It doesn’t take a marketing genius to recognize the inherent risk in adding a crossover to a brand called “Mini.” Indeed, a high-riding, Austrian-built four-wheel-drive vehicle sounds like a quick and easy way to pour a decade’s worth of brand equity down the drain. However, the Countryman is a triumph of strong execution over questionable judgment, which is a fancy way of saying it’s really nice.
It starts with the exterior. The design assignment for the Countryman would have read something like, “Adapt styling cues and timeless charm of classic 1959 subcompact to a modern crossover.” That’s sort of like dressing Rosie O’Donnell to look like Audrey Hepburn. Somehow, the designers succeeded. The Countryman translates the essential character of its progenitor -– cute and carefree -– without looking silly or bloated. The interior likewise carries over some of the essentials we’ve come to associate with Mini, including a speedometer in the center of the dash and the toggle switches, but gives it a new, high-end sporting equipment spin. A metal rail stretches through the center of the cabin, hosting cupholders, a case for sunglasses, cool backlighting, and, no doubt, plenty of other accessories.
You wouldn’t expect a crossover to offer go-kart handling, and the Countryman doesn’t spoil that assumption. Flicking the small round steering wheel calls up more relaxed, mature responses than in a MINI Cooper, and the longer wheelbase plus four-wheel drive mostly takes away the ability to swing the back end around on a tight turn. Still, no one will confuse this BMW-developed crossover with a Chevrolet Equinox. A short drifting session in a snow-covered parking lot found a well-balanced, stiff suspension that’s never sloppy. The 181 hp from the 1.6-liter four provides eager, if not quite quick acceleration. Like most small four-cylinder engines, it would probably feel more energetic when paired with a manual transmission, which, happily, is standard on the Countryman. Speaking of which, you’ll want to stick to standard equipment wherever possible. Our test model has an eye-popping $7000 worth of options, raising the price from a sensible $27,650 to a “no thanks” $35,150. Of course, this too is part of the Mini playbook.
There will come a day when Mini’s marketers take a step too far outside the brand’s core values (or maybe not: check out the May issue of Automobile Magazine for a look at Mini’s product plan for the next decade). The Countryman, though, manages to walk the tightrope and bring that Mini character into a lucrative new segment.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I found the idea of a small crossover SUV Mini Cooper to be dubious at best, until I actually drove the Countryman. I was utterly charmed. This baby drives really, really well, and it’s absolutely oozing character and coolness. It proves once again that BMW has done an absolutely masterful job of nurturing the Mini brand. There is nothing about the vehicle that makes me think that it isn’t a “real” Mini — or that it doesn’t deserve to have the Mini badge. Quite the opposite: it seems like a natural progression of the brand.
In particular, I am charmed by the funky yet functional interior and also by the fact that we’re talking about a tiny 1.6-liter engine here, yet there’s plenty of power on tap. I had the good fortune of driving the Mini in the teeth of our biggest snowstorm so far this winter, and the very capable all-wheel-drive system, coupled with the Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires, made this thing unstoppable. I was blazing up snow-covered hills. I was seeking out unplowed side streets. The streets of Ann Arbor were largely empty, it was so nasty out; businesses and schools were closed. In this Mini, I was like, “what’s the problem?”
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
The Countryman muddies the purity of the Mini brand, stretching the limits of the word “mini” and leaving the marque’s signature styling looking somewhat bloated. Still, as the father of two small children, this is definitely the only Mini I would consider buying at this point in my life, so I can’t say that I blame BMW for growing the Mini lineup. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that, back in the day, the original Mini was available in multiple forms besides the iconic two-door hatchback, such as long-wheelbase wagons (the Countryman’s namesake), pickups, panel trucks, and beach cruisers. I believe this is the first factory four-door Mini, but in the age of the Porsche Cayenne, nothing should surprise us anymore. Like the Cayenne, the Countryman is arguably a brand abomination that will nonetheless likely add greatly to its parent company’s bottom line.
Like any good Mini, the Countryman drives quite well, and, although it’s obviously not as nimble as its little brother, it’s still fun to drive, much more so than most other all-wheel-drive small crossovers. It’s impressively peppy, too, especially considering its 1.6-liter engine. The car does ride rough, but what do you expect when beat-up roads interact with gorgeous, black, faux-two-piece eighteen-inch wheels?
I think it’s a bit unfortunate — although not surprising — that the Countryman retains the regular Mini’s design-centric interior that’s tricky to use in some instances (e.g. tiny radio buttons, convoluted HVAC interface, over-reflective central speedometer). I am a fan of the giant (optional) sunroof, the bum-searing heated seats, and the highly adjustable cargo area, with sliding rear seats and a big underfloor storage compartment.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
I really like this Mini Countryman All4; I really don’t like the Mini’s price. It’d be nearly impossible to tell people you drive a $35,000 Mini without people thinking you’re crazy. Granted, this example was loaded up with pretty much every option you can get. Best to take the All4 with a manual transmission and maybe the cold weather package; that should keep you well below the $30,000 mark.
When Mini said they were coming out with a four-door crossover I was a bit worried. Would it be a Mini? Would it drive like a Mini? Yes to both. The Countryman does a great job of keeping the fun driving dynamics we’ve come to love with the Cooper, but gave it a bit more space and versatility. It looks a lot better in person than in pictures too, especially in this white with dark smoked wheels.
If you can avoid checking too many option boxes, the Mini Countryman will not disappoint.
Mike Ofiara, Road Test Coordinator
2011 MINI Cooper S Countryman ALL4
Base price (with destination): $27,650
Price as tested: $35,150
1.6-liter turbocharged engine
6-speed manual transmission
ALL4 all-wheel drive system
4-wheel disc brakes with ABS
Tire pressure monitoring system
Dynamic stability control
Dynamic traction control
Sport leather steering wheel with cruise control
Boost CD AM/FM audio system with HD radio
Auxiliary input jack
Sirius satellite radio
Remote keyless entry
Options on this vehicle:
Premium package — $1750
Dual-pane panoramic sunroof
Automatic climate control
Harman/kardon sound system
Convenience package — $1250
Universal garage door opener
Auto-dimming exterior/interior mirrors
Bluetooth and USB/iPod adapter
StepTronic automatic transmission — $1250
Sport package with 18-inch wheels– $1500
18-inch anthracite wheels
Black bonnet stripes
Cold weather package — $750
Heated mirrors and washer jets
Heated fronts seats
Power folding mirrors
Park distance control — $500
Center armrest — $250
Cargo net — $250
Key options not on vehicle:
23 / 30 / 26 mpg
Size: 1.6L turbocharged I-4
Horsepower: 181 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 1600-5000 rpm
Curb weight: 3252 lb
Wheels/tires: 18-inch wheels
225/45R18 Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires