New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Mini Countryman

The Countryman is a big one for Mini – in size, certainly, but even more so in concept. As Dr. Wolfgang Armbrecht, Mini brand manager, explains: “For Mini it’s a huge step – four doors, four-wheel drive, higher seating position. We weren’t sure it was the right direction.”

How big is it?
That’s why we’ve been seeing concept versions of this car going all the way back to 2008 – to smooth the way for the arrival of this very different Mini. The most obvious difference is in size, where the Countryman exceeds the already-stretched Clubman by 6 inches and the standard hatchback by nearly a foot and a half. It’s also 4 inches wider than its siblings, and roughly 6 inches taller (it might have been even taller still, but parking garage regulations in Tokyo dictated the car’s maximum height).

What’s inside
Sitting astride a 102.2-inch wheelbase (versus 100.3 inches for the Clubman and 97.3 inches for the hatch), the Countryman’s beefy body houses considerably more space for people and stuff. Four real doors provide relatively easy access – but for the wide sills – to four adult-size seats. In other markets, the car is offered as a five-seater, but in the USA it will come with four buckets only. The rear two can comfortably accommodate six-footers; reclining rear seatbacks are a nice touch, but hard, molded plastic door armrests are not. In between the seats is a metal rail to which various cup holders, storage compartments, and armrests can be affixed; the rail runs from front to back or, alternately, you can get a two-piece version that doesn’t block rear seat riders from moving across the car. Luggage space, at 12.4/41.3 cubic feet (rear seats up/folded) betters that of the Clubman (9.2/32.8 cu ft) but is still less than in most small crossovers. Integrated roof rails are standard. Aside from the two-inch higher seating postion, the driver’s environment is familiar, with the huge, center-mounted speedometer and circular design theme. A new center stack groups all the audio controls together (at last!) but it still suffers some odd climate controls.

ALL4 some
The other big departure for the Countryman, of course, is its optional four-wheel drive (called ALL4), which is available on the Cooper S version but not the base Cooper. The system requires no driver involvement; it’s default setup sends 100 percent of the available torque to the front wheels but under acceleration or if a wheel begins to slip, 50 percent can be redirected to the rear. The all-wheel-drive system adds roughly 150 pounds to the car’s curb weight.

Sport, and more sport
The Countryman’s suspension is largely carried over, with the Cooper S naturally getting a firmer tuning than the base Cooper. A sport suspension is a separate option (on both models); it lowers the car by 0.4 inch and has firmer tuning. For either, an available Sport button can be pressed to provide higher steering effort and more aggressive throttle mapping.

Some tweaks under that stubby hood
The Countryman’s updated versions of Mini’s current 1.6-liter engines will be old news by time the car goes on sale here early next year. (The revised engines are part of the 2011 model-year update to the rest of the Mini range this fall.) The turbocharged engine in the Cooper S sees output climb to 184 hp and 192 lb-ft (with overboost), up from 172 hp and 177 lb-ft. Full variable valve timing (BMW’s Valvetronic and double VANOS) joins direct injection for the turbocharged unit. The base engine adds a bit more muscle, going from 118 to 122 hp, and 114 to 118 lb-ft. Don’t look for a John Cooper Works version of the Countryman at launch, although we wouldn’t be surprised to see one added eventually.

As in the rest of the line, a six-speed automatic is offered (with either engine); it comes with shift paddles on the S, while base Cooper buyers must pay extra for them. A six-speed manual is standard, and it benefits from new synchronizers and a friction-reducing coating to its shift cables, for slicker operation.

Auto stop/start and regenerative braking are offered elsewhere in the world, but those two fuel-economy aids aren’t coming to the United States, because they wouldn’t affect EPA ratings (although they would help real-world efficiency, which ought to count too). The Countryman won’t have its official EPA numbers for a while, but Mini is hoping for a highway figure of 34 mpg.

Let’s get wet
It’s safe to say we didn’t get anywhere near that figure on our brief drive, in which we flogged a pre-production Cooper S Clubman (all-wheel-drive, manual, no sport package) on a short cone course and a somewhat longer road coarse – both water-slicked for extra enjoyment. The all-wheel-drive system finally puts an end to torque steer in the Cooper S, and so we welcomed it for that reason alone. (Unfortunately, it’s not likely to find its way into other Mini body styles). The turbocharged 1.6-liter pulls nicely, although factory figures indicate that it is, not surprisingly, slower here than the Clubman or the hardtop. With the manual transmission, the all-wheel-drive Cooper S Countryman will get to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds (7.6 for the front-wheel-drive version), against 7.0 seconds for the equivalent Clubman and 6.7 for the regular Mini. With the base engine, the gap grows wider, with the Countryman at 10.5 seconds – 1.6 seconds slower than the Clubman and a full 2 seconds behind the hardtop.

Despite its extra height and weight, the Clubman has much of the alert, lively response of other Minis, even if it doesn’t feel as snugly wrapped around you. The electrically assisted power steering is among the best of its type, and gets even better given a bit more weighting with a push of the Sport button. Yes, the Countryman understeers, but stabbing the brakes can kick the tail out to aid turn-in, provided you’ve switched the stability control into sport mode or off completely. On the high-speed course, we found you can drift this Mini like a rear-wheel-drive car – provided your name is Jorg Weidinger. Mr. Weidinger has the benefit of being a Mini test engineer for chassis and suspension – oh, and a professional racing driver who has driven Minis (and other cars) at the Nurburgring 24-hour race.

The Countryman’s big role
The fact that you can carry big drift angles on a wet racetrack is certainly good news for potential Countryman buyers, but probably isn’t their primary criteria for choosing a new car. Instead, the folks from Mini say that interior and cargo space are mostly what these customers are looking for, and that previously they had to leave the Mini brand to get it. That might have been fine if most of them were marching across the street to their BMW dealer, but too many were wandering off to other manufacturers. Whether you think the big Mini is a major mistake or a big idea, that’s the reason it’s here. And once the Countryman reaches showrooms, it’s expected that the biggest Mini will account for the second-biggest share of the brand’s sales (after the hatchback).

2011 MINI Cooper S Countryman

Base price: $26,500 (estimated)
On sale: Early 2011

Engine: 1.6-liter DOHC 16-valve turbocharged I-4
Horsepower: 184 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 192 lb-ft @ 1600-5000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive: Four-wheel

L x W x H: 161.8 x 70.4 x 61.5 in
Wheelbase 102.2 in
Cargo capacity (rear seats up/folded): 12.4/41.3 cu ft