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First Drive: 2017 Mini Countryman

Is bigger better in an increasingly crowded field?

Aaron GoldwriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

PORTLAND, Oregon — "Geez, this road is narrow," I said to my co-driver Jeff as I put the Countryman's left tires over the double yellow line. And then, with a glance in his direction: "Did I just say that? In a Mini?"

Though it wasn't obvious from Jeff's reply ("Straight! Drive straight! Don't look at me, look at the damn road!"), I knew he agreed with what I was saying, just as I knew that his fearful cringe was a nonverbal acknowledgement that we're driving the largest Mini ever and had nothing to do with his side of the car edging closer and closer to a solid concrete wall.

How big is the new 2017 Mini Countryman? Compared to its predecessor, it's 8.1 inches longer (2.9" of that in the wheelbase) and almost an inch and a half wider. When you think about it, it makes sense that Mini would grow the Countryman: The first-gen version was introduced in 2011, before subcompact crossovers were a thing. Today, the market is crowded with players like the Audi Q3, Honda CR-V, and Jeep Renegade, and the new Countryman casts a similar-sized shadow.

But, as I often told the people I dated, during my college days, size does not matter. What matters about this Mini — or any Mini, for that matter — is the way it drives. And the way it drives is pretty darn good, provided you pick the right engine.

The all-new Countryman is built on the same modular architecture as other Mini models and uses the same engines — specifically the 134-hp 1.5-liter turbo-three and the 189-hp 2.0-liter turbo-four. (A 228-hp John Cooper Works is in the works, as is a plug-in hybrid.) I'm partial to three-bangers — call it a quirk; that'd make you more charitable than most — and I quite like Mini's in the hardtop Cooper. But the Countryman outweighs the little two-door by as much as half a ton and that puts a hurt on the engine's 162 lb-ft of torque. If you're a stick-shift aficionado who likes working the gears, there's some fun to be had, especially if you enjoy the three-banger's leisurely growl, but I often found myself with my foot to the floor waiting for a burst of high-RPM acceleration that never came.

If you go for a Countryman All4, you receive an eight-speed automatic that does a good job delivering power, but front-drive variants have to make do with a six-speed. For most buyers the best bet will be the four-cylinder-powered Countryman S. It accelerates like a Mini ought to in both manual and automatic guise, though, for reasons no one from Mini was able to adequately explain, the front-drive variant is automatic-only. EPA fuel economy estimates are similar for the two engines and I saw MPG in the high 20s from both.

Chassis behavior is what we want (and expect) from a Mini. The Countryman responds to steering commands like it has attention deficit disorder, eager to chase after whatever has distracted it, and the body maintains its composure no matter how quickly it's being dragged in a new direction. The ride is very firm, though it does a decent job of filtering out all but the most severe impacts. It's a big improvement over the outgoing Countryman, even if the new car isn't quite as good at squeezing into narrow places.

To be fair to Mini, they've put the extra size to good use. Back-benchers benefit the most: There's a surprising amount of legroom in the second row, even when the front seats are adjusted for taller drivers, and the standard-fit panoramic sunroof makes the cabin feel open and airy. Too bad about the seatbacks, though, which are firm and thinly padded — a reminder that this supposedly English Mini was designed by Germans.

Up front, the Countryman is a replay of Mini's greatest hits, with a colorful center-mounted infotainment system (now with a new interface and touchscreen functionality to supplement the dial controller, but still no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto), a gauge pod that moves with the adjustable steering column, and those funky toggle-style switches. Material quality is excellent and the Countryman frames the driver's view of the world in a short, rectangular windshield, just as a proper Mini ought to do.

Trunk space is a little shy at 17.6 cubic feet, but the boot is usefully shaped and free of obstructions. Mini says their customers value versatility, which the Countryman delivers with standard-fit 40/20/40 split-fold rear seatbacks, extra storage space under the trunk floor, and LATCH anchor points that are clearly marked and easy to use.

Mini has priced the new Countryman mid-way between blue-collar entrants like the HR-V and Renegade and luxury players like the Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLA. The entry-level Countryman lists for $26,950 (including destination), while the Countryman S All4 has a sticker price of $31,950. Those prices are before options, and this being a Mini, there are more extra-cost bits and bobs than the human mind can safely contemplate. Check too many boxes and you can easily get the Countryman well over $42,000. That's a lot for a small crossover; for comparison, it takes a concerted effort to get the sticker price of a Mazda CX-5 too far above $30,000.

Mini expects the Countryman to appeal to urban and suburban dwellers who need the space of an SUV but don't want to fuss about where to park it. That's pretty much what the Countryman delivers — but then again, so does every single one of its competitors in this increasingly crowded segment. With the Mini no longer any more mini than its rivals — a point I had time to contemplate when the Countryman was unable to fit through what should have been a Mini-sized gap between a pickup and the curb, forcing me to wait to make my right turn like a commoner — all that's left to differentiate the Countryman is style and price. We'll have to see if buyers think the Countryman offers enough of the former to justify the latter.

2017 Mini Cooper Countryman Specifications

PRICE $26,950
ENGINE 1.5L turbocharged DOHC 12-valve I-3/134 hp @ 4,400 rpm, 162 lb-ft @ 1,250 rpm

2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/189 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 207 lb-ft @ 1,250 rpm

TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic, 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 21-24/31-33 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 169.8 x 71.7 x 61.3 in
WHEELBASE 105.1 in
WEIGHT 3,300-3,671 lb
0-60 MPH 6.8-9.5 sec
TOP SPEED 122-137 mph