It’s a Mini…or is it?
I’m fairly certain that there are a select few out there that may be, well, rubbed the wrong way, we’ll say, by the Mini Countryman.
As the video below says, it really isn’t anything like any Mini before it (well, the Mini Moke, maybe, but that’s really pushing it), and the “Mini purists”—of whom there are more than you may think—are probably going to look down their nose a little.
I challenge them, however, to drive one for awhile. To look past the slightly bloated exterior styling and the high ride height. They may just emerge with a different perspective.
That all being said, when I first saw pictures of the Countryman, I remember thinking “what’s the big deal? It’s a Mini with four doors and optional AWD.” It still looked like a Mini from the photos—round headlights, upright windshield, squared-off lines all over the place, wheels pushed to all four corners an so forth.
However, now that I’ve seen it “in the metal”, as it were, my opinion has changed a little.
This is not really a small car. Well, in the crossover sense (and yes, this is a crossover vehicle—make no bones about it) it may be a little smaller when compared to its competition, but a hot-hatch it most definitely ain’t.
To put it plainly, it looks a little like what a Mini would look like if you made it mad, like Bruce Banner. Or if you gave it some steroids. The proportions are all mini-esque, just on a grander scale. The biggest eye-catching style details—for better or worse—are the plastic fender flares, massive headlights that create equally massive holes in the hood because it closes over them and big bumpers, front and rear. The result is a vehicle that looks cool and purposeful from some angles (the side) and a little bulbous from others (the back and front). Our test car had the optional 18-inch “5-Star” wheels, painted in Jet Black as well as a black-coloured roof, which are styling additions that I am a big fan of.
I like the touches—the black wheels especially—because they do very well to instil an image of sportiness to the Countryman. It does, however, pose an interesting question: should a Mini—ANY mini—need boy-racer touches to reinforce its performance credentials? Then there’s the fact that the Countryman is the first Mini, since the original Cooper in the ‘60s, to compete in a top-tier motorsport discipline—the World Rally Championship—with full factory backing. Parent company BMW, on the other hand, is all over the motorsports world. Does Mini really need to be there too, or is BMW worried that the Countryman needs the fancy wheels and motorsport pedigree because, as a crossover, it will never be considered as “sporty” as a Mini Cooper?
Well, having driven it, BMW/Mini needn’t worry about that.
In Countryman S spec, the 1.6-litre, turbocharged four-banger makes a healthy 181 horsepower, and as much as 192 (!) pound-feet of torque if you mash the “go” pedal and send the turbos into overdrive—I mean “overboost”. It’s a temporary phenomenon; once the initial surge required to pass–or just engage in some hooliganism–is done, the torque figure drops down to 177 lb.-ft., saving gas in the process (we averaged about 9.3 L/100 km during our time with the car).
Jet Black “5-Star” 18-inch wheels are a fairly pricey option, but boy do they ever do the trick, especially when matched with the black roof of our test car
That amount of power propels the 1,475-kilogram Countyrman ALL4 to 100 kilometers-per-hour in just over eight seconds, onto 205 km/h at the top end (even though the massive speedo goes all the way up to 260). Now, those aren’t supercar numbers by any means—they aren’t even sports sedan numbers, really—but with a car this small and darty, it’s more than enough. I mean, how many owners are actually going to try and reach 205 km/h in a Mini? one out of every 10? Out of every 20? 100? None?
That 0-100 time drops if you opt for the six-speed manual transmission, which our car didn’t have, and is something that I absolutely recommend you do. For one, it will save you $1,490, and for two, you won’t have to deal with the somewhat sluggish shift times provided by the auto. There are paddle shifters attached to the wheel as opposed to the steering column (unlike, say, a Mitsubishi Lancer EVO), and you can either use the left or right hand paddle for all your shifting duties, but they don’t quite make up for the tranny’s overall slow reaction times.
However, if you spec the “Sport” package, which our test car had, you get the “sport” button mounted low on the console—that helps reduce shift times, and increases throttle response as well. It can be selected on the fly, so if the need for a quick romp in the twisities was to all of a sudden sweep over you, the sport button is on hand to sharpen the performance. Needless to say, I kept Sport mode engaged for most of my time with the car.
“S” spec means turbocharging, 181 horses and 177 lb.-ft. of torque
Also included in the sport package ($990) is some suspension tuning, which stiffens up the ride for quicker left-right transitions, less nose dive under heavy braking (and you’ll want that because the four-wheel discs are some grippy numbers that will have you hanging from the seat belts in hard braking saituations) and so on.
And this works well, because the Countryman is a tall-ish drink of water and you may want all the help you can get to negate that body roll.
However, I will admit that the ride was a bit harsh at times, even in this, which is one of the softer riding Minis you’ll find out there. Coupled with the sometimes harsh ride is a body structure that felt a little less rigid than I originally thought it would.
This translates to some rear-view mirror vibration and cowl shake—looking in the side view mirror on bumpier roads would sometimes look as if there was a big subwoofer right beside them, its sound wave causing them to shake and blur the view of the road behind you. And inside, there was an annoying rattle emanating from right around the area where the rear-view mirror meets the top of the windshield, a rattle that no amount of tapping or moving could fix. Mysterious rattles are a bit of a pet peeve of mine, so this did grate after awhile–especially considering its contrast with the rest of the BMW-fettled interior.
But, as long as I could revel in the wonderfully communicative steering, I could let it slide for a few minutes, at least. The feel for the small-diameter and grippy wheel is a detailed one, and it’s weighted just right as well. It’s darts from apex to apex, with no worries and is only slightly understeery thanks in part to the four-wheel drive.
And aside from that annoying rattle, the rest of the interior is top-notch and very “Mini”. Not small, but…you get my drift.
You have your MASSIVE cenrtally-mounted speedometer, inside which nests the Mini Connected screen should you spec the option.
Center console is pretty much dominated by the pizza-sized speedo
Then you have you round HVAC vents that match the door pulls, the high-quality hide used to finish the seats (my car had white piping—another nice touch) and the (optional) metal sport pedals and driver foot rest. It’s a comfortable place to be, and I was quite blown away by the amount of headroom I had, even with a sunroof. While the high roof may look kind of funny from the outside, it’s a blessing for those seated inside. Another neat touch is the twin-bar centre console, which allows you to mount all sorts of optional extras, like a sunglasses holder, iPod dock and cup holders. And they are free to slide along the bars; if you or the back seat passengers (of which there can only be two, thanks to the bucket seats in the back) don’t feel the cup holders, for instance, are sitting in the most “ergonomic” of positions, they can be slid backwards, forwards, or removed entirely. Smart, smart, smart.
As for the driver—the video mentions the driving position, which is a good one. There are very few blind sports thanks to the nice, big windows and that short bonnet and upright windscreen make seeing ahead and placing the Countryman properly on the road or in a parking space a breeze. I mean, there were times where I thought I was driving an “actual” Mini…
Once thing I’m not a huge fan of is that central speedo with the embedded LCD screen. Oh, navigating the menus with the BMW iDrive-like wand mounted in the centre console becomes pretty intuitive once you get the hang of it, but it’s the speedometer readout that got to me. For one the needle, which is mounted to the gauge surround is very small and tough to see at a glance. Worse still is the fact that before the needle is even half-way around the dial, it’s already reaching 130 km/h, which is speeding no matter where you are (unless you happen to be on the German Autobahn). Usually, speeds that high are way at the end of the speedometer so you know to keep the needle away. You need to keep a close eye on the needle, then, and ensure that it stays in the bottom third of its rotation on the highway, and the bottom quarter ‘round town. If you don’t tick the Mini Connected box, then you get a traditional center-mounted needle, which is much easier to read.
Interior features like leather stitched bucket seats, grippy steering wheel, chrome-bezeled vents and sport pedals create an interior that is both purposeful and sporty. Round edges adorn everything from the vents to the pedals.
However, the flip-side of this complaint is the affirmation of how well the Countryman manages to hide its speed—even with such an upright windshield, there isn’t that much wind noise, which is one of the best indicators of your speed. I’ll chalk this up to BMW build quality standards.
But you pay for that quality. We said in the video that the car was sitting at almost the $45,000 mark, which is a hefty price to pay for a Mini. It’s not the most expensive Mini—the Convertible John Cooper Works holds that distinction—but it’s a price level that opens up the door to some heavy competition from the likes of Audi with the Q5 (and soon, the Q3) and, ironically, BMW itself, with the X3 and new X1.
So it becomes a test to see how far the Mini branding will take the Countryman. Other Minis are immensely popular the world over and the brand loyalty associated with the name speaks volumes. There’s no question that the Countryman’s performance credentials as well as its ease-of-use around town will outperform those aforementioned models, so it will be interesting to see if A) the Mini name can pull that much weight against bigger, more practical cars and B) if it actually manages to lure more buyers to the Mini, buyers who used to be hesitant because of the rest of the range’s compact dimensions.
2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4
Price as tested: $42,910
Body Type: 5-door, 4-passenger mini-crossover
Powertrain Layout: Front engine/all-wheel drive
Engine: 1.6-litre inline-4 turbo w/VANOS
Horsepower: 181 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque (lb-ft): 177-192 @ 1,600-5,000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed auto
Curb weight: 1,475 kg (3,252 lb)
Fuel consumption — City (claimed): 8.7L/100 km (27 MPG)
Fuel consumption — Highway (claimed): 6.5L/100 km (36.2 MPG)
Fuel Consumption — Observed combined: 9.3 L/100 km (25.3 MPG)