First Drive: 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman

Don Sherman

Mini has pulled off the icon revival act of the century by growing a new and vastly superior subcompact sports car from a few well chosen genes of the original. This old/new hybrid took root at the start of the decade, matured with the introduction of a second-generation design in 2007, and gained momentum in the teeth of the recession. After a peak sales year in 2008, the current 100 US Mini dealers expect to move 45,000 cars in calendar 2010 thanks in part to an impressive 18-percent rise in September sales over 2009 volume.

The fourth of six anticipated Mini bodystyles arrives for 2011. The Cooper Countryman is the first -- but probably not the last -- Mini with four doors, four real seats, a four-cylinder engine consistent with tradition, and (optional) four-wheel drive. Don't think of it so much as yet another run-of-the-mill crossover but more of a high-spirited wagon with enhanced mobility. Unlike fellow made-in-England Minis, this one is manufactured in Graz, Austria by Magna Steyr using a unique (read NOT a BMW X1 or X3) platform.

Countryman is offered in six distinct powertrain configurations: with and without the more energetic turbocharged and intercooled engine (signified by dual exhaust outlets and an S addendum to the Cooper nameplate), stick or automatic 6-speed transmissions, with and without on-demand all-wheel drive (called ALL4). That said, the two editions powered by a normally aspirated engine should be crossed off your shopping list because the Countryman is 400 pounds heavier and a substantially larger barn door to push through the wind than a base Mini hardtop.

While both engines are invigorated this year, the turbo is the winner with 181 horsepower, a gain of nine horses attributable to the addition of Valvetronic intake valve timing and lift control. Instead of regulating the flow of air to the combustion chamber with a throttle, variable valve lift handles that task more elegantly. This yields both reduced throttling losses and more peak power at high rpm since maximum intake valve lift is increased over the outgoing non-Valvetronic engine. Combined EPA mileage varies between from 26 mpg for a CooperS Countryman with automatic and all-wheel drive to a high of 31 mpg for a Cooper Countryman with manual transmission and front-wheel drive.

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