The idea of the Mini Countryman -- a larger, taller, all-wheel-drive Mini SUV -- caused much hand-wringing among the enthusiast community. It was a move against type for a brand that took delight in being the anti-SUV. But brand expansion is seemingly an immutable force, and Mini was not immune. When the Countryman finally appeared, it seemed at first to be a best-case scenario: the Mini of SUVs. But a vehicle this radical and this important -- the Countryman now accounts for a large chunk of the brand's sales -- demanded a yearlong examination. Could a bigger, four-door, all-wheel-drive vehicle still be Mini?
As it turns out, we were asking the wrong question. In our year with a Cooper S Countryman All4, our issue wasn't so much with the idea but with its execution. "You won't catch me lamenting a higher-riding, four-door, all-wheel-drive Mini," stated senior editor Eric Tingwall, arguing that it was "a breath of fresh air in the compact-crossover segment." Surprisingly, perhaps, on this point there was consensus -- or near consensus. "The purist in me is mildly offended," said New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman, "but I can understand why it's so popular -- four doors, four-wheel drive, and the sort of usability that buyers of ordinary Minis and even the Clubman forego." Associate web editor Evan McCausland expounded on the theme: "If some Mini shoppers are willing to trade a degree of agility and sharpness for more interior space and all-weather traction, then so be it."
It helps that the Countryman is cleverly packaged. "It's the perfect size," asserted Tingwall. "There's great rear-seat legroom and a nice-size cargo hold, and yet it fits easily in tight parking spaces." A slightly larger Mini is, after all, still a pretty small car in the greater scheme of things (nearly a foot shorter than a Hyundai Tucson, for instance). Those of us who drove the Mini in New York City, such as associate web editor Donny Nordlicht, particularly appreciated its ease of parking and maneuverability. "It can squeeze through traffic with the deftness of a compact hatchback," he said.
Although this Mini is still rather small on the outside, it's deceptively large on the inside. The Countryman has rear-seat space that other Minis can only dream of. "I filled the Mini with passengers this weekend, and they were shocked by the amount of legroom," said managing editor of digital platforms Jennifer Misaros. It was an oft-repeated sentiment. "An easily accessed back seat made possible a trip to Pittsburgh with my octogenarian parents in tow," reported Kitman. Try stuffing Granny into the back of a regular Mini.
With the rear seats in use, there's not much cargo space, but fold the seats down and the situation improves dramatically. Editor-in-chief Jean Jennings took the Countryman to New York City and packed the back with "a massive amount of crap that astonished the bellman." Unfortunately, there's precious little stowage up front for odds and ends.
Although the cabin's size proved useful, its design and materials fell short. The former tries very hard to amuse. "The car reminds me of a roller-coaster cart," said graphic designer Thomas Hang. Another driver speculated that the "amusement-park interior helps distract your attention from the cabin materials, which are not great." Hard plastic is everywhere. The center-stack controls are more about being whimsical than being functional, and we grew tired of the wacky switchgear. The climate controls were particularly annoying to use, and there were too few settings to create a comfortable cabin. "The temperature choice seems to be broil or freeze," complained one commenter. And in the heat of the summer, the A/C struggled to keep our Mini cool.
Then there was the interior quality. The iPod cradle, which is poorly located directly in front of the center armrest, had a habit of coming apart. Worse was that the plastic interior parts set up a chorus of creaking, one that was drowned out only by the wind and road noise. Those who cranked up the stereo in response were disappointed by its sound quality, although the iPod interface at least came in for praise. We also liked the Google Send To Car function -- part of the Mini Connected system -- which allows you to send an address from Google Maps to your phone and subsequently to the Mini's navigation system. Unfortunately, that nav system sometimes exhibited a stubborn unwillingness to recalculate a route, although it otherwise garnered no complaints. As part of the BMW family, Mini uses an iDrive-style turn-and-push controller. "I love that Mini is democratizing the rotary-knob infotainment controller," said Tingwall. "It's a more user-friendly alternative to the touchscreen -- a technology that I wouldn't be sad to see disappear completely from the automobile."
A more significant example of BMW's influence has been Mini's fun-to-drive character, and that's evident here as well, despite this being a taller, larger Mini. "Just about no one tunes electric power steering as well as Mini," said associate editor David Zenlea. Our Countryman was not equipped with the optional sport suspension, but even without it, the Mini was really in its element on rural country roads, barreling up and down inclines and ripping through sweeping curves. "On smooth back roads, the Countryman is a delight," we wrote.
Notice, however, the qualifier "smooth." If the pavement is anything other than smooth, the Countryman suffers serious bump steer -- and that was just the start of the complaints about ride quality. Logbook commenters debated whether it was akin to a hay wagon or an oxcart. It had drivers dodging potholes, broken pavement, manhole covers, pebbles in the road. And while that did add a video-game element to the driving experience, we eventually sought a fix. Just before the 5000-mile mark, we replaced the stiff-sidewall Pirelli run-flats with a set of non-run-flat Continental ExtremeContact DWS all-season tires on Tire Rack's recommendation. "We've taken the ride quality from unforgivable to acceptable," senior web editor Phil Floraday proclaimed afterward. "It's amazing how much better the ride is with a little sidewall flex." Others felt that the new tires helped, but did not completely fix, the issue.
To be fair, a stiff ride is common to all Minis and is therefore hardly unique to the Countryman. What is exclusive to the Countryman is the available All4 four-wheel-drive system. And the good news is we all agreed that the system works well. "Power is transferred to the rear axle in a smooth, linear fashion," said McCausland after playing with the Mini in the snow. Not only is All4 a boon on slippery pavement, but it also obviates torque steer; we'd love to see it offered on other Minis.
Over 28,135 miles, we averaged 26 mpg, which fell short of the EPA combined estimate of 28 mpg (25 mpg city, 31 mpg highway). We might have done better with front-wheel drive, but probably not much better, as the EPA rates the front-wheel-drive version only 1 mpg higher across the board.
Aside from the all-wheel-drive system, the Countryman's powertrain is otherwise lifted intact from the standard Mini. For the Cooper S, that means a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder rated at 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. It was enough to send the 3264-pound Countryman from 0 to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds in our tests; we called the performance "zippy" and "peppy." Still, most drivers noted a degree of turbo lag, which dulled off-the-line performance.
That turbo lag also made smooth takeoffs a challenge. At first, we suspected that the calibration of the clutch's hill-holder feature might be to blame. Then we tried engaging sport mode (which affects throttle mapping and steering effort) to achieve smoother takeoffs. By the halfway point in our test, the work-arounds were no longer helping. "It is impossible to get moving from a stop without shuddering," said Floraday. When a local reader offered us a drive in his stick-shift Countryman S All4, the difference was obvious. We took our car to the dealership and, after some negotiation, drove out with a new clutch (a worn clutch disc being covered under warranty). The vehicle drove much better afterward. We suspect the issue is that the clutch is undersized for the Countryman, which is larger and heavier than the standard Mini. (Mini claims to be changing the clutch composition in manual-transmission Countrymans.)
The clutch was the most significant -- but not the only -- problem we experienced. Our Countryman also developed an issue with difficult cold starts, to the point where it eventually wouldn't start at all and was carried off on a flatbed to a dealer. The service department diagnosed a broken thermostat housing, which allowed coolant to leak out and cause cold-start issues. Later, we noticed surging and hesitation under acceleration between 3000 and
4000 rpm. This was a known problem in early-build cars and was addressed with a software update. Another issue affecting early cars was the faux-chrome finish on the exterior plastic trim peeling off, but that, too, was fixed under warranty. The tire-pressure monitoring system also had a habit of putting out false alarms, although never when the service techs were watching.
Some of the issues we experienced could have been mitigated or eliminated had we made different choices during the ordering process. Going for the automatic transmission obviously would have negated the clutch issue. Springing for automatic climate control likely would have made it easier to achieve a comfortable cabin temperature. Sticking with the standard seventeen-inch wheels, instead of the optional eighteens, probably would have helped the ride. And anyone who cares a lot about stereo sound quality should investigate the optional Harman Kardon system.
As it is, the negatives here outweigh the positives. Few were sad to see the Mini go. That's too bad, because Mini's unique brand of fun and involvement would certainly be welcome in the often-dull compact-crossover segment. "The Countryman isn't a bad idea," concluded Floraday, "but the execution is lacking." Here's hoping Mini can work to alleviate the problems we faced before it launches the next sure-to-be-controversial expansion to its brand: the Countryman coupe, known as the Paceman.
The modern-era Mini, as envisioned by corporate parent BMW, made its debut in 2001. The hatchback met near-universal acclaim and was later joined by a convertible.
For 2007, the "new" Mini underwent a redesign. The biggest change was under the hood, where a new 1.6-liter engine resided. In Cooper S models, the four-cylinder was turbocharged (not supercharged as before).
One year later, the Clubman model arrived. The Clubman was 9.3 inches longer, rode on a 3.2-inch-longer wheelbase, and featured a rear-hinged third door on the passenger's side.
In January 2010, the Beachcomber concept appeared. It previewed the Countryman's size and shape (sans doors). The production version of the Countryman made its debut at the Geneva auto show in early 2010. It was 5.8 inches longer than a Clubman and 15.1 inches longer than a hatchback; it was also 4.1 inches wider and
6.1 inches taller than the hatch.
The Countryman officially went on sale in the United States in December 2010 in Cooper and Cooper S trim, the latter with a choice of front- or four-wheel drive. Thanks entirely to the Countryman, Mini's U.S. sales ended 2011 up 26 percent.
The John Cooper Works version of the Countryman arrives late this year with 208 hp, standard all-wheel drive, and an available automatic transmission.