MINI Takes The States Tour, Day 4: Pittsburgh To Columbus In The MINI Countryman

MINI Takes The States Tour, Day 4: Pittsburgh To Columbus In The MINI Countryman

Day 4 Of the MINI Takes The States Tour was an exciting one for me, as I was able to sample the all-new MINI Countryman before nearly anyone else.  Saturday’s epic blast through two states left me exhausted, and I was expecting the Countryman to be a little more laid back than the Clubman S I drove yesterday. I was wrong. Don’t think of the Countryman as a MINI SUV, but as a MINI Cooper S for people with obligations.

Hit the jump to read more about the MINI Countryman

The Countryman, MINI’s 4-door crossover might be longer, wider and taller than you’d expect a MINI to be, but a blindfolded drive in the Countryman (if such a thing were possible) would fool anyone into thinking they were driving a Cooper S or Clubman S.

While the Countryman is 5.5-inches longer than a Clubman, and nearly 16 inches longer than a Hardtop, it still comes in smaller than a Golf. And yes, the Countryman drove very similarly to the rest of the MINI lineup, so much so that the higher driving position and ride height became a non-issue in the enjoyment of this vehicle. In fact, the higher vantage point in the Countryman feels more like a “normal” car than anything – it’s just not as low as other MINIs.

The Countryman S I drove uses the familiar turbocharged 4-cylinder engine making 181 horsepower and 177 ft-lbs of torque. The power delivery is a bit slower than its two door stablemates, due to the weight and the ALL4 all-wheel-drive system, but the same taut steering, slick-shifting 6-speed gearbox (try getting that in a Jeep Compass) and powerful brakes are still present. Despite the slightly sluggish acceleration, the car is still capable of effortlessly passing traffic on the highway, while pulling strong throughout the rev range. Expect 0-60 times in the mid 7 second range. One positive trade-off of the All4 system is that it eliminates the sophomoric torque steer present in the front-drive models.

While the car doesn’t feel as nimble as the Hardtop or Clubman, it does feel very planted and stable, thanks in part to the long wheelbase and all-wheel-drive. There weren’t too many opportunities to test out the handling of the car on the kind of roads I saw with the Clubman, but on-ramps could easily be taken at high speed, and with the sport button engaged, the car mimics the characteristics of the other S models, namely the heavier steering and sharper throttle response. The ride is still fairly firm, not as much as the Clubman S, but enough that traditional crossover shoppers will be in for a fight. I could see this turning off some prospective customers, but the flip-side is that it drives like a MINI rather than the body-roll-infused competition. MINI CEO Jim McDowell let it slip to me that the ALL4 system will cost an extra $1700 on top of the base price (which he didn’t divulge) and that he expects 30% of buyers to opt in.

The Countryman’s rear seat layout apes the minivans of the 1990s, in that it offers two rear seat buckets that can slide back and forth. Some buyers might be turned off by the lack of a middle seat, but the truth is, in most small crossovers, the middle seat is not a place you’d like to spend time. The sliding seats offer a unique way to maximize passenger space as well as cargo room, but we’ll have to see whether customers take to it as well. According to McDowell, the 5-seat layout also didn’t mean federal regulations, necessitating the 2+2 configuration. As I mentioned during my Day 1 coverage, the rear seats are quite spacious in all dimensions, and the adjustable rear seats add a considerable degree of flexibility, as space can be optimized for carrying either passengers or cargo.

MINI will host a formal driving event in October, but from the couple hours I had behind the wheel, I was fairly impressed. That’s not to say the vehicle is flawless; the four-seat configuration may turn off some buyers, the relatively high price and harsh ride won’t be for everyone, and some purists may scoff at the notion of a “big MINI”.  I’d personally take a Clubman S, but my shopping list consists of a few boxes of Mac N’ Cheese and a case or two of beer, while my back seat is used for carrying a socket set and my helmet bag during track days. For car shoppers with two strollers, a diaper bag, car seats and the desire for an alternative to a crossover SUV, the Countryman is worth a look.

GALLERY: MINI Countryman

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A Chat With Jim McDowell:

Along the way to Columbus, I rode with Jim McDowell, the head of MINI USA. McDowell and I chatted about the car industry, future product plans and his journey through the car world. At one point, we missed an exit for a scheduled stop on the route while chatting in the Countryman.

Having worked with Porsche and BMW both in America and Germany (where McDowell and his family lived for a number of years), McDowell returned when BMW began constructing their assembly plant in South Carolina. McDowell joined MINI five years ago, and has overseen growth of the brand since.

For MINI, cars like the Fiat 500 and the Scion iQ don’t represent much of a threat, according to McDowell.  He feels that the driving experience in the 500 won’t compare to MINI, and that while the 500 is a small car, MINI is first and foremost a premium, sporty car that happens to be small.

McDowell also said that the Countryman is the biggest MINI we’re going to see, but hinted at other variations – namely a Beachcomber concept – as candidates for MINI’s future. McDowell also hinted at the prospect of smaller displacement four-cylinder engines or even a three-cylinder engine as being able to provide the necessary efficiency without losing any performance. Interestingly, McDowell also said that while the MINI E will never be a production vehicle, technology from the E, as well as information gleaned from its development program will filter down to BMW’s upcoming Megacity electric city car, and play a major role in helping bring down the R&D costs of the vehicle.

Tomorrow we’ll be heading to Indianapolis, to check out the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and do a lap of the track. This will be my final leg, but the rally will continue on. Stay tuned to our news blog and Twitter feed for coverage of tomorrow’s leg.