Here's a new tongue twister:
How big can a big Mini get, when a big Mini can't get big?
Well, Mini answers that question with the 2011 Mini Countryman, an all-new car that brings four doors to the hatchback and bulkiness to a brand named for its petite lineup.
It was only a matter of time before Mini gave in to the growing demands of bigger passengers and families eager to join the Mini cult, but who never liked a car that was actually small.
And the big Countryman keeps most of its Mini quirks — good and bad — just in bigger proportions.
From the Cooper to the three-door Clubman to the Countryman, Mini has created a niche of stylish performance vehicles that continues to grow. An SUV is right around the corner.
It's pretty easy to see the evolution in size of the Mini marked along the garage wall — much the same way families mark their children's height on a door frame. The current regular Mini Cooper measures 146.6 inches, while the three-door Clubman stretches to 155.9 inches. And the Mini Countryman is a sleek 161.7 inches long, making it only an inch longer than the subcompact Ford Fiesta.
So why make a bigger Mini? My first thought is: Americans.
Mini is merely answering America's growing problem: our waistlines.
But it seems to be more than that. The thing about Mini is the entire family of cars is easily recognizable with their squarish figures. They plod along the road with an assured happiness that few other vehicles have. Drivers hop out of them gleeful and cheery. Who wouldn't want that life? Mini drivers seem unencumbered by so many of life's tethers that weigh most down. The Countryman opens its four doors to a whole new segment of buyers: People who need to carry their families along for the ride.
If it feels like a Mini …
This is about to change. The Countryman can easily carry four people and seems aimed at all of those people who look longingly at Minis as they pass by, but know deep down inside that the car just doesn't make sense for their lifestyles.
And for the most part, the Countryman still feels like a Mini. And it certainly looks like a Mini, just a much bigger one.
It still has the white roof and big, round headlamps. No one will mistake it for anything else, like so many other sedans on the road.
The most noticeable feature on the exterior is the fourth door. Minis always had two doors until the three-door Clubman arrived. With four doors and a bigger interior space, this Mini can actually carry four people comfortably.
Wisely, Mini opted to put a pair of bucket seats in the second row, which are comfortable and add to its charms. There's also a standard center rail that runs from the front all the way to the back and that can include things like cup holders and even a case for sunglasses.
The aluminum rail allows people to make the most of the space, and slide attachments up and down the rail and then lock them in place.
I've never felt cramped in any Mini before, and this cabin seemed SUV-size when I first got into it.
It comes with most of the standard Mini features: That dinner plate-size speedometer in the center stack. (Mini does include a small digital readout of your speed behind the wheel, so you rarely find yourself looking at the analog gauge. But the center-stack speedometer is still probably too big, which means all four passengers can easily tell how fast you're going.)
For this model year, Mini has also improved the stereo system, though it remains one of the most confusing systems to use. There are buttons along the bottom of the stereo that you can use to change bands, and the volume knob is not connected with the stereo. Mini added a new Mini Connected system to the stereo, however, so that you can connect your iPhone easily. I found that system very easy to use.
There are other features I really like, such as the toggle switches along the bottom of the center stack that make it look almost like a military vehicle. But I never seem to get used to window-opening and -closing switches in the center. (This is often done for one of two reasons: It saves money or the cars are sold as right-hand and left-hand drive vehicles.)
It may get loud in here
And like all Minis, there is some quirkiness that some people learn to live with but I find annoying.
This bigger Countryman cabin produces even bigger noises. Road noise, engine noise, wind noise — this car is loud. I was forever adjusting the stereo to find the right volume to drown everything out. And the sport suspension, which helps provide it with a go-kart-like feel, adds to the noise.
It's still fun to drive. On the highway, my Countryman All4 felt solid and cruised along nicely. The Countryman is the first Mini to come with all-wheel drive, a feature many drivers will appreciate if they live where snow is a way of life.
Powered by a turbocharged 1.6-liter DOHC I-4 engine, the Countryman All4 packs plenty of power — 181 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. I did not get to test the base model Countryman and wonder if its naturally aspirated 121-horsepower engine provides enough power to make this 3,000-pound Mini still feel fun.
Even with the six-speed automatic transmission, the Countryman felt quick and zippy. It weaves through traffic well, and the steering feels taut on every turn.
It also returns good gas mileage, up to 28 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway.
There are few cars like a Mini, and that has always been its selling point. People love them. There are often waiting lists, and Mini buyers rarely get a deal at the dealership — Mini is always one of the vehicles sold with the least incentives (the big Countryman has a starting price of $22,350). For good reason — they're fun, affordable and just look cool.
But I wonder if Countryman owners will be as happy as their regular Cooper counterparts. Towing three more people along for the ride may sap some of that energy out of Countryman owners.
Maybe the car wasn't what gave Mini owners such verve. Some of the happiest drives are solitary. This Mini takes that away.
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