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The Mini Countryman represents the biggest stretch yet for Mini – for the car and the brand

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Oddly, it is the current Mini Clubman that should be named Mini Countryman, given that the original 1961 Austin Mini Countryman was a two-door estate.


The Countryman was notable particularly for the wooden inserts fitted to top-spec models to give it a visual link to the Morris Minor estate. But instead of a Mini estate, the Countryman name now represents a model that is not only the brand’s first-ever SUV but also its first four-wheel-drive vehicle.

The Countryman is Mini's first-ever SUV and also its first four-wheel-drive vehicle

The last time a Mini gained a four-metre-long, four-door sister model in its manufacturer’s range, it was 1969, a decade after the original model’s inception. Back then, the four-door in question was Alex Issigonis’s last design and the car was called (partly in homage to its smaller forebear) not Mini, but Maxi. This time around the sister model is still being called a Mini, with Countryman attached as a passing suffix. However, this modern-day ‘Maxi’ is built more than a thousand miles away from its UK-built Mini brethren at Magna Steyr’s plant in Graz, Austria.

What the Countryman does represent, however, is the biggest stretch yet for Mini – for the car and the brand. Never before had a Mini ventured to this size or level of practicality, in an effort to catch a new audience – or, perhaps, to retain a customer base that might otherwise grow out of its cars. It would be fair to say this exercise in targetting what the customer wants rather sticking to traditions has benefitted the brand, as the Mini 5-door hatch will testify.

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What has also increased is the price, though that doesn’t necessarily reflect a change of attitude; the modern Mini has long demanded a price beyond its size. It’s not at all hard to get a Countryman out of the showroom doors at a price of around £30,000 if you plunder the lengthy options list. However, it’s also possible to get a reasonably-equipped model for far less. Although, expect to get large discounts on the first generation as its production runs down before the launch of the second generation Countryman in 2017.

The range is vast, though, with two- and four-wheel drive versions, three petrol and two diesel engines, but a huge selection of trim and option pack varieties. 

DESIGN & STYLING

Mini Countryman rear

The Mini Countryman was the largest Mini in the model’s lifetime. At more than four metres long, it’s over a foot longer than the regular five-door Mini hatch, or roughly the same length as a typical modern supermini, while the younger Mini Clubman and Paceman are both slightly longer. The second generation car may only look like an evolution, rather than a revolution, but its size is set to increase by 200mm in length and its width and height is set to increase also.

It’s also the first Mini to get two doors in each side of its body, and what Mini describes as a “large tailgate”.

The Countryman is the largest Mini in the model’s lifetime

Nonetheless, Mini’s designers have gone to some lengths to maintain many of the regular Mini’s styling characteristics. We’re not totally sold on how they integrate into these proportions, but it’s worth noting that the basic Mini proportions have been with us in one form or another since 1959, so perhaps it’s just a case of getting used to it.

What can’t be denied is that they give the Countryman an upright stance like no Mini before it. It’s 10cm wider and some 15cm taller than the regular hatch.

Like the original Countryman, which had visible seams, the vent surrounds follow the A-pillar line down to the wheel arch. Headlight detailing has become increasingly complex in recent years, but few have detailing as intricate as the Countryman’s.

Unlike the original Austin Mini, but very much like the current hatch, the Countryman gets an enormous bonnet pressing that covers both wings and drapes around the light clusters. The bulge in the middle of the bonnet doesn’t need to be there for engine-clearing purposes but surely adds a little rigidity to the large structure, as well as implying some ‘oomph’.

As on several Volkswagens and Fiats, the prominent bootlid badge also acts as the handle for the rear hatch. Sculpting detail helps to cleave air from the rear of the car without it becoming too turbulent, reducing drag and dirt build-up on rear screen, while the rear light clusters stick well out from the bodywork, just like on the original Countryman.

INTERIOR

Mini Countryman interior

The cockpit is typically Mini in the Mini Countryman, so it’s as extrovert as ever, with the same pleasing aesthetics and frustratingly poor ergonomics.

The dashboard is unique to the Countryman but it’s still dominated by the oversized speedo and the new, optional high-definition colour screen in its centre, while the same chrome switches adorn the upright console. Unfortunately, the unfathomable switchgear layout has made it into the Countryman, with controls for the windows, locking and air conditioning clustered together. 

What the Countryman does very well is provide a decent amount of passenger space

A rail, to which you can attach sliding accessories, divides the front seats and extends right through to the rear cabin if buyers opt to lose the standard bench and go for two single seats. It looks funky, but its usability is questionable. Our test car had a sunglasses case attached which felt flimsy and was too much of a focal point, given its function. Having more storage cubbies would be better.

What the Countryman does very well is provide a decent amount of passenger space. There’s plenty of head and elbow room for four adults, and the sliding, 60/40 split rear bench is comfortable even for taller passengers, although fitting three across the back would be a squeeze. 

The boot, however, isn’t quite so in keeping with the active family lifestyle. While capacity with all the seats in place is 350 litres (the same as a Volkswagen Golf), or 450 litres with the rear seats slid forwards and legroom severely limited, the 1170 litres available with them folded is below par next to the Volkswagen Golf’s 1305 litres. There’s a big step in the boot floor with the seat backs down, too. 

In truth, this won’t be a deal-breaker. The Mini’s interesting, comfortable cabin will be of far more significance. 

As for the standard equipment, it is typical Mini, with most of the goodies left to the Pepper and Chili packs. However, alot of the standard equipment is defined by type of Countryman you buy. So opt for the One or One D and you'll find DAB tuner, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, rear parking sensors and air conditioning as standard, while the mid-range Cooper and Cooper D adds a part-leather interior, roof rails and LED fog lights. 

The range-topping Cooper S and SD trimmed Countrymans gain dynamic stability control and traction control, sports steering wheel and a dedicated sport mode, while those pining for more power can have the JCW version which adds an aggressive bodykit, sports seats, velour floor mats and sports suspension. Those after a bit more exclusivity can opt for the Park Lane gains climate control, interior lighting package and chrome detailings.

The 2017 model will be available in Cooper and Cooper S forms, with the diesel variants, and ALL4 models intertwined within those trims, with a Countryman JCW version earmarked for after the Countryman is released. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mini Countryman side profile

Don’t be fooled by the Cooper badge on the D All4 Mini Countryman; it doesn’t necessarily represent sparkling performance. The propulsion provided by BMW’s new 1.6-litre N47 diesel is fine for everyday transport – given time, it will cruise along in the outside lane happily enough – but when asked to provide all it’s got, the motor reveals a few weaknesses.

While a 0-60mph time of 11.1sec is competitive for a diesel engine of 110bhp and 199lb ft, for a car with semi-sporting positioning, the Cooper D feels disappointingly slow. Beyond 60mph it needs another 9.9sec to reach 80mph.

For a car with semi-sporting positioning, the Coopers feel disappointingly slow

Opting for the four-wheel drive ALL4 version takes the edge of performance in all models, including the 1.6 turbo in the Cooper S models. Where that engines feels torquey and zesty in the regular car, adding four-wheel drive makes it feel a little more ordinary, adding over half a second to 0-60 times, too.

The entry-level diesel, a 1.6D feels struggles to serve up any kind of thrills. Upgrading to the Cooper SD, with its 2.0-litre diesel, offers the power to offset the Countryman's weight. Offering 225lb ft from just 1750rpm makes for decent low-speed response. However, the Cooper SD falls down on refinement and is an expensive purchase, with prices starting at £23,190.

The entry-level 1.6 petrol feels just plain slow, while the more powerful Cooper petrol, again, fails to live up to the excitement the badge promises. The 1.6T Cooper S does provide fireworks, but they come at quite a price.
 
For an even greater premium, a JCW Countryman is available. As in the Mini hatch, the 215bhp, 207lb ft 1.6-litre turbo is an effervescent performer, flexible and accessible on British roads. Of course it is hamstrung by the weight of the Countryman, but the JCW is still capable of 140mph and 0-62mph in 7 seconds.

The shift quality of the standard six-speed gearbox is typical Mini: positive and light, but not especially satisfying to use. But for town use, it is welcome news that the addition of all-wheel drive has provided no extra weight to either the shift or the clutch action. 

We certainly have no issue with the outright braking performance the Countryman displayed at MIRA, particularly during the wet tests, where it stopped from 70mph in just 48.6 metres. Similarly, the brakes stood up well to our track tests, but this is perhaps more an indication of the relative lack of power and surplus of grip than the tenacity of the brakes.  

RIDE & HANDLING

Mini Countryman rear cornering

BMW clearly wanted the Mini Countryman yet to share the dynamic DNA of its siblings. As soon as you turn the steering wheel, the Countryman feels instantly keener than most regular hatchbacks, and that despite the semi-elevated driving position. 

Much of the alertness comes from the Mini's remarkably quick steering ratio – 2.4 turns providing a turning circle of just 11.6 metres. Yet despite this and heavy self-centring, the steering set-up works well in the majority of circumstances. The caveats are that over some challenging road surfaces the lack of bump absorption can make it difficult to avoid unwanted steering inputs, and that in more spirited driving it can be easy to introduce too much steering angle on turn-in. 

Given the highish centre of gravity, roll angles are kept surprisingly flat

Given the highish centre of gravity, roll angles are kept surprisingly flat; driven gently, or at least with an effort to stabilise the car on the way into a corner, the overall impression is of relatively flat cornering. But when tipped into a corner briskly – easily done with the steering – an initially quick roll rate accentuates the Countryman’s tall proportions. 

While the driven back axle can be felt helping out through longer corners, when simply chucked at a tight bend the initial tendency is for the Countryman to wash wide.  

The Countryman’s ride follows the same broad template we have seen with other recent BMW Group cars. In many ways the ride is pretty good, but when faced with the combined challenge of bump absorption, cornering forces and/or camber change, the picture deteriorates markedly. This manifests itself in two particular problems. The first is that some impacts resonate through the rear suspension; the second is that over a bumpy road the primary ride is not sufficiently well controlled. 

Unfortunately, in a bid to provide a more sporting drive, the lowered ride height of the JCW Countryman provides a ride that borders on the intolerable.

Overall, the Countryman is a car more adept at giving the sense of being driven briskly than actually doing so.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mini Countryman

The Mini Countryman’s closest rivals fall in the crossover category, where it is competitive to buy and run. It’s not cheap and the standard kit lacks many luxuries you would expect, but residuals are predicted to be strong, retaining almost 50 percent of its value after three years or 36,000 miles – nearly 10 percent more than the Skoda Yeti or Nissan Qashqai

Familiar option packs Pepper and Chili are available. Pepper gives you a few basics you might expect to get anyway like a leather steering wheel, on board computer and front fog lamps. Chili gives you all that plus automatic air conditioning, sports seats and steering wheel, five spoke alloys and some snazzier interior trim. A media pack throws in navigation through a funky full-colour screen , while the vision pack isn’t so much a pack than just the addition of adaptive headlights.

With options it’s easy to add a fair few thousand to the base price of your Countryman

Then there’s the myriad colour combinations for the body, roof, bonnet stripes and door mirrors, almost as many interior trim options, plus a wide range of alloy wheels. You can see how it’s easy to add a fair few thousand to the base price of your Countryman.

The two-wheel drive 1.6 diesel model offers the most impressive combination of mpg, emissions and asking price. Adding four-wheel drive drops on all models, so be sure you want it. All of the petrol units deliver competitive but not startling mpg figures.

The two-wheel drive 1.6 diesel model offers the most impressive combination of mpg, emissions and asking price. Whilst the Cooper SD delivers a welcome boost in performance, the inevitable drop in economy makes the 1.6 still the best compromise. The JCW Countryman still gives a respectable 38mpg despite its 215bhp and 1480kg. Selecting four-wheel drive drops efficiency on all models, so be sure you want it. All of the petrol units deliver competitive but not startling mpg figures.

In our opinion every Mini should be specified with the TLC pack, covering servicing for five years and 50,000 miles. It's a bargain, and can be passed on if you sell the car ahead of its expiry.

VERDICT

Mini Countryman rear quarter

The reasoning behind Mini’s decision to build the larger Mini Countryman is clear: it will stop many existing fans from straying when they need a more practical vehicle. However, we are less convinced of the quasi-SUV positioning or the styling; it seems to fall foul of the same slavishness affecting Porsche’s designs.

The Countryman performs well enough, but it is not without criticism. The packaging, although a big improvement on Mini’s other models, still trails that of a regular hatch. A Nissan Qashqai or Skoda Yeti may lack the caché of the Mini badge, but they do a much better job of moving a family about.

More an exercise in marketing than how to design a practical car

The Countryman’s boot is far too small and while there’s okay room in the four standard seats, space across the back for three, if you opt for the rear bench, is tight for kids, let alone adults.

Then there’s the idiosyncrasies of Mini cabins that haven’t been addressed in this new car – the switchgear positioning in some cases is just plain awful.

Initially, the Countryman seems to compete on price, but spec it how you’d want it and you’ll be shocked to see how much you can spend on a small car. Rivals seem cheap by comparison.

Economy is good, but performance from the diesel models is no better than average. And the four-wheel drive, we feel, is another unnecessary expense.

The ride and handling mix is one of the better aspects of the car, but only if you get on with the quick steering. We found the Countryman a difficult car to gel with. Mini enthusiasts, those willing to except the foibles, will probably love it; for all others we recommend considering the long list of credible alternatives should consider waiting for the 2017 iteration of the Countryman. 

 

Mini Countryman 2010-2017 First drives