At last you can have your jollies in a Mini and take pals along. All you need is a new Countryman
CHIPPING NORTON, ENGLAND — Chances are, driving a Mini in Singapore marks you out as something of a selfish sod, or at least someone with either tiny children or none at all. Who cares about space in the back, right?
But here comes the new Countryman to finally put the kibosh on that idea.
The previous model did so to some extent, allowing four grown people to occupy the cabin in reasonable comfort without the aid of a hacksaw. It pulled that off by being the first Mini to exceed four metres in length, and drew considerable flak for it, mostly from the motoring press, “purists” and other ivory tower dwellers.
But if those people were annoyed by the Countryman then, they must be laying eggs now. The new model is a whopping 20cm longer than the last one, and 3cm wider for good measure.
The extra size is meant to give the Countryman as much practicality as a full-blown compact crossover, so anyone with one eye on a Mercedes-Benz GLA or BMW X1 is meant to train the other eye at its broad, squared-off flanks.
It still manages to look like a Mini, with unmistakable styling cues from the brand’s other cars, such as the helmet-like roof, the upright rear lamps and the round(ish) headlights. But dimensionally, it’s pretty maxi.
The wheelbase has grown by 7.5cm, and as a result it’s positively palatial in the back, and not just by Mini standards. Legroom is downright generous, your head won’t brush the ceiling unless you have a few giraffe genes in your DNA, and anyway the rear seats slide and recline to let you play with the amount of room back there.
That lets you adjust boot space, too, giving you anything from 450 litres to start with, rising to 1,309 litres if you fold the rear seats.
Essentially, if you need more car than this, you wouldn’t have considered the Countryman’s main rivals anyway.
The extra size is the result of focus group findings, say Mini product planners. Not unreasonably, customers just wanted more room.
But the final result is grown-up in more than one way. Mechanically, the Countryman is a sister car to the BMW X1, and it shares that car’s driving characteristics more than it does the kart-like friskiness of the smaller Minis.
The Countryman is being launched with four engines (two pairs fueled by petrol and diesel, all turbocharged) but at the press drive they let us drive only one model, the 2.0-litre petrol Cooper S with the brand’s ALL4-badged four-wheel drive system.
The good news is, in that spec the Countryman lets you cover ground pretty quickly. The view from the driver’s seat is commanding enough to give you plenty of confidence, so you’re seldom hesitant about tackling a corner the way a footballer goes for the other team’s ankles.
The steering feels meaty and precise, too, while the suspension controls the body’s movements well.
But though the Cooper S can get to 100km/h in a reasonably rapid 7.2 seconds (0.9 seconds quicker than before), it never really feels playfully energetic.
You have to coax speed from the Countryman, whereas the other Minis coax speed out of you.
That being so, the basic Cooper model, with its 136 horsepower, 1.5-litre engine might be a more suitable choice. It’s slower (0 to 100km/h takes 9.6 seconds), but it probably matches the new car’s character better.
The way the Countryman takes bumps only adds to the sense of newfound maturity, too. It’s still firmly sprung, but there’s none of the jarring crashiness that afflicted the previous model.
Then there’s the interior. Some cheap plastics remain (try drumming your fingers on the speedo housing), but otherwise the Countryman has moved up a class or two in terms of cabin quality.
For all that, a sense of fun pervades the car. The dashboard still looks like it was styled to please children, with toggle switches galore and that frying pan-sized central instrument cluster. That used to house a speedometer but is now home to a new 8.8-inch touchscreen — the brand’s first, though people who don’t like information literally at their fingertips can still use the rotary controller.
The graphics are crisp and load quickly, and they exude Mini’s trademark playfulness. Select the car’s fuel-saving driving mode, for example, and if you accelerate too hard the screen flashes up an image of a cartoon goldfish, popping out of its bowl and advising you to ease off a little.
A playful “Country Timer” display highlights the Countryman’s light off-roading abilities, too, by assigning you titles like “Street Cruiser” or “Cliff Champ”, depending on how much time you spend on rough terrain.
The theme of wanderlust pops up in other areas, too. A new fold-out “picnic bench” lets you perch comfortably on the boot sill, for instance, in case you’ve just driven someplace where you’d like to sit and admire the view for a while. It seats two, of course, which reinforces the idea that the Countryman is the kind of car for adventurers who like to take friends with them.
Of course, it’s also a workable choice for family-minded buyers who aren’t explorers but who want Mini’s brand of style, without the space constraints of the smaller cars.
Ultimately, its arrival means you can have fun in a Mini without leaving anyone behind to sulk. Except for the purists.
NEED TO KNOW Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4
ENGINE 1,998cc, 16V, inline four, turbocharged
MAX POWER 192hp at 5000rpm
MAX TORQUE 280Nm at 1,350 to 4,600rpm
GEARBOX 8-speed automatic
TOP SPEED 222km/h
0-100KM/H 7.2 seconds
FUEL EFFICIENCY 6.5L/100km (est.)
CO2 148g/km (est.)
AVAILABILITY Q2 2017
Want the size but not the height? There’s this, the Mini Clubman!
Frenemy, platform sibling, sister-car… call it what you will, but the Countryman has an in-house rival, and it’s the BMW X1