June Neary spends some time with a more versatile MINI, the Countryman
Will It Suit Me?
I've always like the thought of owning a MINI but space has always defeated me. MINIs are cute - but just not big enough. Even the Clubman estate, innovative though it is, wasn't quite what I was looking for. But here's a MINI model that may be - the Countryman. At its original launch, the Countryman was the largest MINI to date, offering extra potential for this cheeky brand to capitalise on the well documented loyalty of its customers, providing somewhere to go for those with commitments who, like me, have outgrown a supermini-size car. Now it's been subtly updated. Time to try one.
Like all MINIs, this one looks unique, displaying all of the brand's usual traits, from the foursquare stance with the wheels pushed right out to the extremities of the vehicle to the unmistakable font end with its rounded headlamps. Everything is scaled up for this larger five-door car though, with the wheelbase and the overall height far in excess of anything that has gone before. I liked it. MINI's usual high beltline looks even higher on the Countryman and there's a hatchbacked rear end giving access to a 350-litre boot. I was interested to find that the cabin can be configured in one of two ways. There's a four-seater layout based around a novel Centre Rail running down the middle which lets various storage receptacles be clipped to and slid along it. Alternatively, buyers can go for a conventional five-seat layout with a three-seat rear bench that can fold down, raising the boot capacity to 1170 litres. That's easily enough for pushchairs and the like.
Behind the Wheel
If you like the driving experience of the standard second generation MINI models, then you'll like the feel of a Countryman since the recipe is exactly the same. There are four petrol and three diesel four-cylinder units offered, opening with the 89bhp diesel in the Countryman One D and progressing up to the turbocharged 218bhp petrol engine with variable valve management in the John Cooper Works model. The only actual performance change with the most recent model update was to the petrol Cooper S variant which now gets a 10bhp power hike to 190bhp, marginally reducing its 0-62mph sprint time to 7.5s. All the Countrymen (?) have a six-speed manual gearbox as standard but a Steptronic automatic is available as an option on all but the entry-level diesel. Customers for the petrol Cooper, Cooper S, Cooper D and Cooper SD variants also have the option of the ALL 4 all-wheel drive system that's standard on the John Cooper Works range-topper. It's an advanced set-up with an electro-hydraulic differential to vary the power distribution between the front and rear axles according to the detected levels of grip. Under normal conditions, 50% of the engine's output is sent to the rear but as grip is lost, up to 100% of drive can go in that direction. This should add a further dimension to the MINI's acclaimed on-road handling. And it does. Throw the car hard into a corner, and it becomes clear that you're driving something quite different from the MINIs we know and love. It rides 10mm higher than the brand's ordinary three-door model and it's nearly 300kgs heavier, statistics that have to tell somewhere. But by some margin it's still the best driver's choice in a segment not noted for setting any standards in dynamic prowess.
Value For Money
With prices starting at over the £17,000 mark, it isn't cheap for its size - but it is decently equipped. Standard equipment runs to air-conditioning and a CD stereo and that clever Centre Rail storage system but this larger, more practical MINI still has the plethora of personalisation options that have proven so popular with customers of the smaller cars. Numerous styling features are available and there's a variety of integration options for MP3 players and Smartphones. The sports suspension option can lower the car by 10mm and there's a series of John Cooper Works performance components to choose from. The usual MINI trim level hierarchy applies to the Countryman, with One, Cooper, Cooper S and JCW models being made available. As is the norm elsewhere in the MINI line-up, the Cooper S and JCW cars have a lot more visual aggression about them with a redesigned front grille and more shapely bumpers. Safety-wise, all cars get front, side and curtain airbags along with three-point seatbelts for all occupants.
Could I Live With One?
This was the first MINI that I felt I could really live with, family commitments and all. Yet it isn't boringly practical, the whole reason why MINIs appeal to me in the first place. The Countryman then, is a car that will continue to bring new customers to the brand: they might even include me.