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.