The MINI brand is about big style not big size. Many have admired the bulldog design but can’t wedge their family or lifestyle into a Cooper Hardtop (the original two-door MINI) or Clubman (the three-door with dutch-door backend). Now- in what may seem a late April Fool’s prank to some, the brand has introduced a crossover- the new Countryman.
Let’s not have any of that “big MINI” stuff though. Countryman is petite, 16 inches longer, 6 inches taller and 4 inches wider than a Cooper Hardtop. That makes it similar in size to Nissan Juke and Honda Fit (which is a few inches narrower). Not exactly a Suburban. It’s the first MINI with four-doors, four comfortable seating positions and the option of all four wheels getting power. Maybe they should have called it Fourman…
A base Countryman begins at $23,350 with destination and quickly rises. MINI is small but not inexpensive. At $32,400, my tester roams the streets of Seattle without ALL4 all-wheel drive, nav system or backup cam. Fully optioned, Countryman approaches 38 grand, bumping up toward Audi A3. A loaded AWD Juke goes for around 26K.
No Mistaking Who Makes It
Everyone who sees the Countryman knows it’s a MINI, though an interesting phenomenon happens when people approach it for the first time. There’s the “cool, you’re driving a MINI Cooper” exclamation followed by the inevitable “what the heck…” look, finished off with a “Oh, this is new” grin. Countryman travels incognito, nothing on the exterior offers up its name.
The grille gets a bit of a frown, maybe to appear more brute-ute than cute-ute. Sorry, still adorable. There’s a little bit of Toyota FJ Cruiser happening in Countryman’s rear pillar and some serious bling surrounding the side repeater. Choose from endless ways to configure it with 11 body paints, three different roof colors, dozens of accessories, and a bunch of graphics (yes, I’m talking to you Union Jack fans).
Choose Your Power
Countryman is available with a normally aspirated 1.6-liter 4-cylinder that makes 121 horsepower. This comes in front-drive only. I’m driving an S model so its turbocharged engine pumps out 181 horses. Choose between a standard six-speed manual with solid hefty action or the optional six-speed automatic transmission for $1,250. S offers the choice of ALL4 all-wheel drive. I’m driving a front-wheel drive manual model.
Countryman weighs some 400 pounds more than a standard MINI so 0-60 in just under eight seconds is expected (MINI posts a 7 second 0-60 sprint, it’s possible my tester was filled with regular grade fuel rather than specified premium).
The added heft and height keep Countryman from having its little brother’s go-kart quality handling in the corners but it’s still fun to fling around. Put another way, it’s much more enjoyable than pushing a Ford Escape or Honda CR-V hard. Visibility is good, ride quality is firm and a bit choppy on rough roads. Wind and road noise are higher than average. This front-wheel drive tester is EPA fuel economy rated at 26 city, 32 highway. ALL4 models get 25/31.
The engine feels strong, sounds good too with a deep burble for a small engine. Even with the powerful turbo engine, there’s only a small amount of torque steer with front-drive models and the wheel doesn’t get squirrely in hard acceleration and maneuvering on rough roads. Opting for the ALL4 all-wheel drive system would most likely take care of any torque steer.
Anti-brakes are quite good with excellent modulation. Push the Sport button on the center stack to tighten up the steering and throttle response, and make the engine sound throatier. Order the automatic transmission and it remaps shift points too.
Recently at the Northwest Automotive Press Association’s Mudfest sport-ute roundup, I drove a Countryman equipped with ALL4 all-wheel drive in nasty conditions that most owners would avoid. Check out the streaming video for a little down-in-the-dirt action. It’s no Jeep Grand Cherokee but it’ll get you to the ski slopes just fine and handle terrain owners will seldom try to tackle.
Personality Continues Inside
It’s easy to know you’re in a MINI since the speedometer’s mounted right of the steering wheel and big as a pie pan. Where most expect the speedometer, there’s a tachometer that travels with the tilt/telescope wheel (it has a small digital speedo in case you find the big one distracting, which I do). Window controls are all down on the center stack, the toggle switch gear looks and feels great. Pop sunglass, phone and cup holders onto a cool rail system that runs through to the back seat to configure storage the way you want. Even the pedals have good design.
The parking brake is a big hefty lever that feels like a tool. Materials are a mix of sort of soft and hard. Phones and iPods are supported with a $1,250 option package. The sound system interface could be more intuitive but there’s a year of Sirius satellite radio and an HD radio tuner to go with the expected AM/FM/CD sources. Comfortable heated seats have substantial bolstering to hug people in place during hard cornering. The premium sound system should satisfy most, set-and-forget auto climate control is single zone. What? You’re expecting dual zone in a car this size?
The Back Seat That Doesn’t Take a Back Seat
Countryman seats four people and no more, each position is a bucket seat. The two back chairs recline and slide fore and aft to expand passenger or cargo space. Leg and foot room are good for average sized adults when slid all the way back, luxurious if you’re coming from the back of the two-door MINI. Power port? Check. Map pockets and door cubbies? Present and accounted for. An optional glass roof keeps things bright and airy. In short, the rear quarters are pretty darn comfortable. Yes, I am talking about a MINI.
Some gripes, dropping the rear seats requires an awkward reach from the back through the middle in order to pull the release straps. Keyless ignition is great but, why, why does it need two taps to shut the car completely down? Sun visors are worthless if old sol is directly to your side. Shifting into reverse takes a little effort.
As a premium brand, MINI’s materials are generally good but an overhead console that holds the lights has more give than expected and more than one passenger commented on the fuzzy mouse fur that makes up the headliner. Finally, I’ve come to appreciate tapping the signal stalk for three blinks, a BMW feature missing on this MINI.
The Maximum MINI
The Countryman’s cargo area is much larger than a standard MINI and there’s a good amount of space under the floor to stash a laptop computer bag. Looking for the spare? Don’t. Countryman is outfitted with run flat tires. Unlike the Clubman, Countryman gets a hatch to protect from rain. With the floor removed for maximum capacity, the score in the TP trunk test is six packs, the same as a midsized sedan.
It’s great to see a company marching to its own music but MINI branding is a bit confusing. All models wear the Cooper badge. There are now three models plus a new coupe and roadster on the way. Why not keep Cooper for the original and let Clubman and Countryman get more distinct Cooperless identities? Referring to the original model I find myself wondering what to call it. The two-door? The coupe? Original? Classic? Hardtop? MINI?
Countryman doesn’t have much direct competition but how many shoppers will glance at the price tag and go for larger vehicles like Sportage, CR-V, Tucson that cost less money? In the end the largest attribute Countryman has going for it is personality. People like the chunky look and it’s interesting to see the designers stretching the MINI theme in new directions. With easy access to every seat, families who have always liked the brand’s style and performance can finally get a MINI that’s practical and ready for all kinds of conditions. For a brand that’s somewhat hamstrung by its name, that’s a big deal.