The jokes began immediately.
"Is that the 'big' Mini?"
"Oh, I see you're driving the Maxi Mini ... or is it the Mini Maxi?"
"Is that a Mini on steroids?"
Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
We are driving the biggest Mini, a 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4. It is the largest of the four Mini family members, more than five inches longer and wider and 500 pounds heavier than the Clubman, the stretched-wheelbase Mini. For the record, the other Minis are the base Mini and Mini convertible. It's also the first Mini with four doors and an all-wheel-drive option.
If you see the Countryman next to a Clubman, besides the obvious size difference, you'll notice the Clubman has its trademark tiny barn doors while the Countryman has a liftgate that's cleverly operated by the pivoting Mini logo.
The Countryman — and that name is too much like the Clubman for me — is one of those vehicles that doesn't quite fit a niche. An optimist could call it a compact SUV, but we're more comfortable calling it a five-door hatchback. But the Mini is one of those cars that defy pigeonholing. It's simply a Mini.
Even the added size and weight don't compromise the marque's trademark go-kart handling. The added size and weight is counterbalanced by the all-wheel-drive and traction control systems. The extra space also means that the Countryman (unlike its Mini stablemates) can accommodate four normal-sized people. As a bonus, the rear seats also slide back and forth and recline several inches.
A Mini wouldn't be a Mini without its trademark interior styling quirks. This time, the engineers have added a center rail that runs between the front seats and extends back between the rear seats. If one opts for a rear bench seat, the rail only is in the front. The rail accommodates sliding cup holders, personal electronic devices, and a sunglasses container.
Mini's signature gigantic center speedometer is retained. However, it's still easier to check speed on the digital readout window in the analog tachometer that sits in front of the driver. That tachometer, instead of being integrated into the instrument panel, is part of the steering column so it moves up and down when you adjust the tilt wheel.
Also retained is the Mini system of toggle switches to operate interior lights, windows, and the optional double panoramic sunroof. The emergency brake is operated by a T-handle (think airplane yoke) next to the center rail.
We found the biggest pluses of this Mini to be the performance of the turbocharged 1.6-liter engine and smoothness of the six-speed manual transmission, along with the secure handling and unique look of the vehicle. The engine combines variable valve management, direct injection, and the twin turbos that minimize lag and provide smooth but strong throttle response.
On the negative side: The front windows don't lower completely into the door, leaving about a half-inch exposed to keep one from resting an elbow on the sill, and the run-flat tires generate a lot of harshness and road noise.
The other drawback to the Countryman can be the price. We were driving the upscale S and ALL4 version. Base price was $27,650 (including destination) for a very well equipped vehicle. Our test car's price was bumped to $34,150 with a long list of upgrades that included extremely comfortable and supportive sport seats ($1,000); cold-weather package ($750); premium package ($1,750 for panoramic sunroof, automatic climate control, upgraded sound system); sport package ($1,500 for xenon headlights, bonnet stripes, 18-inch anthracite alloy wheels); enhanced keyless entry ($500); center armrest ($250); cargo netting ($250); and park distance control ($500).
On the interior, the proportions seem ideal for the American market with room for four and an adequate cargo area — a capacity that can be expanded by folding the rear seats flat by the pull of a strap.
The styling cues are all Mini from the upright grille and round headlamps to the large wheel arches and "see ya later" muscular rear with spoiler, twin tailpipe cutouts, and apron that looks like a racing-type diffuser. There's a distinctive "side scuttle" on each front fender that doubles as an air intake and side indicator light.
So the wisecracks are correct. It is a Mini all right, one that happens to stand tall.
2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $27,650 / $34,150.
Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 25 city / 31 highway.
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 28.2
Drivetrain: 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, six-speed manual transmission, all-wheel-drive.
Body: Five-door hatchback or small crossover or compact SUV.
Horsepower: 181 @ 5,500 rpm.
Torque: 177 lb.-ft @1,600 rpm.
Overall length: 161.3 in.
Wheelbase: 102.2 in.
Height: 61.5 in.
Width: 70.4 in.
Curb weight: 3,208 lbs.
THE GOOD: Engine performance, handling, unique styling, rear-seat space.
THE BAD: Stiff ride, made harsher by run-flat tires.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Bigger can be better in this case.
ALSO CONSIDER: There’s nothing quite like the Mini.
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