PERHAPS it was inevitable that a fourth family member would be added to the Mini line-up. Although the second-generation Mini (in Cooper/S, Cabrio and Clubman forms) has gained worldwide acclaim and popularity due mostly to its retro looks, which are positively backed up by impressive on-road dynamics, a huge dose of character and enviable levels of desirability courtesy of clever marketing campaigns, one thing has been lacking – once a family has been started, not even the “stationwagon” Clubman offered enough practicality…
With the new Countryman, Mini hopes to reunite some of its lost owners with their beloved brand by offering (for the first time) four-door practicality with a healthy dose of versatility thrown in for good measure. At four metres long, and standing tall by virtue of its raised ground clearance, the new Countryman is unmistakably a Mini thanks to the integration of a variety of the quirky design touches that have made this evolving retro creation so successful.
The Countryman’s cabin will be immediately familiar, too. The large facia-mounted speedometer remains the center-piece, with the audio and climate control functions slotting in below. One new feature unique to the Countryman though is an aeroplane throttle-aping right-angled handbrake lever. It’s meant to offer drivers a more user-friendly operation, though we’re not convinced that there is much wrong with the operation of a traditional lever.
The biggest talking point with the Countryman is likely to be its surprisingly spacious cabin. Gone are the low-slung front seats and cramped rear pews of the three-door Mini and in their place are a pair of raised front cushions and a rear bench (including a 60:40 split) that can actually accommodate grownups. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that the leg- and headroom on offer at the back of the new Mini is pretty impressive.
Gaining entry to the rear no longer requires a potentially painful contortion thanks to rear doors that open wide. The only downside to having such a spacious cabin is that the luggage area remains relatively small – an aspect that will need to be considered when planning a trip to the, um, country.
Another consideration is that the Countryman still has only a 47-litre fuel tank capacity, which may limit just how far off the beaten track you’ll be able to venture. The recently upgraded turbocharged 1 598 cm3 Cooper S engine does, however, offer improved fuel consumption, even with an increased in power (128 to 135 kW). Fitted in the heavier Countryman body (around 200 kilograms more than the hatch) the CAR fuel index figure of 8,76 litres/100 km should realise a tank range of around 540 km.
The slick and precise action of the standard six-manual transmission (a six-speed automatic is also available) is a welcome hand-me-down to the newest member of the Mini family. The stubby gear lever fi ts nicely to hand and encourages you to keep the revs within the “sweet spot” through effortless shifts through the gate.
Mini is offering the Countryman in either two- or all-wheel drive guise, thanks to the adaptation of BMW’s xDrive system to fit this package. In All4 Countryman models this technology delivers an electronically-controlled standard 50:50 front-to-rear torque split, but has the potential to move up to 100 per cent of available torque to the front or rear wheels as required. With no such need arising during our test routine – and this system remaining in its default allwheel drive mode – the Cooper S Countryman was unable to match the feats achieved by its wheel-spinning hatch sibling when launching off the line, and a best 0-100 km/h sprint (hop) time of 8,93 seconds was the best that we could muster. Once up and running though, “maxi” Mini feels every bit as lively and willing as its smaller sliblings.
One of the hallmarks of Mini ownership throughout the years has been the seat-of-the-pants kart-like handling dynamics and agility on offer, achieved mainly thanks to the car’s low centre of gravity and wheel-at-each-corner stance. Although the taller and raised body (149 mm ground clearance) of the new Countryman dictate that elements of such prowess have been lost in translation, we are pleased to report that the newcomer still boasts more than enough of the legendary Mini handling DNA for prospective owners to get excited about.
Some obvious body roll is to be expected, but thanks to the familiar quick-ratio steering, impressive balance – and a healthy dose of negative camber on the rear wheels, the Countryman still has an impressive on-road manner. On gravel and looser surfaces (probably the limit of the Countryman’s search for adventure), the All4 can prove to be quite lively and entertaining as the combination of the still relatively firm suspension and low profile, run-flat rubber (225/45 R18) keeps the car light on its heels. Standard DSC, CBC (cornering brake control) and a comprehensive ABS braking system ensure that matters are kept nicely under control, though.
In terms of ride quality, however, the Countryman easily breaks new ground for the Mini marque. This model easily handles the worst of South Africa’s roads without ruffling its occupants’ feathers…
So, how badly do you miss your first Mini? BMW South Africa is banking on the fact that you miss its quirky looks, kart-like handling characteristics and stylish all-round appeal enough to want to be reunited with the Mini brand. This new model has gone some way towards delivering one of the things that forced former mini loyalists to look elsewhere – versatility.
The Countryman offers distinguishable quirky looks (if slightly awkward from certain angles), familiar enough dynamics, and a healthy dose of practicality thanks to a bigger interior.
There is a premium price to pay for this sense of nostalgia however and, and usual, this is a Mini that relies heavily on its character to justify its price tag.
There are plenty alternatives to the Countryman – both in standard as All4 guise – and those rivals offer potentially better value- for-money, practicality, and versatility than the Mini. Then again, the same has always been said of this brand and somehow the endearing character and fun factor been reflected on the sales charts. If you can’t resist, we would at least suggest that you leave the All4 option box unticked.