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.

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Still only 4 seats. The idea of maxing out a Mini to appeal to families, but only selling it as a 4 seater in the US doesn't seem logical. Even the base Mini is big enough for 5 seats but they won't fit them. I'd love to have a Mini, but can't just because of this little factor...
The 4WD should definitely be offered in the base cooper also, not just the S - and we deserve the regen braking and the auto stop/start the other countries get -
Mini? More like Maxi.

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