Mini has pulled off the icon revival act of the century by growing a new and vastly superior subcompact sports car from a few well chosen genes of the original. This old/new hybrid took root at the start of the decade, matured with the introduction of a second-generation design in 2007, and gained momentum in the teeth of the recession. After a peak sales year in 2008, the current 100 US Mini dealers expect to move 45,000 cars in calendar 2010 thanks in part to an impressive 18-percent rise in September sales over 2009 volume.
The fourth of six anticipated Mini bodystyles arrives for 2011. The Cooper Countryman is the first — but probably not the last — Mini with four doors, four real seats, a four-cylinder engine consistent with tradition, and (optional) four-wheel drive. Don’t think of it so much as yet another run-of-the-mill crossover but more of a high-spirited wagon with enhanced mobility. Unlike fellow made-in-England Minis, this one is manufactured in Graz, Austria by Magna Steyr using a unique (read NOT a BMW X1 or X3) platform.
Countryman is offered in six distinct powertrain configurations: with and without the more energetic turbocharged and intercooled engine (signified by dual exhaust outlets and an S addendum to the Cooper nameplate), stick or automatic 6-speed transmissions, with and without on-demand all-wheel drive (called ALL4). That said, the two editions powered by a normally aspirated engine should be crossed off your shopping list because the Countryman is 400 pounds heavier and a substantially larger barn door to push through the wind than a base Mini hardtop.
While both engines are invigorated this year, the turbo is the winner with 181 horsepower, a gain of nine horses attributable to the addition of Valvetronic intake valve timing and lift control. Instead of regulating the flow of air to the combustion chamber with a throttle, variable valve lift handles that task more elegantly. This yields both reduced throttling losses and more peak power at high rpm since maximum intake valve lift is increased over the outgoing non-Valvetronic engine. Combined EPA mileage varies between from 26 mpg for a CooperS Countryman with automatic and all-wheel drive to a high of 31 mpg for a Cooper Countryman with manual transmission and front-wheel drive.
Convincing Mini Family Resemblance
While photos suggest the new Countryman is a biggie, it’s not. In basic dimensions, it’s 15-inches longer, four inches wider, and six inches taller than the petite Mini hardtop. The wheelbase stretch is 5.1-inches and there’s a modest increase in ground clearance but don’t take that to mean that the Countryman is off-road ready. The overall package is still decidedly compact; by the yardstick, Countryman is a slightly bulked up VW New Beetle.
Like its predecessors, the Countryman is a two-box design with a happy face consisting of through-the-hood headlamp eyes and upper and lower grilles. The hood is inflated to keep the major elements in proportion. In the side view, the wheels and tires are showcased beneath prominent black arches. Marker lamps are surrounded by bright chunks of chrome neatly aligned with the A-pillars. A high beltline supports three side windows and two full sized doors per side. A large hatch provides access to the cargo area which offers 16.5 cubic feet of space with the rear seats up and 41.3 cubic feet of haulage volume with the rear backrests folded.
With no less than eleven body colors, three choices for roof color, and dealer-installed flag decals, the wealth of exterior configurations boggles the mind.
Instead of attempting to cram in three compromised back seats, Mini USA chose the comfort approach. That means two real buckets in back with adjustments for fore-and-aft position (5.1-inches) and backrest rake. If maximum legroom is not required, the longitudinal adjuster allows you to stretch the cargo space. The backrests fold but not quite flat. An optional hinged partition can be dropped to bridge the gaps and to provide a fairly level extended load floor.
Thanks to the aforementioned four inch increase in overall width, there is shoulder room in abundance — roughly two more inches both front and rear than the Mini hardtop provides in its front seat. Outward visibility is superb.
All the quirkiness expected of this brand is present and accounted for in the Countryman’s dash and center console plus a few notable improvements for 2011. The center-mounted pie plate speedometer lives on but key switches — such as radio volume and tuning — have been moved to more sensible locations and the surrounding finish is matte black instead of silver. Also, the climate control thumbwheels have been changed to a more functional rocker design with a similar appearance. Side walls have a large depressed surface surrounded by an ellipsoid. There are two different combinations of cloth and leather trim available plus full leather upholstery and an even more elegant Lounge Leather option with piping in a contrasting color. The indirect cabin illumination can be switched between orange and blue colors to suit your mood. Five different colors are available for the door panel accent surfaces. While many surfaces are molded plastic, the fit, finish, and material quality is exemplary.
Interior Toys Galore
A intentionally weird Center Rail made of extruded aluminum runs longitudinally down the middle of the Countryman’s interior. Two versions are available: One that’s continuous, the other that’s interrupted so it’s possible to jump sides in back without contortions. This is an armrest and cupholder mounting system run amok. Mini is hopeful that the aftermarket will rise to the cause by inventing other brackets and widgets that snap into place and slide fore-and-aft to support entertainment, sports gear, or what have you.
More usefully, an optional Mini Connected system developed in conjunction with Apple collaborates with an iPhone to support comprehensive infotainment functions. Using either a docking station in the center console box or a standard USB cable, this arrangement links you to cyberspace to receive email, Twitter feeds, news and weather reports, and local Google searches. You can hear your email read to you and respond with simple pre-programmed messages such as “on the road now, will respond later.” The navigation screen provides visual support, there’s a joystick on the console to select menu options, and Connected responds to voice commands. A roof-mounted antenna and automatic battery charging are also part of the deal. A special Mini app is needed for your iPhone to make Connected work and work is underway to add other cell phone platforms in the future.
The Mini Countryman is available with three high-end audio systems all of which provide CD, MP3, and auxiliary input connections and six speakers. The Connected feature described above is available with and without navigation and it includes both Bluetooth and USB connectivity. Map information is stored in flash memory with updates enabled by the USB interface. The 6.5-inch nav screen not only guides you to your destination, it’s also useful for displaying call list information, business cards, and album covers. Using the voice output function, you can have calendar entries read to you while you drive.
In keeping with its core minimalist mission, the Mini Countryman’s engines are hard-working, fuel-efficient 1.6-liter four-bangers. Both use Valvetronic intake valve control engineered by the BMW Group. The base (Cooper) version produces 121 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque while the turbocharged and intercooled Cooper S engine cranks out 181 horsepower. Full tilt, the turbo delivers 192 lb-ft for a short period exploiting over boost (rising temporarily from 17.4 to 20.3 psi), and 177 lb-ft during continuous full-whip operation.
The turbo demonstrates excellent enthusiasm for its work including a hearty howl as it crowds the 6250 rpm redline (common to all Minis). The manual transmission is a joy to use with well orchestrated clutch and shifter action. According to the factory, the 0-60 sprint can be accomplished in seven seconds flat. The only notable fault is that the revs hang high following a quick drop of the accelerator pedal, an unfortunate byproduct of the Valvetronic system.
The 6-speed automatic tries hard to please, offering wheel-mounted paddle shifters and a manual shifting mode when the console lever is used. Unfortunately it’s programmed for automatic upshifts at the redline though it does at least hold gears during deceleration into bends.
Punching a Sport button on the center stack keys up more aggressive steering assist, throttle response, and automatic transmission shift characteristics.
Mini’s first 4-wheel driveline uses Getrag and GKN components to bring the rear wheels in on the propulsion action. A bevel gear added to the transaxle spins the longitudinal drive shaft at front-wheel speed. A computer-controlled clutch pack in the rear differential unit engages on cue to energize the aft wheels. This clutch is capable of locking completely so 100-percent of available torque can theoretically be delivered by the rear wheels, assuming the front axle is on something slippery such as ice, wet grass, or mud. To avoid overloading the light-duty rear axle, torque management kicks in long before things get too exciting. A dab or two of automatic ABS braking controls the left-to-right torque split. The system is quite effective at eradicating torque steer while adding only 130 or so pounds to the curb weight.
The basic suspension layout parallels existing Mini models with struts in front, trailing arms located by two lateral links per side in back, and coil springs at every corner. The aluminum rear differential housing is rubber isolated while front and rear cross members bolt solidly to the unibody structure.
Electric power steering adds assistance via the rack-and-pinion steering gear’s pinion shaft. Anti-torque-steer programming is new this year in response to perennial gripes on that subject by Mini critics.
Less Than a Full Dose of Driving Bliss
Given the promising exterior appearance — read smaller in real life than photos would suggest — and Mini’s unwavering dedication to driving nirvana, our hopes were high that Countryman would burst out of the typical crossover mold in terms of speed, agility, and all-around exuberance. While the driving position is perfect for the mission, the initial steering response off the straight and narrow is encouraging, and the S edition’s turbo engine is steeped in spirit, there are lapses in the Countryman’s driving dynamics.
The elevated ride height results in tippiness never before seen in a Mini. Steering feel goes numb when you are in greatest need of feedback from the road surface. The extra weight and longer wheelbase slow reaction times from the go-kart-agile realm into the merely good range. Ride motions venture beyond well controlled to verge on harsh over rough pavement. In some instances, that can fill the cabin will booming reverberation especially in the back seat. Also, there’s noticeable wind noise generated by the upright A pillars and large side mirrors.
The dynamic cloud’s silver lining is a surprisingly affordable admission price. Including delivery charges, the well equipped MINI Cooper Countryman starts at $22,350. Loading up the CooperS with ALL4 traction and other goodies won’t top $30,000 so this buggy is sure to be of interest to young growing families.
Ultimately, the satisfaction to be reaped from the Mini Countryman depends on your frame of reference. Moving down from a larger crossover or over from a Subaru Forester or Toyota RAV4, it’s sure to feel fresh and lively, particularly in turbocharged CooperS trim. But graduating to the Countryman after a stint in any MINI Cooper Hardtop or convertible, the joy of four doors and increased cabin space will soon be diminished by life’s harshest reality: growing up is hard to do.