The whole point of MINIs has been and presumably always will be F-U-N. They’re fun to look at, fun to drive, and fun to own.
For much of MINI’s history, however, MINIs weren’t fun to take on a lengthy road trip or even on some shopping excursions. This is because the vehicles were based on the very mini original MINI, which were designed by the legendary Alex Issigonis and introduced in the late 1950s in the UK and later rebooted under BMW in the early 2000s.
The MINI Cooper isn’t un-roomy, exactly, but it is snug. The MINI Clubman, which came later, added some space, but not a whole lot. And even though MINIs have a devoted following, the brand was lagging the market, especially in the US, as consumers shifted their preferences toward SUVs and crossovers.
So in 2011, the Countryman arrived — and it was immediately decried by MINI-istas as the “Big MINI.” Regardless, the Countryman gave MINI a needed extra: a notably larger vehicle. It also singlehandedly created the most offbeat SUV in the market.
We recently borrowed a MINI Cooper S Countryman ALL4 (base price: $46,500) and used it to conduct life in suburban New Jersey. Here’s how it did in proper SUV country:
Cargo capacity is reasonable: ample by MINI standards -- but only really good enough to handle a family of four that buys not a huge amount or groceries and carries not a massive amount of gear. My family of five stressed matters.
And the Cooper S badging on the fender. Note the ALL4 designation -- this crossover MINI has the brand's all-wheel-drive system.
Let's step inside (check out the John Cooper Works treatment -- this interior package costs $US400 extra and is a nod the true JCW high-performance Countryman that's now also on sale).
I won't kid you -- this a good-feeling, leather-wrapped steering wheel (it's the JCW version). The instrument cluster is compact and basic, with the speedometer centered and the tachometer off to the left. Fuel-level indicator lights are to the right.
Some of the famous MINI switches, a carryover from the old, old days of the 1960s. You flip that red one to fire the Countryman up.
Yep, the Countryman has a tasty, easy-shifting six-speed manual transmission. You can also choose an eight-speed auto with paddle shifters. This six-grabber manages the 189 horsepower that the Countryman's 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder engine cranks out.
The organisation of the infotainment system is sort of odd. The round console in the center houses a rectangular, 6.5-inch display, running a variation of BMW's iDrive setup.
The controller is effective once you get the hang of it, but from my perspective, the iDrive system still suffers from far too many sub-menus. Bluetooth integration is fine, however, and you have both USB and AUX ports to connect devices.
Well, the Countryman is certainly fun to drive, so mission accomplished on that front. With the six-speed manual, it genuinely offers something that departs from biz-as-usual for the crossover segment. Yes, you can find some wagons with stickshifts, but this is a proper, performance-oriented six-slinger.
Although this is the Big MINI, it's fairly small as SUVs go. Put it next to a regulation MINI Cooper and it looks large (and for this updated model, it actually was slightly increased in size). Park it next to Chevy Suburban and, well, you know ... it's a small-ish thing. That said, the Countryman does provide a nice middle ground between a compromised compact luxury SUV and a bulkier mid-size vehicle.
Beyond that, in a world of same-old-same-old when it comes to SUV design (with a few exceptions, such as the new Jaguar F-PACE), the Countryman is notably stylish and hip. I felt cool driving around in it, and not quite as fussy as I have in some of MINI's smaller rides.
One quick thought about the all-wheel-drive system: It's great! It also doesn't call much attention to itself. Nor does it doom mileage: you'll get an EPA-rated 13.5 city/9 highway/12 combined, which is respectable for a crossover that can cover the 0-100km/h spring in about 7 seconds.
Ultimately, the Countryman Cooper S is a jazzed up man for all seasons. The crossover isn't as bonkers as a JCW MINI, and it isn't as cute as a stock MINI Cooper. Its demeanour is smoother, mellower, more versatile. But it's 100% not a snooze. The tech package is more-or-less up to date (right down to a cool heads-up display that's right out of a fighter jet), although MINI will probably need to update it soon and think about ditching the big round center console.
To top it all off, the fun-to-value ration is excellent. MINIs are sometimes knocked for being overpriced, but the Countryman Cooper S ALL4 is a nice deal at about $46,500 (as tested). The BMW X1 that it shares a platform with, by contrast, was $49,500 for our tester. Different strokes for different folks, but I'm pretty sure which crossover I'd pick.