L-shape handbrake is a design highlight but isn’t easy to yank up with the awkwardly placed centre armrest sitting above.
Away from all the bells and whistles the Countryman’s true strength is what many other cars take for granted – space. Up front there is generous headroom and legroom with wide leather seats on our test subject that were cosseting, elegantly stitched and had multiple adjustments. The rear pew has seating for three in the NZ market and can easily accommodate adults on trips longer than just down to the dairy. Cargo capacity in the rear is a very usable 350-litres expanding to a capacious 1170-litres with the 40/20/40 split rear seatback folded forwards. Considering the Countryman is only marginally larger than a 5-door VW Golf the feeling of spaciousness is impressive. The driving position is also nicely upright and will appeal to those looking for crossover-style road visibility.
Under the striped bonnet on the Countryman Cooper S lays a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine that achieves a 135kW power output with 240Nm of torque. Thanks to twin-scroll turbocharging the Countryman can feel very lively and will sprint from standing to 100km/h in 7.6 seconds. While you can get going at a fair clip there are moments when the motor does feel small for a vehicle of this weight and it can bog down momentarily at low rpm. Keep it higher in its rev range and it will pull itself along with playful haste up to a 215kph top speed.
All models in the Countryman range are offered with a choice of 6-speed auto or 6-speed manual transmissions. Our test vehicle was fitted with the auto option, which did a great job of shifting quickly, fairly smoothly and was intelligent enough to really exploit the engine’s rev-happy nature. If more vigorous driving is on the menu the auto box has a Sport mode that holds lower gears longer and quickens throttle response. If manual changes are desired there are BMW-style push-pull paddles mounted behind the steering wheel. Fuel consumption figures are officially quoted at 6.1l/100km, which is thrifty for sure, but like any force-fed motor, if you keep it on boost, your fun will be paid for at the pump.
Retaining Mini’s traditional driving dynamics was always going to be a big ask for Countryman engineers and an area of concern. Their hard work has paid dividends and while the Countryman won’t match a standard size Cooper S on twisting mountain passes, it’s engaging, predictable and most importantly – fun. The higher ground clearance does makes for a slightly disconnected feel to the road and there is some body roll but there’s also a relentless level of grip through the front treads and the steering is well weighted with an exacting precision.
Mini’s ALL4 four-wheel-drive system lays dormant mostly, leaving the Countryman to enjoy the economy and smooth driving nature of a full time front driver. If there is some slipping it will electronically detect the loss of traction and send up to 100% of the torque to the rear wheels to help avoid trouble. It’s a smart, modern system and works as a safety feature in challenging conditions but also as a performance addition making the Countryman grip even harder during quick cornering. While the ALL4 system will help the big boy Mini on gravel roads or scaling a step slippery driveway, more rugged off-road duties will be limited.
Achieving the right balance of refinement is difficult for a drivers’ car like the Countryman, but it finds a suitable compromise of comfort while still engaging the senses. The ride is quite firm on the runflat tyres but it’s not excessive or jarring and a pillowy soft ride wouldn’t suit the car anyway. The engine can buzz away with a noise that enters the cabin, but only when you want it to – under throttle. The suspension feels most settled when the car is pushing through turns at open road speeds. Around town it’s slightly more fidgety but never a handful.
The safety package is inline with a vehicle in this price bracket and is lead by a well-configured traction control system that is diligent but not over invasive. Other safety kit includes stability control, cornering brake control, ABS brakes, brake force distribution, 3-point seatbelts for all occupants, and a six airbag package.
So has Mini done enough with the Countryman to silence the critics and appease brand fans?
Considering the challenges of introducing a larger body shape while still making a favourable yet familiar addition to the Mini legacy – the Countryman is very nicely worked. But to really appreciate the Countryman you need to forget everything you think you know about the Mini brand and see it for what it really is. A premium small-ish car with distinctive design, superb build quality and excellent driving dynamics. At over $70k for our tricked-out test vehicle the Countryman is definitely not priced as an easily attainable ‘peoples car’, but it’s far from a bare bones offering like Minis of old. If you love the brand but have been put off by the practical concessions required for the smaller Cooper model then the Countryman has been created to win you over. Give it a chance and it might just succeed.
Price: From $61,900 as tested $74,540
What we like:
- Styling isn’t that pretty but it turns heads
- Dynamically highly competent
- Very good fuel economy
- Spacious and practical cabin
What we don’t like:
- Interior layout values form over function
- Limited off-road ability
Who will buy this car: Those who love Minis from previous experience and want 4-door practicality in a characterful car.
Cool Factor: Minis have always been cool, and the Countryman is no exception despite its more practical nature. Cool factor is high.
Words and Photos: Adam Mamo