2011 MINI Countryman Review - First Drive

MINI’s first crossover adds plenty of functionality with little compromise on performance

2011 MINI Countryman Review - First Drive
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Good news for MINI diehards who feel uneasy about the MINI Countryman and its ballooning size; there won’t be any MINIs larger than this, says Jim McDowell, MINI USA’s President. Even though it’s smaller than a Volkswagen Golf, the MINI Countryman is being pitched as a MINI for those who need more space and utility.

FAST FACTS

1. The MINI Cooper Countryman makes 121-hp and can hit 60-mph in 9.8 seconds, while the Cooper S makes 181-hp and takes just 7.0 seconds.

2. Base models get 27/35-mpg (city/hwy) in a front-drive format, while Cooper S models offer 25/33-mpg in front-drive or 25/31-mpg in AWD.

3. MINI’s All4 AWD system is a default front-drive setup that can transfer up to 100% of the power to the rear wheels.

4. For those in need of a crossover, but who want to have fun too, the Countryman is the only softroader in America available with both AWD and a manual transmission.

5. The Countryman starts at $21,650 and jumps to $26,950 for the Cooper S model with All4 AWD.

Despite the compact footprint, the Countryman looks quite portly relative to the standard hatchback model. The car is obviously longer and wider but most importantly taller than the regular car, owing to the increased ground clearance that helps peg the Countryman as a “crossover” rather than just a plain old MINI. The idea of taking this car on anything more treacherous than a gravel road is, however, laughable.

Up front, a new fascia is present, and with the big frog eyes and down-turned grille, it makes the MINI look more like a distressed sea creature than the iconic British compact should. Little details, like the slightly kinked roofline and chrome accents do a lot when the car is painted in a darker shade, while bright colors, like red or blue, are much better at hiding some of the visual bulk and help make the car “pop.”

ADJUSTABLE 4-SEAT ARRANGEMENT WITH SURPRISING CARGO ROOM

While space and utility tend to be the primary concern for buyers in this segment, this is a MINI, and a lot of MINI buyers are concerned with driving dynamics in a way that other brand’s consumers aren’t. For anybody reading this worried about the Countryman compromising the MINI’s legendary driving experience (and there are many, judging by some vitriolic comments online), you can all pop a Xanax, because the Countryman trades off very little performance for a fair bit of utility – as long as you only need to carry four.

While most other vehicles seat five (but not in complete comfort – see; Nissan Juke), the Countryman comes with two captains chairs that slide fore and aft on rails by up to 5-inches to increase leg room or cargo room. The five-seat configuration was unable to pass government safety certifications, necessitating the change to a four-seat setup. In reality, the setup works well; most people tend to carry four rather than five passengers, and the sliding feature lets owners adjust between passenger room and cargo capacity.

During a long haul drive from Pittsburgh to Columbus, three passengers were able to travel in comfort while one of two rear seats was folded down and pushed all the way forward, allowing for three fairly large suitcases to be placed in the car without excessively blocking rearward visibility. Cargo space is officially rated at 12.3 cubic feet (roughly twice that of the standard MINI) and expands to a sedan-like 15.4 cu.-ft. with the rear seats pushed all the way forward. Drop the seats and there’s a spacious total of 41.3 cu.-ft.

Cargo can be loaded via a traditional liftgate, rather than the Clubman’s impractical delivery-van style doors, which look cool, but can impede loading in tight spaces and require two hands to operate. It’s hard to imagine a parent with an infant and diaper bag in tow wrestling with them, and MINI had the foresight to forgo flare in place of practicality.

INTERIOR: IMPROVED MATERIALS BUT SAME QUIRKY DESIGN

The interior of the Countryman gives the first glimpse of the updated interior that will be standard across the MINI range. The basic design is the same, with cartoonishly large dials and organic shapes, but the materials look a bit better and the overall layout appears less cluttered. A new integrated navigation screen is present inside the speedometer, and it’s easy to operate, with turn-by-turn directions clearly given.

If you’ve ever been in a MINI product, you already know what to expect. If you haven’t, you may be in for a bit of a shock. Subtlety has never been one of the MINI’s interior trademarks and while we can’t say we love the designs, they do go a long way to spice up what can be a dark (but not dreary) cabin.

MINI DNA INTACT

The good news for MINI fans is that the Countryman doesn’t lose very much in the “fun-to-drive” department. Yes, the added bulk (the crossover is roughly 500 lbs heavier than the 3-door at around 3,000 lbs.), higher center of gravity and less aggressive runflat tires make the Countryman a little less energetic, but the MINI DNA is present. Cornering is still enthusiastic, but the car doesn’t go for the jugular like a three-door Cooper S would, and while it feels more frantic and car-like than the Juke, it lacks some of the fizz that the Nissan has in spades.

The big up-side of the longer wheelbase is the more comfortable ride quality, with the standard MINIs often noted for their somewhat harsh ride characteristics.

TWO ENGINES, BOTH WITH IMPRESSIVE FUEL ECONOMY

In standard Cooper Countryman trim, the 1.6-liter 4-cylinder under the hood makes 121-hp and 114 ft-lbs of torque and delivers a 0-60 time of 9.8 seconds – a rather unimpressive number that’s matched by even the Prius. That number rises quite significantly to 181-hp and 177 ft-lbs of torque in the Cooper S Countryman thanks to a twin-scroll turbocharger and the sprint time drops more than you might expect to 7.0 seconds flat with the 6-speed manual transmission. It’s not quite as zippy as the hatchback Cooper S, but is still plenty of fun.

A $1,250 six-speed automatic is also offered, with paddle shifters to help keep the driving experience lively.

For a crossover, fuel economy impressive. And while we expect good numbers for the gutless base engine, even the sporty Cooper S delivers excellent results. The Cooper Countryman gets 27/35-mpg (city/highway), while the Cooper S gets 25/33-mpg, which drops slightly to 25/31-mpg when you add in MINI’s new All4 AWD system.

That AWD setup can even be ordered with the 6-speed manual transmission – making the Cooper S Countryman All4 the only crossover in North America available with four-wheel grip and a stick shift. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to drive one of these models and while we did (unfortunately) spend most of that time on the highway, preventing us from really testing the AWD setup, we can say that the All4 setup does seem to have eliminated much of the torque steer that the turbo MINIs suffer from.

Ample power is delivered in a more sedate manner than in the Cooper S hatch, while the precise shifter and well-weighted clutch make this crossover a joy to operate.

COUNTRYMAN GETS A MINI PRICE - SORT OF

One of the big surprises for the Countryman is that MINI didn’t give it an overly premium price. Base Cooper Countryman models will start from just $21,650 plus a $700 delivery fee ($550 more than the Clubman), while the Cooper S is priced at $25,250 and the All4 Cooper S tops out the range at $26,950. That will help keep the Countryman competitive with traditional compact crossovers, even if it is a significant chunk more than it’s biggest segment rival, the Nissan Juke.

THE VERDICT

The Countryman has been met with apprehension bordering on hostility from the brand’s enthusiast following, and ignorance from much of the general public, who can’t quite wrap their head around the idea of a 4-door MINI. One would think it would be less of a stretch than, say, a Porsche SUV, but incredulous reactions are commonplace among online discussion boards, which have decried the Countryman as “diluting of brand values.”

We can say with certainty that the Countryman is 100% MINI, and an astute move for the company. Those who bought a Cooper in the early 2000s will likely have families now, and what better way to stick with MINI than this. There’s no need to be cramped in the Clubman and it doesn’t come with the significant price jump of moving up to a BMW.

It may not go over in Peoria, but for urban parents with little kids and an image to maintain, the Countryman could end up being the vehicle to be seen in when taking the little ones to toddler yoga or the community vegetable garden, while still providing plenty of thrills behind the wheel.

LOVE IT
  • Feels like a grown up MINI
  • More room for cargo without folding down the rear seats
  • All4 AWD and snow tires will make for a great winter car
LEAVE IT
  • Expensive compared to mainstream compact crossover rivals
  • Quirky interior design and 4-seat configuration may put off some buyers
  • Maturity comes at the expense of driving pleasure

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2009 MINI Cooper Clubman Review
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