Staffers have been grousing about the clutch engagement in the Countryman pretty much since it first arrived. Last month, senior web editor Phil Floraday suggested leaving the car in sport mode -- which makes for more aggressive throttle mapping -- as a way to achieve smoother takeoffs. Lately, however, it appears that approach no longer works for Phil.
"Driving this thing in the city is a real pain," he writes. "It feels as if we've burned up the clutch. The car is impossible to get moving from a stop without shuddering. There's also way too much travel before the clutch begins to engage."
"There is a nasty vibration as you let the clutch out in first gear, as if you're going to stall the car," concurred senior editor Eric Tingwall. "Raising the revs doesn't help to smooth out the vibration. The only remedy seems to be moving through the clutch travel more quickly. From a design standpoint, I wonder if a heavier pressure plate would be beneficial in getting this 3200-pound vehicle off the line."
Leaving the clutch for a moment, the Mini this month received its third set of tires in five months. This time, the switch was due to the change of season. The car originally was fitted with Pirelli Cinturato P7 run-flats. Seeking to mitigate the ride harshness, we switched from the stiff run-flats to a standard tire, the Continental ExtremeContact DWS. That seemed to help a bit. Now, with the first flakes of snow in the air, it was time to procure some winter rubber. For the Countryman, we went with the Bridgestone Blizzak LM-60, which is Bridgestone's performance winter tire.
So far, we're happy with that choice. "The Countryman exhibited excellent highway manners, cruising calmly at speeds above 80 mph, even though it's now wearing winter tires. And it still handles better than most compact crossovers," reported associate editor David Zenlea, after a long weekend trip to Massachusetts. "[But] the ride quality remains awful -- Massachusetts roads aren't much better than what we have back home."
Zenlea was, however, able to come to grips with some of the persistent Countryman complaints: "Long trips have a way of putting cars into perspective and clearing away some of the white noise. After driving to Boston and back, I'm willing to rescind my complaints about the clutch -- I adjusted to it after a few days, as would any real owner. Ditto for the interior ergonomics. The iDrive-like interface works very well, particularly for controlling an iPhone. And the steering, gearbox, and engine remain entertaining."
Even without making a long road trip, associate web editor Jake Holmes, one of the Mini's sharpest critics, also has mellowed somewhat with familiarity. "The things I initially hated about the Countryman -- the poor clutch take-up, the odd switch positions -- are now becoming second nature. Perhaps the Countryman is not poorly designed but is just designed differently from other cars we drive, and we'll get used to it over time." We shall see.