What is it?
It's Mini's new Countryman, on public roads at last (albeit in Germany). This is the car which, Mini believes, will attract people whose lifestyle just didn't allow the style/packaging trade-offs of the original 'new' Mini, or its oddball Clubman brother.
Indeed, the Countryman is aimed so squarely at trendy, affluent families that it's the biggest Mini there will ever be; the firm itself says that it doesn't think the brand will stretch beyond the 4.11m length of this car. And it’s a true five-door; no ‘Clubdoors’ here.
The Countryman comes in three states of 1.6-litre petrol tune - 97bhp One, 121bhp Cooper and 181bhp, turbocharged Cooper S - and two diesels, the 89bhp D and the 110bhp Cooper D. It’s the Cooper S we’re trying here, in range-topping, four-wheel-drive ALL4 spec. All of the petrol models are available with an automatic option, but our car had the six-speed manual - standard fare across the range.
What’s it like?
An odd’un. First off, it feels noticeably bigger than a regular Mini, and the square corners can make it strangely hard to place during tight manoeuvres. You do feel like you’re sitting in a higher position than in even a regular hatch like a Focus or a Golf.
It sits on slightly taller tyres than a Mini Cooper S, so the ride is a little more compliant (and yes, we did find some urban potholes to see if the Countryman allow as many crashing intrusions as its siblings). And the engine is a willing companion - although the extra bulk of a four-wheel-drive Countryman is enough to make the 181bhp unit feel more like a smooth, healthy powerplant instead of the ultra-torquey role it plays in the regular car.
It seems more grown-up, in fact. And that, you may well argue, is no bad thing.
Yet in some areas - notably the steering - Mini’s engineers have tried to dial in some of the characteristics of the regular car. So around the straightahead the Countryman is pointy - nervous, even. And when you get further round the rack it becomes apparent that this trait has been programmed in; it’s as if the Mini brand book demanded it, so the Countryman got it.
Likewise the switchgear, which is more trinket-like than ever; the speedo is enormous, the rocker switches are located right at the bottom of the centre console and the handbrake - styled like an aircraft throttle - is a pain to use. Anyone considering graduating from a Focus will be bemused - if impressed, rightly, by the quality of the materials.
Is it more practical than a Clubman? Absolutely. Four big blokes can squeeze into the cabin and travel for a reasonable distance without too much discomfort. Headroom and shoulder room are excellent; only six-footers will complain about knee and legroom in the rear, too.
Luggage space is likely to be more of a problem, mind. Mini has clearly traded off the boot to create a cabin for four, so the chances of them all getting suitcases in are minimal. In this area more than any other, the Countryman is a notch adrift of the Focus and Golf.