Since I have the week off, I decided to have a little year-end fun and go over to Baron Mini to test drive the new Countryman. If you are unaware, the Countryman is the new Mini crossover small SUV. And while it is a full 15 inches longer than a regular Mini, and a full 5 to 7 inches taller, this thing drives like a sports car. It is pure Mini in styling and performance, and I was totally impressed.
So what exactly is the Countryman? Well what it is not is mini, it is the largest of the entire line up of the Mini brand. The thing is though, it’s not really all that large either. When you see it in person you will probably be taken back by its size at first, but in reality, it is about the same size as the Nissan Versa and the Versa still feels like a compact car in many ways. One thing Mini purists can rest easy about is knowing that there aren’t any plans to create larger versions of the Countryman anytime soon.
Despite having a hatch at the rear, it’s not a hatchback in the conventional sense of the word; despite the option of ALL 4 four-wheel drive it’s not really an off-roader. And while its name leans to rural locals, to me the Countryman seems more like a city guy.
So when you think of the Countryman forget normal categorization. Forget it for the same reasons the MINI became such a huge hit in the first place: because it couldn’t be pigeonholed. The Countryman exists to lure people who fancy a MINI but can’t squeeze their lives, family and friends into the back seats or boot; it’s also for current MINI owners who have outgrown their MINI but not the ethos the MINI brand represents. And because it’s that bit bigger than the smaller three-door MINI Clubman, the Countryman thumbs it’s nose and waves a bit of charm in the direction of people who have checked out, say, a VW Jetta wagon, and come away thinking, “technically excellent, but emotionally barren.”
What I loved about seeing the Countryman in person, was the styling. MINI got it right. The car is not really elegant, but it has a solid aggressive stance to it that feels sturdy and rugged. It’s tall and bluff, some of the visual vestiges of the original Mini are gone, but many are hinted at in the final styling of the vehicle. You really need to see it in person to get a sense of what I am talking about.
If you’re already a fan of the MINI’s interior styling then you’ll love the cabin. It’s as stylized and kooky as ever and even if you’re not a fan of the Frisbee-sized central speedometer that encircles a multi-media display screen, it’s an interior you won’t mistake for any other. Running longitudinally through the cabin is an aluminum rail on which sits (in the car I test drove at any rate) a couple of sliding cup holders and a sunglasses case – yes, it’s a gimmick, but one that’ll keep you amused. It is like the “Openometer” on my convertible. 100% useless, 100% fun, 100% MINI brand.
In addition to the “Rail” the Countryman comes standard with the iPhone connection kit that not only allows your phone to talk to the bluetooth connected hands free set up, but in the car I drove they were able to connect my iPhone to the head unit and display movies in the central screen. The connection kit sits in a central docking station between the seats, and communicates with the multi-media display. It gives access to thousands of digital radio stations, lets you Tweet, Facebook, play video, make phone calls and all manner of other digital distractions that might make you the driver all others hate. But the technology is cool, and I am rather jealous that I don’t have it in my MINI.
The Countryman I drove came with a pair of individual back seats that slide fore and aft (it is my understanding you can get a bench seat, but I don’t know why you would after you see this option.); and like all MINI products larger adults are going to grumble about lack of knee-room in the back. And while the boot is handily bigger than the regular MINI’s and has a double-deck floor for extra flexibility, you still won’t get one of those trendy three-wheeler baby strollers in it. Furthermore, in the split seat version, with the rear seats folded down you won’t even get a flat surface.
As for the driving experience the Countryman lives up to the MINI S badge stamped on the side. On I-35 I was constantly having to back off the gas, because I would look over and catch myself doing 85. The car was nimble, quick, and quite agile despite the higher center of gravity and over all size and weight. Now with that said, The Countryman’s greater height means the body rolls more through corners, blunting the regular hatch’s agility. And while it has plenty of road holding, the steering isn’t the precision instrument you’d get from the standard Cooper S. But this isn’t supposed to handle like the Countryman’s smaller sibling. It is a Crossover, not a sport hatchback.
The steering is nicely weighted and had a crisp feel at turn-in with immediate response from the wheels when you stepped on the gas. The Countryman I drove was really quite engaging – the torque steer and mild amounts of under steer that I’ve come to expect from my Cooper S Convertible are gone. There’s a lot more weight being thrown around and the higher ground clearance gives you a slightly more disconnected feeling from the road, but I adjusted to it rather quickly. The automatic transmission felt good and more fluid compared to the automatic in the 50th anniversary Mayfair Cooper S that is my second driver at home.
Like all other MINI’s, the Countryman has a Sport mode that will tighten up the steering rack, improve throttle response and stiffen the suspension to provide a more engaging feel on the road. But unlike the smaller Cooper S, Sport mode isn’t nearly as crunchy on city streets or broken pavement, (even with the large 18-inch alloys on the one I drove). If I were the owner of a Countryman I would just leave it in Sport mode all the time – the improved dynamics really make it feel more like a smaller Clubman, which not only makes me happy out on the road, but makes me feel better about the Countryman’s size. It make the car much more lively than I expected.
If I were in the market for a small SUV for city driving and hitting back gravel roads on occasion, I would definitely consider this car. It holds true to the MINI brand and experience, while giving the driver a larger all wheel drive alternative to the original MINI.