Editor's note: This review was written in October 2010 about the 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
When Mini entered the market in 2002, its Cooper coupe appealed to Americans with its style and size at a time when bigger was still seen as better. That alone would have been enough to bring the brand success, but the car went on to exceed sales expectations because of how it drives.
If Mini's first crossover — the Countryman — succeeds, it will be due more to its style and versatility than for the driving experience for which Minis have become known among enthusiasts.
Just the idea of a crossover SUV from Mini seems like an oxymoron. Can a larger Mini still be a Mini? I'll answer that question in about every aspect I can. I drove every possible combination of the Countryman's drivetrains and trim levels at a national media introduction in Austin, Texas; the car arrives at dealers in January.
Mini has four models. Because I'll be making comparisons, I'll call them the Coupe, the Convertible, the Clubman and the Countryman. The Coupe is the original two-door. The Convertible is a ragtop version of the Coupe, and the Clubman is an extended Coupe. The Countryman is the small crossover, new for 2011. Mini is certain to object to my names, as the company calls everything a Cooper or Cooper S, tacking the most important distinctions — Convertible, Clubman and Countryman — onto the end. Look with fresh eyes and you'll agree that Cooper and Cooper S are little more than trim level names for each body style, based on what engine it has.
From here on out, we're doing it my way. Each of the four names will represent that model's base trim level, and S will be the higher trim level. Mini might never again invite me to high tea, but you'll thank me for this.
Full specifications aren't available as we publish this review, but the Countryman has a base list price of $21,650. The S version starts at $25,250, and the S with Mini's All4 all-wheel drive starts at $26,950. The destination charge is $700. You can check out available options here.
The Look is Mini
No one will mistake the Countryman for anything but a Mini. Casual observers might think it's a regular Mini car, but anyone who gets close enough will recognize its larger size. The four doors are also a dead giveaway. The headlights are a bit more bug-eyed than those on the cars, and they're more like eyes than ever, because adaptive headlights are available for the first time on a Mini. With that option, the headlights aim in the direction of a turn, effectively looking where they're going.
The standard alloy wheels are 17 inches, and 18s are optional. You can also get 19-inchers from the dealer. Like Mini's cars, the Countryman offers a slew of accessories for customizing the vehicles, including exterior decals and other cosmetic upgrades.
The Size is Mini
I know it's larger than the other Minis, but in its class this crossover is a small one, with just four seats. The upcoming Mitsubishi Outlander Sport is a likely competitor, and some will say the same of the Nissan Juke, though the Nissan seems more like a four-door hatchback. The Countryman is 15.1 inches longer than the Coupe and 5.8 inches longer than the Clubman. It's a few inches taller than its siblings and has the raised look of a crossover.
For the most part, I was happy with the cabin space. Drivers as tall as 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 had no complaints about headroom and were reasonably satisfied with legroom, though a few of us noted that the low seats left little support for the front of a tall driver's thighs. Raising the manually adjustable seat would help, but before I got it as high as I wanted, the rearview mirror began to block my forward view. The passenger seat's pedal-free footwell made for greater leg extension and comfort. It raises and lowers, too. The door armrest feels a little too far outboard, but I suppose that means there's extra room that larger occupants will appreciate.
The Mini cars all have backseats, but legroom back there comes only via the generosity of front-seat occupants. The Clubman has been the roomiest to date, and now the Countryman delivers adequate legroom without demanding a sacrifice from the folks in front. Again, the floor height had my knees raised a bit, but it was plenty comfortable regardless. Using a canvas loop on the inboard side of the seat, you can recline the backrest. The two bucket seats also adjust forward and back to increase cargo space if small passengers, or no passengers, are in a rear seat.
The cargo area is covered by a liftgate, like the Coupe, rather than two opposing side-hinged doors, like the Clubman. The cargo cover is the brand's familiar rigid one, which rises up on strings along with the liftgate. The volume behind the backseat is 12.2 cubic feet, though you can squeeze up to 16.5 cubic feet out of it if you slide the rear seats forward. If you fold those backrests down flat, the maximum volume is 41.0 cubic feet, according to Mini. For comparison, the next-largest Mini, the Clubman, offers minimum and maximum cargo volumes of 9.2 and 32.8 cubic feet, respectively. As the table below reflects, the Countryman's space is on the lower end of comparable small crossovers, greater than the Juke but smaller than the Outlander Sport and others.
|2011 Small Crossover Cargo Volume (cu. ft.)|
|Behind backseat||Backseat folded|
|Mini Countryman||12.2 - 16.5*||41.0|
|Mitsubishi Outlander Sport||21.7||49.5|
*Volume range reflects sliding backseat.
The Countryman also has decent underfloor space; it's a few inches deep and almost as wide as the cargo floor itself. The rigid floor panel hinges upward and latches in place. It's a handy feature, though it's a challenge to put back down if you have anything in your arms: The release latches are far outboard, requiring two well-spaced hands.
The Interior Design is Mini
Mini's distinctive styling carries into the Countryman. Some of the whimsy remains, but thankfully all the 2011 Minis have black center controls, steering-wheel spokes and door trim, where the earlier years had silver plastic. Mini calls this color "sportier." If "sporty" is a euphemism for "less chintzy," I'll agree. It's a big improvement. Unfortunately, not all the Countrymans (Countrymen?) at the drive event had read the whole memo, because some still had glittery silver-gray plastic around the vents and such. The large oval-shaped trim on the smaller cars' inner door panels now extends from the front to the rear door on either side. It's now a piano-black finish rather than silver-gray.
The standard upholstery is leatherette, which means vinyl. As faux leather goes, it's pretty good stuff, but there are also "sportier" options, such as combination cloth-and-leather seats, as well as full leather upholstery in several designs. The fanciest is the "Lounge" style, with contrasting piping. You need to go leather if you want a lumbar adjustment, which can be manipulated via a knob on the driver's and front passenger's backrests. I was fine without it.
The optional moonroofs are Mini — which is to say inadequately tinted and shaded only by a retractable mesh fabric that doesn't do a lot of shading. Oddly enough, Mini increased the tint from 10 percent to 30 percent on all 2011 models, but it still isn't enough. Frankly, it probably would be enough tinting if you could pull an opaque shade over it. Mini says it experimented with solid shades, and they flopped about too much when driving with the roof open. Huh? I'd like a solid shade. The benefits outweigh whatever advantages (to which I'm apparently blind) of driving around semi-shaded with a moonroof open.
The Ride Is Not Mini
The Countryman doesn't ride like a Mini, and this is very good news. As much as I've enjoyed the cars, I've found the S versions practically unlivable on all but the smoothest roads. I drove all varieties of Countrymans for the better part of a day, and I was comfortable in all of them — even the firmer-riding S with 18-inch wheels. The ride quality is perhaps the biggest improvement over the other Mini models. Mini also offers a sport suspension for the Countryman, which I didn't test, so you can get a firmer ride, lower ride height and quicker reflexes if that's your thing.
I also spent some time in the backseat, where the ride quality was also comfortable. It's a crossover feel, but way more livable than some, including the backseat of the Hyundai Tucson.
The Brakes Are Mini
Braking is one of the best attributes on all the other Mini models, and it's the same story here: strong, linear stopping power and good pedal feel. Bravo.
The Drivetrains Are Mini
The engines are Mini, by which I mean they are the same ones found in the other 2011 Minis: 1.6-liter four-cylinders, the S version of which is turbocharged.
Of course, the Countryman itself isn't the same. The base front-wheel-drive Countryman weighs in at 2,954 pounds, and the Countryman S with an automatic transmission and All4 weighs 3,252, so the acceleration isn't as good as in the cars.
The Cooper and Clubman range from 2,535 at minimum to 2,877 on the high side. The weight and aerodynamic differences result in slower zero-to-60-mph times for the Countryman: 9.8 and 10.9 seconds with manual and automatic transmissions, respectively, and 7.0 and 7.4 seconds for the S versions. All4 comes only in the S trim level, where it does zero to 60 in 7.3 seconds with the manual and 7.7 seconds with the automatic.
The Clubman shaves anywhere from a few tenths to almost a whole second, depending on the type and drivetrain. The lighter Coupe shaves off as much as a half-second more in the regular version and a few tenths in the S.
The transmissions are Mini, and my joy at being offered a six-speed manual at all in today's market overshadows any disappointment I have in the shifter itself, which is characteristically long, with somewhat vague shift gates. The automatic, also a six-speed, is impressive. With the turbo engine, it kicks down quickly when called upon, and though it has to work harder with the less powerful engine, as automatics always do, it's responsive enough to satisfy anyone who's realistic about how much power is truly enough. In this version, more than the S, you might prefer to drive in the DS (for Drive Sport) transmission mode, which you can activate by sliding the gear selector to the left. This automatic mode holds lower gears higher up the rev range and quickens the downshift response. You can also shift manually by pushing the lever forward and back. The S version adds steering-wheel shift paddles, too.
As in the cars, the engine power builds with rpm, and it's more pronounced in the Countryman S, where the torque starts to come on at 2,000 rpm, but things don't get interesting until above 3,000 rpm, when the S version really takes off. Mini designed the exhaust to burble and pop when you lift off the gas in Sport mode, which I love. Note that the overall Sport mode, activated by the Sport button on the center control panel, is different from the automatic transmission's DS mode. With the automatic, this button does activate DS mode, but in this and all other Countrymans it also makes the accelerator pedal more sensitive and reduces the power steering assist.
Apart from the selectable deceleration burble, one truly admirable quality is the minimal engine noise. It's quiet enough that you can accidentally drive the manual at highway speeds in 4th gear and not notice. Not great for mileage, but a great reflection of the noise treatments in the Countryman.
The Mileage Is Mini
The Mini Coupe is our go-to example of a car that doesn't feel unsubstantial yet gets great gas mileage. (Smart ForTwo, we're looking in your direction.) The Countryman continues in the same tradition, ranging from 27/35 mpg city/highway in the manual front-drive model to 25/32 in the automatic Countryman S. The All4 system gives up little, with an EPA rating of 25/31 mpg with the stick and 24/31 with the automatic. Among the new crop of even-smaller crossovers, the smaller Juke comes close, ranging from 27/32 to 25/30 mpg. The Outlander Sport ranges from 25/31 to 24/29 mpg and uses regular gas. Bear in mind that the Countryman's S versions require premium, as do the Nissan Juke and the Volkswagen Tiguan.
The Handling Is Mini … Kinda
If Mini is known for one thing, it's handling — the much-ballyhooed go-kart feel. Though the Clubman's longer wheelbase takes a toll on the fun factor, I can attest the Coupe is absolutely a blast to drive, and a prime example of how good a front-drive car can be, dynamically.
So, how about the Countryman? I'll commit to good, but I won't say it's great. The models I drove exhibited admirable grip, but I should note that every one of them was equipped with Pirelli Cinturato P7 ultra-high-performance summer tires. In a very rare move, Mini has made these the standard tires, which concerns me. Summer tires are a bad choice in cold temperatures, especially on ice and snow. You can get all-season tires as a no-cost option, but I wonder how many buyers will recognize the importance of doing so. Unless you live in a warm climate or plan to swap your tires out twice a year, go with the all-seasons.
My issues with the handling are twofold: The main one is the steering. Mini cars have had their issues with torque steer, especially in the turbo and (originally) supercharged versions, and the steering in front-wheel-drive cars is seldom something to get excited about, but overall I'm a fan of how well they match the Mini cars' character. The Countryman's steering is the proverbial sore thumb. It feels dead, especially on center, and though the Sport button reduces the electric power assist, all that seemed to do was make it a heavier kind of dead. Feedback is terribly inconsistent, depending on speed. The mark of excellence in a sporty vehicle is the driver's feeling of connectedness to and through the car. It's hard to feel connected to the car when you aren't sure the steering itself is.
One thing I can say for the all-wheel drive is that it practically wipes out the torque-steer problem, which seems even more pronounced in the front-drive Countryman than it is in the cars. All4 sends 100 percent of torque to the front wheels in normal driving and up to 50 percent to the rear wheels when needed. As a result, the car retains a front-drive feel with a tendency to understeer when heading quickly into a turn. The All4 helps control the understeer, but it doesn't give the Countryman a rear-wheel-drive feel, as BMW's xDrive and later versions of Audi's Quattro now do. I wish it did, even if it meant a change in character. I guess I'm saying the all-wheel drive is definitely Mini, and I'm not sure that's a good thing.
Another handling issue is the size. You can make a large vehicle more sporty or less sporty, but intrinsic sportiness decreases as size increases. The Countryman reflects this. The same can be said for its taller height and higher center of gravity, though body roll is nicely controlled, especially in the S trim. Naturally, the steering does nothing to alleviate the sensation of greater weight and size. Obviously, this stuff is unavoidable in a larger vehicle, but it is what it is.
The Features Are Mini
The Countryman's most unique feature is its Center Rail system, which takes the place of a center console, extending from just behind the shifter all the way back between the rear seats. With the exception of the front center armrest, which is fixed, every accessory you see attached to this channel gets snapped in wherever you want it. Buyers can choose stuff like additional cupholders, ashtrays, sunglasses cases, iPhone cradles and more. You can also choose to get your rail in two segments rather than one long one, leaving the center of the backseat's footwell unobstructed.
If this feature looks familiar, that might be because it first appeared on Nissan Titan pickup trucks and Chrysler/Dodge minivans, but those were on the ceiling, and the option to add expensive storage bins and the like didn't capture consumers' imagination. I'll be interested to see how things go this time around. At the intro, at least two of the test vehicles had iPhone holders that had been obliterated — from either center armrests or parking-brake levers that had been rammed downward. Oops.
Another cool standard feature is the cabin's ambient lighting, which glows from the door panels and the Center Rail. As with a similar feature popularized by Ford, you can choose what color you want the light to be.
An option offered with or without navigation, Mini Connected adds new functionality when combined with a smartphone — starting with an iPhone for now, with other phone types coming later. It displays album-cover artwork on an LCD screen in the center of the giant speedometer, which also lets you select streaming web radio to play through the stereo. Bluetooth audio is included, as is a text-to-speech news reader and the capacity to send pre-built Tweets. More functionality will be added, facilitated by a USB connector that enables upgrades to the system and the navigation map database — a major advancement.
How do you control all this stuff? With a joystick and two buttons between the shifter and the Center Rail. This is basically BMW's iDrive system, which has evolved from a travesty into something usable.
If you're considering the optional Harman Kardon premium audio system, be sure to give it a serious audition. The clarity is very good, but the bass response is overwhelming. It's the kind of thing that initially will impress people who "like a lot of bass," but in short order they'll recognize it as unnatural and fatiguing. Unfortunately, the bass tone control is centered on the wrong frequency to fix the situation; it sucks out too much of the nearby bass range to diminish the boom without blowing the overall sound. If there were a way to turn down the bass modules mounted under the front seats, I'd consider this system, but as it is, I'd have to pass.
An all-new model, the Countryman has yet to be crash-tested. It has six airbags, including the front pair, front-seat-mounted side-impact airbags and side curtains. Standard safety features include antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control.
Sonar backup sensors with audible alerts and a graphical display on the dashboard are optional.
Countryman in the Market
Mini took the U.S. by surprise. The car whose rich British history held no real currency in our market attracted buyers with its cute look, and held onto them with surprising performance. Against all preconceptions, the Cooper turned out to be a "real" car, one that wasn't, in fact, dinky, and wouldn't blow over in a stiff crosswind. As Mini itself admits, the company's cars don't really appeal to families, but now it has a model that will. For people who always liked the idea of Mini but couldn't deal with the associated size, their ship has come in. There's more than enough Mini-ness in this more versatile model to satisfy the average potential buyer.
As for the Countryman's performance, it doesn't quite live up to the expectations set by the cars, partly because its steering needs work. The greater question is how the Countryman compares with other small, sporty crossovers. Well, there aren't too many. I've yet to drive the Outlander Sport and the Juke, and though I've heard the latter has good dynamics, you might chalk that up to its smaller size. Though the little-known Tiguan is larger overall than the Countryman, I've always found it to be a lot of fun in base form, thanks to its gutsy turbocharged 2.0-liter and six-speed manual. Its solid feel and German heritage might also appeal to anyone who's considering the German-owned English Mini.
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