The Mini Countryman is easily the most controversial model in the BMW-era line-up. I know that the BMW board thought long and hard about the proposal, because it broke away from the original Mini formula in two significant ways.
First, it was quite big. At a touch over 4-metres long, as well as being quite tall, it could never live up to the 'Mini' name. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the driving position would no longer place the driver's backside close to the road.
The Mini hatch might not be a paragon of interior packaging like the original, but at least it retains the darty handling and low-rider cockpit position that adds so much to the driver's experience. Mind you, Gert Hildebrand, the Mini design boss between 2001 and 2010, always insisted that the Austin 1100/1300 was part of the Mini family and so provided the intellectual back-up for the Countryman concept.
The Countryman, however, does not really have the quick-witted feel of the Mini hatch, despite BMW's attempts to create it by giving the car over-enthusiastic steering that leaves the rest of the chassis trying to keep up.What it does, have, though is space. Despite being noticeably shorter than a Golf, the Countryman offers proper space for four six-footers and easily enough cabin room for a young family.
Which is what this car is all about. Around Autocar's affluent part of south west London, it used to be quite common to see a Mini Hatch with a folded pushchair jammed into the cabin, because the boot wouldn't swallow it. Clearly, plenty of potential Mini owners needed more space.
Purists might rail against the Countryman, but BMW has just released the half-year 2011 sales figures for the Mini brand. In the first six months of the year Mini sales jumped to 141,913 units, up from 109,301 in 2010. And the Mini Countryman accounted for 40,171 of those sales. Nearly 30 per cent of the Minis sold this year have been the Countryman model.
Plainly, the Countryman has hit the sales spot globally. And sales are likely to increase further when the WRC-influenced models arrive. It may not appeal to purists, but the Countryman once again proves that a well-targeted product with a strong brand image will pull in the punters. It also shows the sure-footedness of the mighty German car industry.