When the MINI Cooper was reinvented from its new parents at BMW, some critics were quick to lump it into the group of the VW New Beetle and Chrysler PT Cruiser as a neat take on a retro design, but where do you go from there? Unlike the now discontinued PT Cruiser, and (finally) redesigned Beetle, the MINI Cooper is well into its second generation. The MINI Clubman added some additional interior practicality and luggage space, but seems oddly proportioned, and is still not a practical family car. For 2011, MINI expanded the line with a mini-crossover, the Countryman. But can MINI build a four door crossover that remains true to the core traits that make a MINI a MINI? Read on…
As far as appearance goes, the Countryman is a dead ringer for a MINI. Yes, it is bigger in every respect than a Cooper, but a quick walk around the car shows there is no excess here. The Countryman is sporty, compact and premium in looks and execution all around, just as any modern MINI should. Our test car, finished in Royal Grey Metallic included the Sport Package, which added 18″ black alloys and black hood stripes definitely adding some snarl to an already snappy looking car. I can understand how MINI fans must have been nervous at the prospect of a four door crossover bearing the MINI badge, but the designers here positively nailed it. Well done.
Anyone who has ever turned a wheel in the current MINI Coopers will feel instantly at home in the Countryman. Which is a mixed blessing, depending on what you want from an interior. If you prefer a dash layout you can operate in your sleep, I’ll kindly direct you to your nearest Honda/Toyota dealer. The MINI continues to be about style inside and out, and as such, you better be prepared to take a minute to get the lay of the land, and know what switch does what. As always, an enormous speedometer dominates the central dash, which I consider essentially useless. In a week of living with the MINI, I don’t think I ever looked at it, relying instead on the digital speedo found in the tachometer. The thin red LED audio display was remarkable for its dearth of information. What’s that song playing on XM Radio? Who knows, you have to scroll through station/artist/song info one at a time to find out.
But, that’s what the MINI is about, and it makes no apologies for putting style above all else. To its credit, the interior is extremely well put together, and I cannot fault the quality of materials. Seats are supportive and comfortable, and there was plenty of room for my family of three. The Countryman features four individual bucket seats (but we hear a rear bench seat will be offered). The Countryman featured a central rail floor console that ran from the bottom of the dash to the back of the rear seats. The rail contains an eyeglass case, and two cupholders, but the novelty is they are adjustable, and I appreciated I could perfectly align the cupholder to be within reach of my son in his car seat.
The MINI Countryman is available in two flavors, Base and S. Base models are front-wheel drive with a 1.6L four rated at 121hp, available with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. While the base offers good fuel economy, acceleration will be leisurely at best. The enthusiast will want to go straight to the S, using the same 1.6L engine, but in turbocharged form, with 181hp on tap. As with the base car, a choice of six-speed manual and automatic transmissions are offered. Unlike the base car, S buyers have the option of ALL4, for, you guessed it, all-wheel drive. Our test car was an S ALL4 paired with the automatic-top-spec but also the heaviest. I was thrilled to find our Countryman full of plenty of pep around town, and quick passing on the highway was never an issue. Handling-something MINI fans hold dear-is exceptional. No, I’m sorry, it’s shocking a crossover can possibly handle nearly as well as a MINI Cooper. Steering feel is beyond reproach in this class of car. Rejoice, MINI fans. Even with four doors, four wheel drive, AND an automatic, the Countryman feels and drives just as a MINI should. I’ve driven many crossovers, but never smiled as much as when I was at the wheel of the Countryman.
So, what does all this crossover fun cost? Our Countryman S ALL4 had a base price of $26,950USD. A friendly reminder here that BMW is the parent company, and in typical German fashion, the price starts rising rapidly as option boxes get checked. Having said that, our test car added optional extras like metallic paint, cloth/leather seating, Cold Weather Package (power folding mirrors, heated mirrors/washer jets, heated seats), Sport Package, Premium Package (dual pane panoramic sunroof, auto climate control, Harmon Kardon audio), and other extras for a grand total of $35,900, including destination. Folks unfamiliar with MINI’s were shocked at the price for a crossover this size, and basically dismissed it as way overpriced for what you get.
No matter. MINI isn’t after the average crossover shopper. Face it, the guy checking out a Chevy Equinox is not cross-shopping the Countryman. What MINI has managed to do is usher in an entire new group of buyers to the brand. Case in point. Years ago, while attending a car show, and pushing our then infant child in a stroller, my wife was smitten with a MINI Cooper. A salesman, sensing her enthusiasm, walked up to us, and sheepishly said ‘The back seat will hold a car seat.” I didn’t disagree with him, but I also didn’t want to have to rent a U-Haul trailer whenever we had to go away for a weekend. MINI has now built a car suitable for small families yet retains all of the qualities that have made MINI so well-loved by its core of devoted enthusiasts.
Yes, the Countryman is not without compromise. Dodgy ergonomics, less cargo room, firm ride and premium price tag won’t give the competition any sleepless nights. But for the small family whose always craved a MINI, or simply a small crossover that offers pure driving entertainment few rivals can deliver, the Countryman is highly recommended. So much so, in fact, the Countryman is on this family”s shopping list for when our current VW’s lease is up, and that is about the highest praise I can give any car.