This weekend I got my hands on the new Mini Countryman. There's been much head-scratching about this car. Firstly, it's not very Mini. Secondly, rather than just building a more compact Golf, the Countryman is masquerading as a kind of Los Angeles soft-roader.
If you've got a Saturday afternoon on your hands - and you like watching automotive exotica - the King's Road in Chelsea is a good place to spend time. It's also the spiritual home of the Mini as a 1960s fashion icon and still the UK's fashionista central.
So, in the interests of rigorous market research, I took the Countryman for a mid-afternoon bumble down the Kings Road to see if the target clientele noticed the newest and least mini Mini.
In this job you get to drive a lot of a brand new metal and, aside from the odd exception like the last Skyline GT-R, the man and woman in the street didn't pay much attention.
The Mini Countryman might not be a supercar, but it caused a wave of pointing and double takes the full length of the King's Road. Quite a few people pulled on their friends' arms to gain their attention and then started an arm waving discussion about the Countryman's design.
It was also funny to see the number of double takes, where people thought they were looking at a typical Mini and then realised that the proportions were wildly different.
Women seemed the most clued up about the Countryman (evidence of pent-up demand for a proper four-seat Mini?) but the type of people who stared ranged from a toff bloke in a lovely Bentley S1 Continental (who stopped his car in the middle of the road for a proper gawp) to a fashionable young women in a full headscarf who stared hard while trying not to look as if she was looking.
I drove on to a street in front of the British Museum and parked the Countryman up for a few hours outside my favourite cafe. The owner of the Camera Cafe owns an original Mini (in Japanese auto, air-con spec) and brought it along, so we could park the two Minis together and watch for passing reaction.
Again, the Countryman got significant attention from passers-by and was snapped by endless camera phones. Again it seemed the women were most enthusiastic, including two local mothers pram-pushing mothers, who immediately identified it as 'the new Mini 4x4'. A posh mum with her teenage daughter got out of her Mini cabrio and declared it 'very smart…much better than the [Clubman] estate.'
I can't say I'd like to do 300 miles on those stylised seats and this Cooper S's ride in broken central London was, at times, unacceptable. But the Countryman offers Golf leg, head and boot room in a much smaller package. The car still has much of the joy de vivre of the three-door and it just feels so damn handy in urban situations.
Based on my rigorous research, the Countryman will be a success. Just lose the jacked-up ride height and finesse the suspension tuning.