The Countryman is the largest car ever to wear a MINI badge, but is there room for improvement? Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
With decent room for four and a good boot, the Countryman opens the possibility of MINI ownership up to buyers who find the smaller models in the range too impractical. It especially targets buyers who like Nissan Juke-class SUV-style Crossover models, yet brings them more performance, sharper handling and all the cute retro design cues that have underpinned this brand's success.
Back in the late Sixties, the car for Mini lovers who needed more space and 5-door practicality was called, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Austin Maxi. Forty years on, BMW were faced with a similar issue. Their new MINI was a hit but it couldn't offer five proper doors or decent space for rear passengers or luggage. This one can. Never has anything badged 'MINI' ventured to such a size - or boasted anything like this car's level of five-door practicality. Fully 37cms longer, 10cm wider and 15cm taller than a standard three-door version, this is the biggest model the brand will ever build. Its name is borrowed from the old Austin designation for estate cars in times past, models with quaint wood adornment on their rear ends. But this is no Countryman for old men, aimed instead at the youthful, vibrant Crossover market, full of cars that mix design ideas from ordinary family hatchbacks and 4x4s to produce practical on-road transport with a dash of off-road ruggedness thrown in.
The obvious question is does driving a Countryman Cooper S feel like driving a MINI Cooper S? First impressions are that it does. You get this remarkably quick steering which immediately gives the car a keen, alert feel. Throw the car hard into a corner, though, 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. No other Crossover would dare come equipped with as much as the 184bhp developed by the pokey 1.6-litre petrol Cooper S, which can sprint to sixty in as little as 7.6s on the way to 134mph. It can be ordered conventionally front-driven, or, for the first time in any MINI, with clever ALL4 4WD. This is one of those smart systems able to automatically vary the power distribution between the front and rear axles according to the grip available. But it won't thank you for taking it off road - it simply isn't that kind of car. Think of it more as the fun family runabout that's more comfortable than an ordinary MINI, if not quite as good as some rivals, and a slick-shifting 6-speed gearbox that's standard if you don't need the optional Steptronic 6-speed auto.
Design and Build
Look around the Countryman and all the usual MINI design traits are there, from the foursquare stance with wheels pushed right out to the extremities to the unmistakable front 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 this marque has tried before. And it's the same inside, where a stretched floorplan means that at last, a MINI can offer you two proper rear doors and a back seat that two full-size adults can get comfortable in. The test car has two individual rear seats separated by a novel centre rail onto which all manner of (mostly optional) items can be clipped. But there' the option to lose the rail and have a rear bench that's theoretically big enough for three, provided that the middle occupant is a fairly small child. The individual rear seats can recline for greater comfort on longer journeys and slide backwards and fordwards so that you can have a large boot or plenty of legroom. Sadly, there's not quite enough space for you to have both at the same time. Still, the VW Golf-rivalling 350-450-litres you do get is double that of an ordinary MINI. With the exception of the rather awkward-to-use aircraft-style handbrake, owners familiar with the brand's smaller models will feel right at home. There's the usual over-sized speedometer, now with an optional high definition colour screen at its centre, that displays the clever MINI Connected system, capable of replicating everything on your iPhone for easy reference as you drive.
Market and Model
Commanding a premium of around £3000 over the standard 3-door MINI hatch, the Countryman is aimed squarely at the Crossover sector, MINI's marketeers having matched this model's pricing almost precisely to that of rival Nissan Qashqais and Mitsubishi ASXs. And those cars have a lot less brand equity, something that MINI hopes will shield it from losing sales to budget brand Crossover models that are £2,000-£3,000 cheaper model-for-model - cars like Skoda's Yeti and Hyundai's ix35. Whichever of the 1.6-litre engines you choose - 98, 122 or 184bhp petrol or 90 or 112bhp diesel - equipment levels are about what you'd would expect for the kind of money being asked. That means air conditioning, electric windows, rear parking sensors, roof rails, Bluetooth compatibility and a DAB digital radio with a USB input. Safety-wise, stability control and the usual braking and traction aids are standard, along with six airbags and a tyre pressure monitoring system. Then the decisions really start. It isn't just having to decide between two and four-wheel drive, manual or automatic transmission. There's a simply endless options list, including a John Cooper Works handling pack that rather pointlessly rids the car of the 10mm ride height advantage that defines Countryman motoring in the first place. Better is a nifty bike rack that fits onto special chassis legs at the rear and which allows the tailgate to be opened while bikes are on the rack.
Cost of Ownership
We've come to expect a whole bundle of features geared towards maximising efficiency on MINI products and the Countryman, even in Cooper S guise, lives up to this. Brake Energy Regeneration, Auto Start Stop and ancillary engine systems that operate only when called upon rather than constantly pumping away in the background all help to lower fuel consumption. There's also a gearshift indicator and the optional Steptronic automatic has its own efficiency benefits. For all its sporty zip, the Cooper S manages 44.8mpg and 146g/km. Go for ALL4 4WD with its 65kg weight penalty and fuel consumption drops by about 10% but CO2 by only a few points. The insurance group for the Cooper S is a reasonable 30 (it drops as low as 12 for less powerful models) and residual values should be at least 10% better than those of obvious rivals.
So another MINI joins the burgeoning range - but it's a rather different animal, as clever in some ways as it is compromised in others. Part of the Countryman's job is to keep existing MINI people loyal when they out-grow their city runabouts and shopping rockets, but mostly it's about tempting new buyers to the brand. Customers that like the vibrant SUV-inspired Crossover concept, but want it with a little more tarmac verve and sparkle. In Cooper S form, the Countryman will do both these things, though it's a shame some of the 3-door MINI's agility and responsiveness has been lost in the up-sizing process. All the same, it looks like a well-judged package, as suited to the urban jungle as a Land Rover is to the Amazon, a car created for the times we live in.