It doesn’t take a marketing genius to recognize the inherent risk in adding a crossover to a brand called “Mini.” Indeed, a high-riding, Austrian-built four-wheel-drive vehicle sounds like a quick and easy way to pour a decade’s worth of brand equity down the drain. However, the Countryman is a triumph of strong execution over questionable judgment, which is a fancy way of saying it’s really nice.
It starts with the exterior. The design assignment for the Countryman would have read something like, “Adapt styling cues and timeless charm of classic 1959 subcompact to a modern crossover.” That’s sort of like dressing Rosie O’Donnell to look like Audrey Hepburn. Somehow, the designers succeeded. The Countryman translates the essential character of its progenitor -– cute and carefree -– without looking silly or bloated. The interior likewise carries over some of the essentials we’ve come to associate with Mini, including a speedometer in the center of the dash and the toggle switches, but gives it a new, high-end sporting equipment spin. A metal rail stretches through the center of the cabin, hosting cupholders, a case for sunglasses, cool backlighting, and, no doubt, plenty of other accessories.
You wouldn’t expect a crossover to offer go-kart handling, and the Countryman doesn’t spoil that assumption. Flicking the small round steering wheel calls up more relaxed, mature responses than in a Mini Cooper, and the longer wheelbase plus four-wheel drive mostly takes away the ability to swing the back end around on a tight turn. Still, no one will confuse this BMW-developed crossover with a Chevrolet Equinox. A short drifting session in a snow-covered parking lot found a well-balanced, stiff suspension that’s never sloppy. The 181 hp from the 1.6-liter four provides eager, if not quite quick acceleration. Like most small four-cylinder engines, it would probably feel more energetic when paired with a manual transmission, which, happily, is standard on the Countryman. Speaking of which, you’ll want to stick to standard equipment wherever possible. Our test model has an eye-popping $7000 worth of options, raising the price from a sensible $27,650 to a “no thanks” $35,150. Of course, this too is part of the Mini playbook.
There will come a day when Mini’s marketers take a step too far outside the brand’s core values (or maybe not: check out the May issue of Automobile Magazine for a look at Mini’s product plan for the next decade). The Countryman, though, manages to walk the tightrope and bring that Mini character into a lucrative new segment.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor