The reason we wanted to test the 2012 Mini Countryman with an automatic transmission is our Four Seasons Countryman with a manual transmission hasn't won a lot of friends. Not only does the clutch suffer from less-than-ideal engagement point and a lack of feel, but our long-term test vehicle went through a clutch in less than 15,000 miles. How come? The clutch disc is too small to handle the torque of the 1.6-liter engine under boost and the engine doesn't have enough torque off boost to get the Mini off the line quickly. Even if you don't intend to abuse the clutch, it's very difficult to launch the car without slipping the clutch excessively when you're trying to move off from a stop faster than the stereotypical Prius driver.
The Countryman is much easier to live with when there's an automatic transmission behind the 1.6-liter engine, but to my mind, the best solution for the Countryman would be a stick shift with a stronger clutch disc, and a bigger, torquier engine. A Mini is supposed to be cute and be a driver's car. Any Mini with an automatic loses a bit of that driver's car aspect. If BMW's superb 2.0-liter I-4 would fit in the Mini's tiny engine bay, it could potentially provide the extra power the Countryman needs without hurting the fuel economy too badly (the bigger 3-series with that engine actually does slightly better on fuel than the Countryman).
Another difference between this car and our Four Seasons Countryman is the rear bench seat. Although the rear bench seat makes the car a lot more practical, I much prefer the rear bucket seats in our Four Seasons example. A Mini brand trait is the individualization of each car, and the individual rear seats really drive home the idea of the car being for individuals. It's exactly the sort of quirky thing I'd expect from Mini.
If you're convinced the Countryman is for you, I suggest the automatic with rear bucket seats. It won't be the perfect car, but it does offer a bit of character, and that's not exactly easy to find in the small crossover segment.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
I'm the sort of person who thinks everything is better with a stick and a clutch. It was something like a crisis of faith then, when I got into this automatic Countryman and, within two miles, realized it was better than our Four Seasons, manual transmission version. The six-speed automatic is as good as the manual is horrible. It's smooth, quick, and has an excellent sport mode that always seems to find the right gear for the right moment. More important, not having to worry about the awful clutch take-up allows you to focus on the rest of the driving experience, which is actually quite good. The Countryman's direct, well-weighted steering and flat handling are, if not quite on par with "real" Minis, far better than what you get in any other small crossover. Even without the manual, the Countryman is a polarizing vehicle. Not everyone loves the bloated Mini styling, though I personally find it quirky and cute. The interior is an ergonomic disaster, albeit a charming one. The ride is harsh even by BMW standards. And then there's the question of whether Mini should be producing a crossover at all or if doing so goes against all that made the brand appealing. I, for one, believe the Countryman still is a worthy choice for the discerning enthusiast who needs a crossover. Just get the automatic.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I'm rarely a guy who would choose or recommend an automatic over a stick, but in the case of the Countryman, this is the exception that proves the rule. As David said, the automatic is a pretty damn good transmission in its own right, but more importantly, it eliminates one of the most confounding negatives of our 4S Mini -- its horrible manual. The clutch is only one of the ills -- the 6-speed stick has no positive action required to go into reverse, and that coupled with the high clutch take-up and resultant paranoia of stalling the car, forces the driver into a panicky scramble at stoplights, where one accidentally chooses third or reverse at takeoff almost as often as first. It's just a nightmare.
Similarly, automatic climate control is usually an option I can live without, but its inclusion in this test car was a revelation. Ergonomics are another weak spot of the Countryman, and the manual climate control seems to need constant adjustment, which means interaction with the terrible HVAC interface. The automatic system in this car had set-and-forget-it simplicity and effectiveness, and also looked much better than the manual system.
The other major difference between this car and our long-term Mini is the rear bench seat. I will disagree vehemently with Phil on this, and not just because I have kids. The rear buckets do look sharp, and at first glance the center rail looks cool and seems innovative, but in reality it's ridiculous. It is a physical obstacle that divides the cabin in half, and the accessories that attach to it rattle and seem vulnerable to damage -- know any other cars where you can break your cupholder?
The bench seat obviously provides an additional seat in a pinch, but also provides more room for the two outboard passengers and also fully encloses the cargo area. This is certainly a matter of personal preference, but for no additional cost over the buckets, I'd opt for the bench.
Finally, the $1000 for the panoramic roof in this example was money well spent, as the cabin was a more pleasant place to be because of it.
All of that said, with several major annoyances of our 4S car eliminated, this 2012 Countryman S was much more enjoyable.
Matt Tierney, Photographer
I'm a big fan of the Mini Countryman's packaging. The four-door crossover is the perfect size for Americans who often drive alone but won't buy a car with fewer than four seats. For those drivers, the Countryman is compact and efficient, yet also sporty, with respectable cargo space and rear-seat room.
Despite those merits, it wasn't until Mini added a three-seat rear bench as a no-cost option in 2012 that I thought the Countryman was complete. The goofy center rail that stretches from the center stack to the cargo hold in our Four Seasons car is largely useless and if you're toting around three extra seats that for part-time use, why wouldn't you want a fourth spare seat? Or, at least that's what the pragmatic part of me argued.
Then this white Countryman with a bench seat showed up and a funny thing happened: I liked the bucket seats. Spending time with the bench seat gave me a deeper appreciation for just how comfortable the rear bucket seats are. And while there's plenty of legroom for the outboard rear-seat passengers with either rear-seat option, the center tunnel and narrow cushion mean the fifth position is only fit for a child whose age is a single digit. On the plus side, however, the 40/20/40 split means you can fold the center section for long items like skis while still carrying four passengers. In the end, deciding between a four- or five-seat Countryman comes down to how you'll use the car. If you plan on chauffeuring adults, stick with the bucket seats. If you have kids or are concerned about resale value, the no-cost bench seat is the smart choice.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor