First Drive: 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman

Don Sherman

All the quirkiness expected of this brand is present and accounted for in the Countryman's dash and center console plus a few notable improvements for 2011. The center-mounted pie plate speedometer lives on but key switches -- such as radio volume and tuning -- have been moved to more sensible locations and the surrounding finish is matte black instead of silver. Also, the climate control thumbwheels have been changed to a more functional rocker design with a similar appearance. Side walls have a large depressed surface surrounded by an ellipsoid. There are two different combinations of cloth and leather trim available plus full leather upholstery and an even more elegant Lounge Leather option with piping in a contrasting color. The indirect cabin illumination can be switched between orange and blue colors to suit your mood. Five different colors are available for the door panel accent surfaces. While many surfaces are molded plastic, the fit, finish, and material quality is exemplary.

Interior Toys Galore
A intentionally weird Center Rail made of extruded aluminum runs longitudinally down the middle of the Countryman's interior. Two versions are available: One that's continuous, the other that's interrupted so it's possible to jump sides in back without contortions. This is an armrest and cupholder mounting system run amok. Mini is hopeful that the aftermarket will rise to the cause by inventing other brackets and widgets that snap into place and slide fore-and-aft to support entertainment, sports gear, or what have you.

More usefully, an optional Mini Connected system developed in conjunction with Apple collaborates with an iPhone to support comprehensive infotainment functions. Using either a docking station in the center console box or a standard USB cable, this arrangement links you to cyberspace to receive email, Twitter feeds, news and weather reports, and local Google searches. You can hear your email read to you and respond with simple pre-programmed messages such as "on the road now, will respond later." The navigation screen provides visual support, there's a joystick on the console to select menu options, and Connected responds to voice commands. A roof-mounted antenna and automatic battery charging are also part of the deal. A special Mini app is needed for your iPhone to make Connected work and work is underway to add other cell phone platforms in the future.

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