If it looks like a Mini, sounds like a Mini and drives like a Mini, is it truly a Mini? Last year, Autosavant tested this theory as implemented in the Mini Cooper S Countryman: the brand’s first true four-door crossover. Equipped with a six-speed manual, front-wheel drive and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the Countryman proved a capable defender of the brand, albeit stretched several sizes. But could it stand up to its competitors that offer all-wheel drive and turn the focus to technology?
The first thing you notice about the Countryman is its impish exterior styling that suggests it might be an older, more mature brother to the two-door Cooper hatchback – in a way the slightly awkward Clubman never could. My white tester, adorned with black hood stripes, a contrasting black roof and supremely stealth black alloy wheels, oozed a posh poise that was especially popular during a drive through Manhattan’s Soho district. Men and women alike stopped to gawk at the Countryman. Tourists dropped their fold-out subway maps and fumbled for their camera phones. While I was stopped in traffic, one couple went as far as to run alongside, point repeatedly at the hood and mouth, ‘We. Want. This. Car.’”
The interior features a similarly in-your-face helping of style. An array of dials, knobs and screens compete for your attention: some enormous, some shiny and others complex. The oversized speedometer sits atop the center stack, while a redundant, digital readout of speed, fuel economy and a trip computer is neatly integrated into the tachometer cluster in the driver’s line of sight. The dashboard is swathed in a soft-touch material that resembles the marbling on a football, and each button or switch is a reminder of hand-me-down BMW technology. But other tradeoffs between form and function pay questionable dividends in the name of confusing ergonomics and dubious build quality. There is a learning curve to the Countryman’s tall center stack, and the hard, rough material surrounding the gear lever does not befit a $35,000 SUV, let alone a vehicle half that price.
Inside, the Countryman’s conversation piece is Mini Connected, essentially the same software as BMW’s iDrive infotainment system. Its display is housed in a screen wedged into the speedometer, and the system is controlled by a small joystick aft of the gearshift. Like iDrive, it is a complex, yet intuitive, method of fusing a navigation system with all of the Countryman’s media functions. Over a week of use, it became a simple, direct process to input phone numbers, change iPod tracks and pair Bluetooth devices. An added benefit of Mini Connected is an iPhone app of the same name that uses the device’s data connection to sync web radio and social media through the audio system. And although listening to tweets or Facebook status updates announced audibly through the sound system may be fun, I’d much sooner spec the optional Harmon/Kardon stereo and turn up satellite radio. Mini Connected’s joystick does lack the precision of iDrive’s larger, flatter knob, and the system seems slower to respond than in similarly-equipped BMWs. You can skip the hassle of the joystick altogether and simply bark orders into the voice command system – to some success. It seemed to favor shuffling among Santigold tracks and instructing my iPhone to dial my grandmother, but not simultaneously.
The Countryman comes standard in a four-passenger configuration with an aluminum track that runs down the middle of the interior. My tester came with an optional rear bench that brings the seating count up to five. A late-night culinary excursion (okay, it was for frozen yogurt) with several friends along for the ride revealed a shortage of legroom and plenty of headroom. Like many crossover utes that try to squeeze five in a pinch, tight dimensions do not deliver equal comfort for all. Similarly, cargo space with the rear bench upright is adequate, but does not mean that there is room for five sets of luggage.
There’s plenty to like under the Countryman’s hood, though. While you can order either a naturally aspirated 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 121 horsepower, the one you want is the turbocharged four-banger that produces 181 horsepower. A wide torque curve ensures plenty of power when you need it, and the engine emits a satisfying whoosh as it enters the upper echelons of its rev range. It practically begged to be kept between 3000 and 5000 rpm. Thanks to ALL4 all-wheel drive, there was no hint of torque steer, and the optional six-speed automatic transmission delivered crisp shifts up to redline. You can shift for yourself using the two steering wheel-mounted paddles, which each confusingly control both upshifts and downshifts. The Countryman was firmly in its element in the hustle of city traffic, with quick, precisely weighted steering complementing the rev-happy engine. Push the Sport button, and responses from the engine and the chassis quicken. Performance-minded drivers will likely keep this button permanently engaged.
What sets the Countryman apart from its crossover SUV peers are its driving dynamics. Over approximately 600 miles of driving on city streets, expressways and steep mountain roads, the Countryman came into its own. The good news? Behind the wheel, quick steering and sure-footed reflexes exemplify the characteristics of the Mini brand; the Countryman has the chassis of a BMW-engineered Mini, not a crossover with a platform derived from a sedan. The bad news? The Countryman’s ride is compromised by a suspension that’s harder than a calculus pop quiz. The combination of 18-inch wheels and run-flat tires results in harsh motions and unsettled passengers. Over the rough roads of Manhattan, the Countryman seemed to trundle and lurch through city traffic, to no fault of its powertrain, however. On the highway, there was less strain on the ride, but expansion joints jostled the suspension.
But the Countryman seemed most alive pummeling down dirt roads and mountain by-passes in the Berkshires. In lower gears, it rocketed forward with determination. The Countryman’s ALL4 system made easy work of climbing twisty back roads and hurdling across mountain shortcuts. Rev-matched entrances into tough corners induced smiles, not fear. Suddenly, I felt as if I was behind the wheel of an original Mini, tackling a rally circuit in the 1970s, dirt flying everywhere. It felt small and unflappable – try saying that about a Honda CR-V or a Hyundai Tucson. After several hours of attacking the same roads, it became clear that the Countryman is imbued with the DNA from whence the revitalized Mini brand was born, both dynamically and physically.
After many miles behind the wheel in a variety of challenging driving situations, it was evident that the Countryman easily passes the “duck test.” It’s an entertaining crossover that will appeal to Mini aficionados who need more space than a Cooper hatchback can offer. And even when equipped for suburban cruising, as opposed to track days, the Countryman performs with aplomb, and can make any driver feel like a hero – even in mundane tasks.
Mini provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.