"Give this car a nice automatic or a DSG," suggested senior online editor Phil Floraday at the start of our Mini's penultimate month in our hands, "and it might be enough to get me to look past the car's styling and its weird interior." Your wish, Mr. Floraday, is granted -- at least in the sense that an automatic-equipped Mini Countryman arrived in the office just days later. Is the automatic the solution to the problem of the undersized clutch and the 1.6-liter's turbo lag, which combine to make driving around town "a real pain in the a**," to quote Phil once again?
The answer, at least in part, seems to be yes. "The Countryman is much easier to live with when there's an automatic transmission backing up the 1.6-liter engine," he says. However, he also posits another suggestion: Mini should borrow BMW's excellent 2.0-liter turbocharged four, provided it could be shoehorned under the hood. That engine is so fuel-efficient in the 3-series that it probably wouldn't drink any more fuel than the smaller 1.6.
Speaking of fuel economy, assist web editor Ben Timmins took our long-term Countryman on a 1700-mile round trip to Boston this month, and he calculated 25 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway, the latter figure beating the EPA's 31-mpg estimate. But good gas mileage, well tuned electric power steering, an effective all-wheel-drive system, and good handling were pretty much all the nice things he had to say after his trip. On the debit side, he recorded a litany of annoyances, including a weak air-conditioner that doesn't distribute air effectively, a "feckless" audio system with poor sound quality, a turbocharged engine with very binary power delivery (off-boost lag versus on-boost punch), and a "punishing" ride on the optional eighteen-inch wheels.
He suggests mitigating some of the above issues by deftly navigating the order sheet -- skipping the larger wheels, for instance, but springing for the automatic transmission, the Harmon-Kardon audio system, and automatic climate control. But then he floats a bigger idea. "Better yet," he says, "go see your local BMW dealer and check out the 2013 BMW X1. It has the 2.0-liter turbo four from the 3-series (which we adore!), an eight-speed automatic, and all-wheel drive." It's roughly the same size as a Countryman, and the starting price of $33,245 is about $1000 less than our Mini's as-tested figure. This is a sibling rivalry we welcome.