What is it?
According to the car calendar, the Mini Countryman soft-roader is ready for a mid-term refresh, even if 350,000 sales since 2010 – and more of them this year than last – suggest that the many buyers aren’t particularly concerned that it needs one.
Despite a lack of enthusiasm from purists, the Countryman has been a storming sales success. It has taken the brand to a new kind of buyer and kept the Mini faithful in the fold as their kids have grown up.
Now there’s a 2014 edition, to which the company has made few major modifications, choosing instead to finding ways to stress its baby-SUV credentials – a strategy it hopes will distance the model from the forthcoming Mini five-door hatchback, due to hit showrooms at the end of October, and minimise cannibalisation.
There are new colours, including a new Jungle Green 'hero colour' and there's a new, rugged exterior pack comprising scuff plates and sill protectors offered as an option offered on 4x4 models.
What's it like?
All Countryman engines are now Euro 6 compliant. The Cooper S – we drove the £23,125 ALL4 version – gets a power hike of 7bhp to 188bhp and engineers have taken the opportunity to improve the aerodynamics of all models by fitting a drag-beating under-floor fairing plus lower-drag wheel bearings.
Low-rolling-resistance tyres are now an option, too, and the three measures cut a Cooper S ALL4’s CO2 to 148g/km – which, importantly, also cuts VED – while hiking the top speed marginally to 134mph and shaving a couple of tenths off the 0-62mph acceleration time, now a brisk 7.7sec. Fuel consumption benefits from the same measures; the combined figure now works out at an impressive 47.1mpg.
The turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol engine doesn't feel super-strong when you first drive it, but you learn to use the revs to make it sing. It is still flexible down in the 2000rpm area, but not very good at acceleration there.
The ratios of the sweet-shifting, six-speed gearbox feel just right for the job (top gear offers about 25mph/1000rpm) and the car is very pleasant to hustle along, though there's little point in revving it much beyond 5500rpm, where the torque is markedly reduced.
The car corners neutrally, with impressive grip and well contained body roll. The steering is precise and informative, too, once you're cornering, though the car we drove felt a touch vague and even 'sticky' around the straight-ahead, which made very small steering corrections difficult – a real pity in a car with such a fine chassis.
The ride is firm but supple enough for UK roads, and there is a pleasant feeling of strength and rigidity to the whole structure, whose only fault is the slightly surprising use of some cheap-looking hard plastics here and there in a generally high quality environment.
Should I buy one?
The revised Countryman (whose predecessor last year accounted for one-third of worldwide Mini sales) looks a slightly quirky choice if your alternative among baby SUVs is something like a Vauxhall Mokka.
Yet in any company the Countryman can certainly hold its head up: it appears to be heading for a continuation of the past four years' healthy demand, while repositioning itself effectively enough to reduce the harm it might otherwise do to sales of the forthcoming five-door hatchback. This way, everyone’s a winner.